Can happiness be nationwide?

Malta’s 37th ranking in the United Nations’s 2015 World Happiness Report has TEODOR RELJIC asking… why?

Like all words worth discussing, happiness is a loaded term. What does it mean to be happy? Is the much-talked-about ‘pursuit of happiness’ really all that there is to life? And could we ever reach anything resembling a consensus on what happiness can mean for people, and whether we can pin down specific goals that can help us achieve a state of long-lasting happiness? 

Not easy questions to answer – and thankfully so… not least for the purveyors of self-help books and their offshoots, which basically boils down to the business of how to manage people’s unhappiness enough for them to keep paying you to continue spewing out your nuggets of wisdom. But on a less cynical note, there’s also something to be said for the very subjective nature of happiness. All of us desire different things in life, and any society worth its salt should, in theory, allow us to pursue these desires as far as possible. 

The pursuit, alluded to above, is in fact made famous by the most enduring quote from the US Constitution, and which basically boils down to: people should be able to do what makes them happy, so long as it doesn’t actively hurt others or break the law. 

How much harder still it may be, then, to assess the happiness of an entire nation, country and even parts of a continent? But that’s precisely what many initiatives around the world are keen to attempt. 

The most headline-worthy of these initiatives would without a doubt be the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announcing that he has appointed a ‘minister for happiness’. 

“Governments must be flexible. We don’t need more ministries, but more ministers capable of dealing with change. We want a young and flexible government that will fulfill our youths’ aspirations and achieve our people’s ambitions,” Sheikh Mohammed said at the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this week, before appointing Ohood Al Roumi, former head of economic policy for the UAE emirate of Dubai, to the post. 

Can we take this kind of catch-all approach to happiness as being legitimate and sustainable? The appointment of a ‘minister of happiness’ tends to strike us as a bit odd, if not downright hilarious. And it’s perhaps telling that Sheikh Mohammed placed someone from the field of economics in this position, considering that, yes, money continues to make the world go round and that prosperity will arguably be the most obvious indicator for widespread contentment.

But aside from the political rhetoric operating in the case of UAE, there have been more serious, and thorough, attempts at assessing happiness across the board. Produced by the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Systems Network, the 2015 Happiness Report employed the Gallup World Poll to assess just how happy different countries around the world truly are, going on variables like GDP per person, healthy life expectancy, corruption levels and social freedoms.

Leading the pack is Switzerland, registering strong GDP per capita and social support, closely followed by Iceland and Denmark. 

Malta registers 37th place – flanked by Spain and Taiwan – with GDP per capita and social support once again the strongest contributors to its national happiness quotient, with ‘perceptions of corruption’, ‘generosity’ and ‘freedom to make life choices’ falling on the other end of the scale. 

The very bottom rankings are reserved for mainly sub-Saharan African countries like Togo (the very bottom at 158), Burundi (157), Benin (155) and Rwanda (154); with Syria (156) and Afghanistan (153) also registering quite low. 

Some of the most important takeaways from the study are that, indeed, economic factors go some way towards explaining the most dramatic rifts. To wit: differences in income mark the clearest difference between the countries at the top and the ones at the bottom. 

However, social cohesion also proved to be important, since even countries that were affected badly by the 2008 economic recession – such as Iceland and Ireland – still managed a high rank thanks to their apparently strong social bonds. 

So if this exercise is anything to go by, it’s that crucial mix between money and compassion that can make or break any country’s prospects of happiness. But how much sense does this poll make to the people on the ground, and what are its implications for Malta? 


Money’s not everything, except when it is

Dr Marie Briguglio, an economist who also chairs the Community Forum within the President of Malta’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, was confident about the 2015 World Happiness Report, saying that “in terms of quantitative surveying, this is as good as it gets”.

“[The Gallup World Poll] take large national samples, in many cases for three years in a row, and make the necessary adjustments to ensure the data is representative of the population if necessary. Although simple, the question generates data which hold up when assessed for validity. The tests have been extensively documented – in economics, psychology, sociology. The question (or similar) is used in many, many datasets across the world (including Malta),” Briguglio added.

Asked what she deems to be the most telling aspect for Malta to emerge from this report, Briguglio said that while the economy will remain a crucial factor, this should not be overstated. 

“This is precisely why measuring happiness has become an increasingly important way to assess how a country is doing – and how policy making is faring. Because looking only at income (GDP, growth etc), while important, is incomplete,” Briguglio said, adding that what makes a nation a happy one is not just its financial prosperity, but also the ability to live a healthy life and environment, to enjoy social support, to have freedom, to be governed without corruption and so on.

“Boosting the economy, while damaging the environment (traffic, pollution, lack of open spaces), reporting lower health levels (respiratory issues, obesity, anxiety, depression) or increasing inequalities could well result in lower reported happiness,” Briguglio added.

Meanwhile, psychologist Cher Engerer paints a more nuanced picture of the poll’s generous characterization of Malta’s social support net, claiming that while social support in Malta is “adequate” it is still “not remotely comparable to the Nordic countries, especially when it comes to policies which support the connectedness of family units”.

“The feeling I get from the average client would be that most Maltese are frustrated with their standard of living and struggle to make ends meet. Attaining or not-attaining, as the case may be, a good work-life balance seems to be a constant battle for most,” Engerer said. While she applauds recent government incentives, such as free child care – “which frees mothers to re-enter the workforce” – she complains that less has been done to support families to afford to spend time relating to each other and building attachments, “especially in the early years of family life”. 

Engerer explains how, based on her experience with her clients, she discovered how some caregivers want to stay home with their children, “but cannot afford that luxury”. She also observes how inimical working conditions as well as social pressure of various kinds may be eating away at Malta’s claims towards national happiness. 

“I also hear many complaints about the mentality of employers in Malta who treat their employees as dispensable commodities, investing very little in creating an environment of happiness at work. Many employers drive employees relentlessly to breaking point, showing little respect towards their employees and conveying an attitude that they are doing employees a favour by employing them, as opposed to valuing the talent, potential and contribution of this individual to their organisation,” Engerer said, adding that “religious, moral, or political dogmatic undercurrents” can also have a toxic effect. 

According to Engerer, “a certain prescribed sense of how they ‘should’ be living their life” is a “very subtle form of impingement on people’s freedom to make life choices through indoctrination, which is not always within a person’s conscious awareness”. 

“This causes obsessive compulsive difficulties and severe anxiety, which again decrease happiness and are not conducive to overall health and well-being,” Engerer adds. 

However, anthropologist Elise Billiard is sceptical about the mechanics of the poll as a whole, calling into question this particular method of assessing happiness on a national scale. 

“As [Slovenian theorist] Slavoj Zizek said, ‘Who wants to be happy when they can be interesting?’,” Billiard quipped, before adding that the poll “is the mark of capitalism infesting our lives: quantifying, cataloguing, comparing stuff that cannot be quantified, catalogued and compared.”

“Now, not only do we have to be rich, healthy and never drink alcohol or smoke – while we make sure to go to the gym regularly and eat only organic food, and engage in ‘healthy’ relationships – but we also ‘have to’ be happy!”

Billard adds that pitching the entire poll as being about happiness is somewhat misleading. 

“To be fair, at least the poll is not based on the stupid question: ‘Do you think you are happy?’ but on ‘objective’ facts like corruption, life expectancy, GDP and so on. But saying it is about happiness is just marketing. This is about standard of living, not about happiness,” Billiard added.

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