Maverick Life


How happy are you? It’s a difficult question

How happy are you? It’s a difficult question
Illustration of a 'smiling planet'. Image: Pixabay

If I’m sort of happy overall but irritated by a number of issues, how do I rate on a happiness score? Fortunately, there are a lot of clever people trying to work it out.

I’m writing this on World Happiness Day, March 20, accompanied by a very large (166-page) World Happiness Report that just galumphed into my inbox. It’s written by teams of experts on wellbeing and by statisticians who trawl the planet looking for answers to human contentment. 

Concern for happiness and alleviation of suffering were central concerns of people like Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu and Socrates, who laid the moral foundations of the modern world. It is what governments were created to ensure. In fact, the US President Thomas Jefferson insisted that the care of human life and happiness was the only legitimate object of good government.

The Happiness Report shows that the people of the world still hold a stable legal system to be a central pillar of their happiness. Countries in which governments support personal freedom, avoid war and repression, are least corrupt and distribute the GDP equitably on mutually agreed social projects have the happiest citizens. Top among these are Finland, Denmark and Iceland, small countries with big social hearts.

In such societies, says the report, there is trust that physical and mental health will be cared for and employment will not be threatened. Communities feel confident to undertake social duties for the good of the whole and are instinctively altruistic good Samaritans.

The power of mobilised altruism is enormous, as Dr Imtiaz Sooliman’s Gift of the Givers has shown. People who act only for others are trusted and supported. Sooliman says he was asked to start the organisation by a spiritual leader in Turkey and to expect nothing in return. Today, 90 staff provide vital services at a moment’s notice in several countries but never need to fundraise.

“To be in this position is a very fortunate position because it fills your soul,” he told Mark Heywood of Daily Maverick. “So when we go on missions, the teams say, actually, we didn’t ‘give’ anything, we received… they feel the love of the people…”

The poll

Of the 137 countries polled, South Africa came in at a disappointing 85, just above the Republic of Congo. The 10 unhappiest places to live were Zambia, Tanzania, Comoros, Malawi, Botswana, the DRC, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Lebanon and, at 137, Afghanistan.

Countries at the upper end of the list were predictable: the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Ireland. The US came in at 15th, with the UK at 19th (last year it was the other way round). Seemingly, the (badly distributed) riches of the US and UK cannot buy happiness.

Ukraine was predictably low down, but with a very high trust in leadership. Its trust in Russian leadership was zero.

There are some strange anomalies. Israel, wracked by civil strife with shootings and bombings, comes in at 4th. I guess it will take a rabbi to unpack that one.

Mexico (a narcostate with an extraordinarily high rate of violence and murder) is 11 points ahead of Japan and 20 ahead of Portugal. China, a country considered by the West as an economic paradise full of happy shoppers displaying their glitz on TikTok, clocks in at 64, nearly halfway down the happiness list and behind even Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia (which it invaded).

Saudi Arabia, the land of the burka, came in ahead of Spain (the land of the flamenco and wine), Italy, Chile and Poland. Did they make sure to ask the women? Singapore, with its tough but efficient state system, excellent social support and some of the best education in Asia, was down at a disappointing 25, behind Costa Rica and Romania.

A statistic not factored into the poll, oddly, was suicide rates, surely an indicator of some level of unhappiness. Some of the happiest countries have high suicide rates, while some clearly unhappy countries have low ones. Globally, about 800,000 people die from suicide each year — twice the number from homicide — and it’s one of the leading deaths among young people. South Africa fares badly here, being among the top 10 for suicide, just behind Russia. Ukraine is at number 11.

The real shocker is that two small countries in our backyard, Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), with Guyana, far outstrip the rest of the world. What’s going wrong there?

On the happiness front, though, here’s an interesting twist. If you’re not among those prosperous European, Canadian and Kiwi countries with happy people, you might consider converting to Catholicism and learning your Hail Marys. In the less-developed world, the good virgin seems to be a hedge against topping yourself and a reason to be happy, statistically speaking. DM/ML


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