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After the Bell: Happiness is a warm set of gums

After the Bell: Happiness is a warm set of gums
People of the world still hold a stable legal system to be a central pillar to how happy they are. Image: Yuyeung Lau / Unsplash

A year ago, I wrote in this column about happiness and something called the World Happiness Report. The latest version of the report has now come out, so what has changed? Truth is, not much.

Finland is still at the top, and I know why. It’s because they have a single word for “I’m going to sit silently in my underpants in the kitchen and get drunk”. The word is kalsarikannit and it means, literally, underwear drunk – the kitchen, being alone, and the sheer, unadulterated glory (and prospective happiness) of it are all implied. 

The broad trends of global happiness according to the report remain the same but have dipped downward overall. Five of the top ten countries are Scandinavian, which makes total sense to me. These are countries that are rich and secure, and where inequality is relatively low, social consciousness is high, and community values are strong. About the five countries on the bottom, you could say the same issues are pertinent in reverse. Afghanistan is at the bottom, Lebanon next, and then follows a whole list of African countries in the economic dwang: Sierra Leone, Congo, Zimbabwe, and so on. 

The report is depressing in two ways: First, the global trend is that happiness is increasing in places where it was already high and decreasing where it was low. That is true almost everywhere except in Eastern Europe when there has been a turnaround. And second, the global level overall of happiness is slipping. 

I don’t know about you, but both of those are completely intuitive. The critical countries, to me, are Germany, France, the UK, and the US and they are all slipping badly, I think, because politics in all these countries has gone haywire. Recently a British writer Nate White was asked why some people don’t like Donald Trump. His reply was absolutely excoriating. The response was longish, but it opened like this:  

“Why do some British people not like Donald Trump? A few things spring to mind. Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace …  Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever….  for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman. But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.”

Fabulously well put. But, er, one thing: After having four prime ministers in the past four years, one of whom didn’t outlast a head of lettuce, are the Brits really in a position to cast aspersions? The differences are large, but the general state of political disarray is not entirely dissimilar, with both managing widespread resentment, tribal political differences, and a sense of the centre being unable to hold. 

There is one aspect of the survey which is not intuitive at all. The seven ages of man from Shakespeare’s As You Like It suggest early growth, middle-aged accomplishment, followed by depressing later stages which end with dotage, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. The survey suggests it’s exactly the opposite: we are most likely to be unhappiest during middle age. On average, people are most unhappy at the age of 50, but from then on, people tend to get happier. Go figure.

It’s a really remarkable finding and the report discusses it in depth. It seems to apply almost across the board in both developed and developing countries, in Europe, Asia and North America, people over 60 are generally happier than people under 30. In Africa and South America, the level of happiness tends to decline with age. 

I’m not so sure about this. There is a kind of happiness which is essentially a version of satisfaction, and there is a kind of unhappiness which is essentially rooted in a feeling of being lost. The former, I suspect, applies to older people, and the latter to younger people. Once you get older, I suspect you become more accepting of your own circumstances, especially if you were lucky enough to be born in a country where people have the ability to make an impact in the world. Getting old in poor countries is tough, as you would expect. Fewer pharmaceuticals for one thing. 

How does SA feature? Pretty middle of the pack, which conforms to my priors. SA is 83rd on the list of 143 countries and is in the company of countries like Indonesia and Columbia, which are more or less at the same developmental level. Overall levels of happiness are down a bit but then they are all over the world. 

That too is intuitive. The world has become a slightly unhappier place in general and I blame the politics unravelling in so many places and, of course, several wars. 

Yet two-thirds of the countries out there score higher than five out of ten, so I guess you could say the world is a less dystopian place than we often tend to think. And what is clear is that as countries get richer, the level of happiness, as you would expect, rises. 

As I pointed out last time, money can’t buy happiness, but it is often easier to find if you happen to be driving around in a convertible sports car. DM

 

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  • Pet Bug says:

    Lovely, thanks Tim. I’m trying to think of a little funny diddle to encapsulate the wispiness of happiness, – faint moments of contentment intermingled with mists of dread – but can’t at the moment.
    Such is life.
    Maybe accepting one’s dealt cards could lead to a happier being.
    But cause me grief – and all hell will break loose. For sure.
    The more difficult task is to establish what is good for all – less selfish.

    But indulging guilt-free in kalsarikannit is of course essential.

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