This Thing Called Happy

According to the United Nations, 8 of the 10 happiest countries in the world are in Europe; 9 of the 10 unhappiest are in Africa. How do you measure happiness? Why do rich people kill themselves while poor people dance?

S Brian Samuel

S. Brian “Happy” Samuel takes a look at this phenomenon


Are we happy?

The other day someone asked me: Why don’t we smile as much as we used to? What happened to that wide, instinctive Caribbean smile we were so famous for? Where did our grin go?

First of all we need to establish some historical accuracy here: Did we really used to smile that much? Let’s be careful with those colonial descriptions of the happy smiling natives, singing as they work. As the Bajans would say: “Not every kiss-teeth is a smile.” Maybe the native smiled because he was genuinely happy, or maybe he smiled because that’s what the massa expected, and by smiling he might get a few extra crumbs from massa’s table. Maybe when he went back home to his hovel, he wasn’t happy, at all.

Actually there was a time when people appeared happier than they are now. Judging by my father’s photographs from the West Indies in the 1950s, people certainly seemed to lead a happy life. The War was over; they had food in their bellies, a car in the garage and an endless string of parties to attend. Independence was on the way, with its promise of self determination and prosperity — things were on the up. Happiness reigned. Hence people smiled, more than they do now, apparently.

A smile is not a laugh. People may laugh at funerals; that doesn’t mean they’re happy. But if you’re smiling it can generally be assumed: there goes a happy bunny. Like dogs and their tails, happy people are easy to spot — you can’t hold back a smile. So if we don’t smile nowadays, is it because we aren’t as happy as we used to be?


What is happiness?

If you ask people what are the things that make them happy, which I recently did, you get a wide range of answers (thanks everyone, you know who you are):

  • Happiness isn’t a pursuit or a thing to necessarily strive for, it’s the appreciation in the every day — the big and little things life throws at you that elevates every day.
  • Being with a person you enjoy waking up to every day, laughter in your house, happy children and of course, loads of dosh!!
  • It’s an outlook, highly associated with being grateful. There are always things in life to be grateful for.
  • Happiness is an emotion.
  • A thousand smiles given to you free…
  • Happiness for me is the unexpected, the fleeting joy of a beautiful sunset, a sudden downpour while the sun shines through, the sounds of frogs at night, being with someone and realizing the moment when your minds connect, but the body feels the pleasure.
  • Different things to different people, that’s what happiness is!

This is a fairly predictable list of the kind of things that make us happy; each one of which would be enough to make even an ogre smile. Although no one mentioned it, high on the list would also be freedom from stress. Stress has become one of the defining features of 21st century life. Rich or poor, white or otherwise, religious or rational — everyone nowadays is “totally stressed out.”

Clearly, happiness is not universal — conventional wisdom has it that the rich are, while the poor aren’t. But is that really so? In the Caribbean, how many times do (rich) tourists marvel at the “simple, unspoiled happiness” of the (poor) natives? Not just the Caribbean, all tropical countries with nice beaches are subject to these happy stereotypes.

Researchers are perplexed. Who are these happy, poor people? And why are they happy? They’re poor; they should be miserable. The wretched of the earth aren’t supposed to be happy, dammit! But they are.

There are two types of happiness:

  • Sublime happiness: “I’m as happy as a pig in sh*t right now!”
  • Enduring happiness: “I’m so happy with my life.”

Someone can be supremely unhappy with their life, living in squalor and misery; and yet at times be sublimely, supremely happy — usually when food, sex, drugs and/or alcohol are involved!

The happiness experts at the UN tell us that real, true happiness is happiness of the permanent kind; the happiness that endures, impervious to bad days. Temporary happiness on the other hand, the kind of happiness that comes from the occasional sublime moment, is just that: temporary, of no account in the overall scheme of things.


How do you measure happiness?

A few years ago, the United Nations began to ponder this whole phenomenon of happiness. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all their economic and social programmes are about: making people happy/happier?

So the UN decided to bring rationality to an irrational subject; and tried to quantify and measure that most intangible of things: happiness. They failed miserably; but we’ll get to that later. The first problem: define happiness. After a great deal of analysis by task teams and working groups, the UN finally cadged together an all-encompassing definition of happiness, basically along the lines of short and long-term happiness mentioned earlier.

The next problem: How do we measure happiness? Unlike normal things like metal and money, you can’t see, touch nor count happiness; the only way of knowing if someone is happy is by asking them. And here we come to problem number two: the cultural context. Someone might say they’re happy when in fact they’re not. It’s not good to be unhappy, unhappy people are failures, so why say I’m a failure? They might hate their job, hate their wife and their kids hate them, but they won’t admit they’re unhappy — even to a questionnaire.

On the other hand, the Rastaman on the beach might insist he’s not happy. How can I be happy with no job, no money and Babylon on my backside every day? And yet he might not be as unhappy as he claims; he might actually be fairly chilled (a minor form of happiness). He’s healthy as a rock, eats fresh fish and vegetables every day, owns his boat, lives on the beach with his queen and children who love him, and smokes the best weed in the world — what more could you possibly want? In the happiness stakes, all is not as it seems.

So, according to the United Nations, who is happy — and who isn’t?


Who is happy?

According to the World Happiness Report 2013, a quasi-official UN document, the happiest country in the world is… Denmark. Not Tahiti, not Hawaii or some other tropical paradise, the happiest people in the world, officially, are to be found in Denmark — closely followed by Norway.

I lived in Oslo for a year during my student days. Knowing them as I do, would I say that Norwegians are a happy people? Many adjectives spring to mind: dour, polite, civilized, well-intentioned; but certainly not happy. They eat bland food, live half the year in total darkness and are really bummed out if it isn’t ass-numbingly cold by the beginning of November. You call that happy?

But, according to the experts at the UN, happy they are. In fact, all of Europe is ecstatically happy: eight of the ten happiest countries in the world are in Europe:

  1. Denmark
  2. Norway
  3. Switzerland
  4. Netherlands
  5. Sweden
  6. Canada
  7. Finland
  8. Austria
  9. Iceland
  10. Australia

About the only truly happy people I see on that list are the Ozzies; they’re a real happy bunch. Interestingly enough, Israel comes in at number 11 — did they also ask the Palestinians? The highest Caribbean country is Trinidad and Tobago, which comes in at number 31. I’m sure if they did the survey around Carnival time, Trinidad would be a few rungs higher up the happiness ladder. Jamaica ranks only 75 — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rank as happier places. Jamaica too dread.


Who is unhappy?

I don’t know what the Togolese did to deserve it, but Togo is officially ranked as the least happy country on the planet — an oasis of misery. The ten unhappiest countries are:

  1. Togo
  2. Benin
  3. Central African Republic
  4. Burundi
  5. Rwanda
  6. Tanzania
  7. Guinea
  8. Comoros
  9. Syria
  10. Senegal

No surprises about Syria, not a lot of joy there. Given the gory events of its recent-ish past, one could understand Rwanda making the shitlist shortlist. But I have visited Rwanda many times and always found it to be very peaceful, safe and calm — not adjectives you would normally associate with unhappy. Tanzania is the sixth unhappiest country in the world — that staggers me. Dar es Salaam is one of the safest cities in Africa, in the evenings people of all descriptions can be seen chatting on the streets, jogging along the beach, walking home, waiting for a matatu, drinking a beer or eating at a roadside bar — how does that get interpreted as rank unhappiness? Iraq and Afghanistan rank as happier places. Explain that one to me, because I don’t see it.


Does wealth equal happiness?

Wait a minute — this happiness table is beginning to look suspiciously like something else: per capita GDP. Is the UN confusing wealth with happiness? Invariably, according to the United Nations, the happiest countries in the world also happen to be the richest. To demonstrate this truism, we have to think of just two numbers:


= Average per capita GDP of top 50% happiest countries

$ 3,167

= Average per capita of bottom 50% happiest counties

If we correlate the United Nation’s “happiness coefficient” for 143 countries against their corresponding per capita Gross Domestic Product (according to the World Bank), we see a clear trend:


Is it just me, or is this a no-brainer? He’s rich, therefore he must be happy; she’s poor, she must be unhappy. Is this the best the United Nations can come up with? For a global institution with the credentials of the UN, I would have expected a deeper treatment of such a serious subject as the basic happiness of the human condition. Instead all we get is: If you’re rich you’re happy; if you’re poor, sorry for you. What about the outliers, the poor happy countries or the rich countries that should be happy, but aren’t (sorry Norway)? According to the UN, that hardly ever happens, the only “happy poor” countries are Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.

Well I beg to differ. I think there’s a lot more happiness in the developing world than the UN gives us credit for.


Are we born happy?

In the West Indies, people have a slightly different interpretation of happy. Have you ever heard mothers talk about a happy baby? Unless things are really bad, babies don’t know whether they’re rich or poor — they just know feelings. Yet, some babies from birth have a sunnier disposition than others: they don’t cry, they burp easily and they’re quick to give daddy a smile. Happy babies become happy children; and happy children become, you guessed it, happy people. This of course is an oversimplification, but the fact remains that some people are inherently of a happier disposition than others. And then there is the cultural factor, let’s face it: some cultures are happier than others. At the risk of offending my Norwegian friends, again, I don’t need to belabour this point too much.

In the West Indies, the opposite of happy isn’t sad, it’s miserable. Miserableness is a well-known character trait found in all classes and colours. You can be poor and miserable, rich and miserable — money makes no difference. You are not miserable because of your circumstances, you’re miserable because you were born miserable. Scrooge is the archetype of miserable. It takes a lot to make a happy person sad; it takes nothing at all to make a miserable person more miserable.

The kind of happiness that the UN is measuring is not the kind of happiness I’m talking about. The UN doesn’t see happiness as an emotion; it sees happiness as having been earned. This is not so much happiness as… contentedness — the happiness of a life well lived. Being wealthy or at least free from poverty does give rise to a certain kind of happiness – but this is not the same as the inborn, irrepressible happiness that some people are born with. This to me is true happiness: the ability to have a sunny, optimistic outlook on life – despite the slings and arrows.

Do I believe the UN’s revolutionary conclusion that all the happiest countries in the world are in Europe and all the unhappiest in Africa? Absolutely not. I know Africa, I’ve lived there, worked there, travelled there. Would I describe Africans as unhappy people? In parts yes; they’re unhappy with Africa’s leaders and their unfulfilled promises; and they’re definitely unhappy about their enduring poverty. But at the end of the day, is the average African a downcast, despondent, unhappy person? Absolutely not! Africa is home to some of the most vibrant cultures in the world, expressed through spirited music, dance and art — are these the actions of unhappy people?

Whoever is doing the UN’s happiness research, however they’re defining and measuring it — they’ve got it wrong. Norwegians are not happier than Trinidadians, period. Sorry Norway!


© October 2013, S. Brian Samuel

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