COMMENTARY By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine
We all want to be happy. The Secretary General of the United Nations Mr. Ban Ki-moon defines happiness to mean, “working to end conflict, poverty and other unfortunate conditions in which so many of our fellow human beings live.”
In various UN studies on wellbeing, it was found that happy people live longer, they earn more and they are healthier, more productive and loyal. They also heal faster.
Happiness is like a shining star. It radiates and it has the properties to be contagious.
Happy people want others to be happy like them. Some psychologists believe that your success and personal growth will multiply with age. Happiness, however, is a relatively new field of study. But contrary to what some governments may be saying wellbeing as a science is not a global oddity.
The idea of happiness has long featured in the world’s religions and many philosophers have spent years trying to explain how one can be happy. But it has remained elusive. In 1787, a French Revolutionary leader said that happiness was a new idea in Europe. Two years later, the American Constitution stated that people had a number of inalienable rights, and among them were the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
One of the obvious problems with happiness is the ability to quantify the data. Some social scientists have looked at the economics of happiness in which statistics such as foreclosures, the impact of wars on the economy, and employment and inflation are examined. In order to arrive at some consensus, surveys are carried out across different income groups to find out how satisfied people are with their lives.
As we have seen, the idea of happiness has caught on in public policy and it has become part of the national agenda. Definitions vary; what some may regard as happy may differ in other places. In India, a farmer with a tiny plot of land and eight children may be considered poor but he may see himself as well off because his wealth lies in his children.
The business tycoon, on the other hand, may have all the outward comforts of life but he can’t sleep soundly because of security reasons or because his investments appear to be on shaky economic grounds.
Bhutan is a Himalayan kingdom. In 1972, it tried a novel idea that has made waves across the world. The monarch King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to move away from Gross National Product to Gross National Happiness. Bhutan, the King said, should spread wealth across the country and at the same time be in sync with nature. The example of Bhutan has been taken up by other policymakers and is being discussed internationally.
The Gross National Happiness idea states that one has to think about people in broader terms. “Material wellbeing is only one component. That doesn’t ensure that you are at peace with your environment and in harmony with each other,” says one observer. By the year 2000 happiness had begun to feature prominently at the United Nations. It published a ‘World Happiness Report’ in 2012 and the findings were most surprising. On a scale of 0 to 10 it was found that the happiest country was Denmark followed by Norway, Finland and the Netherlands. They scored 7.6 on the table.
The least happy countries are the poorest ones and many of them are to be found in Africa. For example, Togo, Benin, the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone have scores of 3.4 but it was not just poverty that made people unhappy. There were other factors such as the absence of political freedom, strong social bonds and corruption. At the individual level there were considerations such as mental health, security in employment and the support of the family.
In view of the politically unstable climate in some countries national security ought to be on the list as well. It is said that mental health, “is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. But only 25 per cent of mentally ill persons get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.”
The other reasons for happiness are stable families and the involvement of parents in the lives of their children. What is striking in the UN survey is that in rich countries women are happier than men and it is mixed in poor countries. In 2014, the UN Secretary General described the ecology of happiness to mean the three pillars of sustainable development. They include social, economic and environmental wellbeing. Together, according to the UN, they define gross global happiness.
The comments of Bhutan’s minister of education remain instructive. He says that although his country is poor the people are happy. How is this possible? According to Thakur Singh Powydel, “It is easy to mine the land and fish the seas and get rich. Yet we believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or talk of the wellbeing of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world.”
What is happening needs careful attention. A Report from the British Aid Group Oxfam states that, “The share of the world’s wealth is owned by the best-off 1 per cent. This has increased from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014, while among the least well-off 80 per cent currently own just 5.5 per cent.” How can one be happy with this disparity? There is no question that global inequality is growing fast and despite the pronouncements at Davos, and elsewhere, no one seems to have the answer to redress the imbalances.
Thomas Piketty in his book ‘Capital’ suggests that what we are seeing is a drift toward the nineteenth century when capital accumulation was paramount. In discussions on happiness it was felt that the United States with its resources would perhaps be in the top five countries.
But this is not the case as the US is in the middle. Why is it necessary to study happiness since it is subjective? Economists prefer to focus on wellbeing, and they argue that while hedonic wellbeing can be measured, evaluative wellbeing is broader since it deals with how people think of their lives as a whole.
When these components are measured a better picture of human welfare emerges. The task, however, is to use the data to plan for the wellbeing of the nation. Can money buy happiness? The answer is that money does matter because it presents more choices. If one accepts this argument then the United States should top the list. But there are other factors that need to be addressed and they relate to stability, the quality of governance, education and health.
Carol Graham argues that in the US there is insecurity as far as health care is concerned. According to one observer, there are extremes in the US about how happiness is perceived. You have “very unhappy and very happy people.” One reason for this is that you may have choices but if there is insecurity wellbeing is affected. The Scandinavian countries have done well in terms of personal security but in the poor countries personal security is absent. Money is important but people should learn to live within their means and when this happens the basis is there for contentment.
What about religion and happiness? There are many persons that read all kinds of self-help books searching for the panacea for happiness. They try all sorts of meditation and move to warmer climes and make new friends and even sign up for courses at college. But these seldom work and people turn to religion to find happiness. Does religion make a person happy?
A 1990 study in Europe found that 86 per cent of churchgoers reported that they were happy with life. There are two explanations for the relationship between happiness and religion. The first is social support. People are happier when they are around others.
They get comfort, especially the poor and elderly and those in ill health. Many houses of worship have a number of social programs such as food pantries, health fairs, homework help for children, computer classes, language instruction and programs that help to keep this sense of wellbeing together.
Then there is religion itself. The feeling that one is in contact with a higher Being can be a positive and intense religious experience. It can lead to long-lasting feelings of happiness. If you don’t have too much or too little, are in good health, feel secure, are involved in the lives of your family, like people, and are productive, the chances are you are content with your life. You are happy. When you look in the mirror you will like what you see.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.