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Happiness and South Africa — where mental well-being drowns in a sea of troubles


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

The notion of happiness is not just keeping death and suffering at bay, but finding room to live fully in spite of them.

The International Day of Happiness was on 20 March and made me want to reflect on the state of happiness in South Africa.

It is not really something that is talked about much, which is not surprising when more than half the population is languishing in the misery of structural poverty and its effects. I say this amid all the crises of electricity, water, housing, hunger, political failings and, more importantly, a moral leadership vacuum.

So, I turned to see what the statistics say about our happiness, according to the Global Mind Project’s Mental State of the World Report 2023. The project’s work aligns with the World Health Organization’s definition of mental well-being, which looks at people’s ability to cope with stress and contribute to society. The insights were interesting.

The project used responses from 500,000 people in 71 countries covering nine regions, including Africa. It measured different aspects of mental health such as mood, social self, motivation, adaptability, cognition and mind-body connection.

It found that there has been a decline in mental well-being as of 2019, which worsened, unsurprisingly, during the Covid-19 pandemic as people’s stress levels increased and their ability to “contribute” to their society declined as a result of curtailed working opportunities. The report goes on to say that even though we have emerged from the pandemic, there seems to be a resultant normalisation of decreased mental health.

So, where does South Africa rank? Well, of the top 10 countries in Africa ranked as being the happiest, we are at number three. Mauritius is the happiest, with Algeria at number two.

Although this may not sound too bad, ranked among all 71 countries, we are actually at number 69. We are also reported as having “the greatest percentage of distressed or struggling respondents, at 35%”.

On the basis of what the report states is used as the measures of happiness, I can see why we are ranked so low.

South Africans are seized with the business of trying to make sure they survive and make it to the next day in extremely difficult physical and mental circumstances. This makes it hard to carve out the space to engage in good mental health practices that keep people’s mood up and leave them better able to handle stress.

However, as I reflect further on happiness, what I take from it is that the notion of happiness is not just keeping death and suffering at bay, but finding room to live fully in spite of them.

In a podcast series titled “How to Build a Happy Life” available on The Atlantic’s website, palliative care physician BJ Miller captures this well when he says: “When happiness is a choice, choose it. You know, I’m all for happiness. It’s a beautiful thing.

“But first of all, it’s not always accessible. Second of all, it is deeply related to pain and other troubles.

“I don’t think happiness is the absence of trouble or absence of problems or the absence of pain. I think happiness and pain are really close bedfellows. Just like life or health, you might say, is not the absence of disease.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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  • Lenyora Habibi says:

    The Math isn’t mathing. We are 3rd out of 10 in Africa but 69 out of 71?

  • Charles Butcher says:

    This happiness is the biggest BS around,but then again it happens when society seeno way out of its disaster and becomes DRUNK on the” if you can’t beat them join them” soo lets all become thieves and liars

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