Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 29 March 2018

The Other News Round-Up: Happy as Larry

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the news you probably would have read elsewhere if it weren’t a little odd. This week: why happy little Pollyanna’s character is fictitious, and what the world’s miserable people are trying to do about it. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

New research has shown there’s a reason the British spend so much time discussing the weather: it has a substantial impact on their happiness.

The International Day of Happiness (I missed it, how about you?) is celebrated on 20 March, and Sky News reports a new survey found most Brits are not happy in their own country. Just 29% think the UK is a happy place to live – which, if you ask me, places Brexit in a new light. Maybe they thought they themselves were getting to leave. Shame.

Anyway, the survey found that 60% of respondents blamed their misery on rudeness, while 53% blamed the weather. Other reasons cited – and let nobody say trivial annoyances don’t sap the joy out of you – included queues, litter, and (ironically, under the circumstances) moaners. The state of politics was also a factor.

But before you get too comfortable in your Schadenfreude, pause and consider your compatriots at home. The reports are in and the assessments are grim: apparently we’re not shiny, happy people either. We are ranked 128th on the Happy Planet Index, with our life expectancy coming in at 130th of 140, our wellbeing at 80th of 140, inequality 106th of 140, and awards scoring in the bottom 10.

And, like the Brits, South Africans are awfully fond of leaving. According to a report by the InterNations Expat Insider, South Africa was in 2015 ranked the 49th expat destination out of 64, meaning it is viewed more as a source of expats than a destination country. Most expats are highly skilled and stay abroad for at least five years. The majority (63%) earn more than they did at home and are happy they left.

It goes on. In the 2018 World Happiness Report, released on World Happiness Day, South Africa was ranked 105th out of 156 countries, having dropped four positions since 2017. Major contributing factors: dystopia and lack of social support. Also featured: GDP per capita.

Money features heavily in the discussion. Some of the latest data shows it does buy happiness, though only to a point. A study published by www.nature.com earlier in March, as part of the Gallup world survey, found that happiness and earnings rise side by side until a so-called “satiation point”. This is where, regardless of how much more the person earns, their happiness does not necessarily increase (though I’m happy participate in any further experiments.) The satiation point differs from region to region, with wealthier regions being satisfied at higher levels. In some cases, very high earnings have a negative impact on happiness due to a higher workload and less time to relax, or more pressure to achieve social status.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the satiation point is R475,000, while the global average happiness level is reached at R1 million per year. And, considering not a lot of South Africans earn this, you do the maths. It’s also bad news for big earners – reaching the global average won’t necessarily turn your frown upside down. Someone really should have told the Guptas this. It would have saved them some effort.

If you’re not blessed with the kind of disposition that takes pleasure in being a cynical bugger, you’ve probably spent a substantial portion of your life in the pursuit of happiness. Which means you may rightfully be pouring wine into your cereal bowl right now at the futility of it all. I’m sorry.

So what are we happy about? Well, according to the data crunchers, South African’s love their food (no surprises there) and have good body image, though doctors aren’t necessarily happy about this. Despite rising levels of obesity, many South Africans are quite happy with their weight and even plan to gain more. And apparently 63% of South Africans are happy Jacob Zuma is gone (I’m sure he’d disagree).

But those are slim pickings, and truthfully, I’m not sure that is all we have to smile about. Surely? For starters, we are resilient. We might have droughts and Vicki Mombergs and Zuptas and who knows what else, but three hundred years (and counting) of mistakes later, we are still building and still trying to fix it – fools and dreamers that we are.

We are creative. Our water is running out? Enter a slew of entrepreneurs making water from air or creating foam that makes it unnecessary to flush. Resources in trouble? Well, look at that. South Africa’s creative economy contributes R90.5-billion to the GDP, plus 562,000 jobs – right up there with the mining industry.

We are ethical. You don’t believe me? Just look in the mirror and repeat after me: “I am not an Australian cricketer.”

We are powerful. Public pressure has already driven great changes in South Africa. It will keep doing so.

But most of all, we smile because we are good at it. South Africans have a cracking sense of humour. Watch any random episode of Za News (which recently won a SAFTA. Nice work). Take a walk through the streets and keep your ears open for random commentary from passers-by. Heck, pop over to Twitter at any time of day, and I challenge you not to laugh. South Africans are funny, funny people. So: go ahead and measure happiness on whether we like our waistlines or how much we earn. We are tougher than that. We’ve proved it. DM

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