Survey reveals scale of unhappiness in Turkey after nearly two decades of AKP rule

The Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) recently released its ‘Life Satisfaction’ survey for 2020, which has been published regularly since 2003.

It revealed that those who reported being ‘happy’ had dropped below 50 percent for the first time in 18 years  

The proportion of adults who said they were ‘happy’ was 52.4 percent in 2019 but fell to 48.2 percent in 2020. While those who said they were ‘unhappy’ increased from 13.1 percent in 2019 to 14.5 percent in 2020.

Remarkably, the rate of unhappiness when the survey began in 2003 was 5.6 percent, three times lower than it is now. Meanwhile happiness was at 59.6 percent, 11 points higher than today. 

Similarly, those who said they were ‘very unhappy’ rose from 1.7 percent in 2003, to 4.5 percent in 2020. And those who said they were ‘very happy’ fell from 12 percent to 8.8 percent.

The highest level of happiness recorded in the last 18 years was 62.1 percent in 2011, and the highest level of unhappiness was 14.6 percent in 2009 in the midst of the global financial crisis, when unemployment reached record levels. 

TÜİK has been conducting this research for 18 years. And, of course, the severe economic, social and health problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are currently the main factors impacting happiness.

There are nearly 10 million unemployed, inflation is adding to the cost of living, pushing many into poverty, and the fear of the diseases is taking a toll on mental health. Anxiety caused by the withdrawal of children from education, and being prohibited from leaving home can also not be ignored.

But we can gleam more insights from taking a deeper dive into the data. TÜİK classifies those who say they are ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ into two sub-groups: ‘very happy’ or ‘moderately happy’ and ‘very unhappy’ and ‘moderately unhappy’. Based on this data, those who declared themselves to be ‘moderately happy’ decreased from 45.7 percent to 39.4 percent in 2020. However, those who said they were ‘very happy’ increased from 6.6 percent to 8.8 percent - a remarkable rise in the middle of pandemic. 

Similarly, while unemployment amongst working age women is at nearly 50 percent, and new reports of gender-based violence come each day, women were happier than men in the TÜİK survey.

The proportion of men who said they were ‘happy’ decreased from 47.6 percent to 43.2 percent in 2020. While 53.1 percent of women reported being ‘happy’ compared to 57 percent in 2019.

Likewise, the married were happier than the unmarried, with 51.7 percent declaring themselves to be happy in 2020 compared to 41.3 percent of singles. Moreover, 46.7 percent of married men were ‘happy’ and 56.8 percent of married women.

The age group with the highest level of happiness was the over-65s, who have been forced to stay at home for months in the face of COVID-19. Still, they too saw a slight decrease in happiness, falling from 58.5 percent to 57.7 percent in 2020.

Surprisingly or not, the least educated were the happiest group in terms of educational background. Those without any formal education reported happiness a rate of 54.4 percent. The survey indicates that as the level of education increases, the level of happiness decreases.

Another striking result was how little personal finances and employment were given a priority. More than 70 percent said that being healthy was the most important to their happiness. After that, 12.8 percent cited love, 8.8 percent success, 4.6 percent money, and 2.3 percent work.

The survey also asked participants about their satisfaction with public services. Here, the highest rating was linked to security and public order at 77.4 percent. Satisfaction with transportation and health services stood at 72.1 percent, social security at 63.9 percent, court and justice systems at 60.4 percent and education at 56.2 percent.

Although the number of ‘happy’ people fell below 50 percent for the first time, seven out of ten remained hopeful for the future, with more women than men expressing optimism. 

Looking at the results overall, it is clear that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has created a country of unhappy people after nearly 20 years in power.   

The ‘unhappy’ have tripled since the AKP have been in office. However, the fact that only 14.5 percent of people declared they were ‘unhappy’ may be an indication that many are reluctant to disclose their true opinions.

The fact that personal finances and unemployment were rated least important in terms of happiness, even during a severe economic crisis with rampant poverty and unemployment is remarkable and appears to confirm that people are afraid of expressing themselves honestly.

That the uneducated were happiest can also be seen as success for AKP efforts to manage poverty by distributing free coal, food and pasta. Recent opinion polls indicate that the AKP is more popular among the poorer citizens with less education. As the level of education increases, support for the AKP decreases.

Two overall conclusions can be drawn form this survey. First, despite everything, many people still refrained from expressing unhappiness for fear of repercussions. Second, others buried their unhappiness within religious and nationalistic discourse, including Erdoğan's constant emphasis that difficulties can be overcome with patience and gratitude: “God, who gives life, also gives sustenance.”