I fully accept that I’m treading on slippery grounds with this commentary, as I don’t have hard, empirical data to support my call for the creation of a culture of happiness in our country. However, ever since the King of Bhutan conceived his Happiness Index, (HI) about a decade ago, I have been giving some thought as to how this Index can be used as an instrument of public policy to help Saint Lucians achieve a greater measure of happiness in our lives.
The pursuit of happiness is a subject that has taxed many minds, including philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, writers, and policy makers. For starters, happiness is an elusive state. Contributing to its elusiveness is the fact that it can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s freedom from: stress, pain, want, fear, poverty. For others, it’s good health, peace of mind, perceptions of safety, contentment, and general feelings of personal fulfilment. Some early philosophers like Immanuel Kant, considered happiness to be more a state of imagination, than a state of reason. American author, Tom Bodett once opined, that a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” Albert Camus warned that we will never be happy if we continue to search for the elements of happiness.
Despite the conceptual quandary surrounding happiness, I believe we can agree that at the very least, happiness is the preferred state of mind of every individual. Note here that I’m not referring to a state of perpetual happiness, as this is impossible to achieve. There will always be times when our inner happiness is sent off-track by external events, over which we have no control. However, our default response ought to be to try to bounce back from these shocks and return on the road to happiness as quickly as possible. Indeed, some thinkers assert that the sadness and pain from such shocks can help an individual to appreciate the pleasure of happiness.
The Essence of the Index
The HI is increasingly being used globally, by researchers, community organizers and policy makers to understand and improve individual happiness, community well-being, social justice, economic equality, and environmental sustainability. The domains that are often assessed include:
● Psychological Well-Being: optimism, senses of purpose and of accomplishment.
● Health: energy level and ability to perform everyday activities.
● Time Balance: enjoyment, feeling rushed, and a sense of leisure.
● Community: sense of belonging, volunteerism, and sense of safety.
● Social Support: satisfaction with friends and family, feeling loved, and feeling lonely.
● Education, Arts, and Culture: access to cultural and educational events and diversity.
● Environment: access to nature, pollution control, and conservation.
● Governance: trust in government, perceptions of corruption, and competency.
● Material well-being: financial security and meeting basic needs.
● Work: compensation, autonomy, and productivity. (Happiness Alliance, 2014c)
Admittedly, these parameters are quite broad. At first glance, it’s not easy to appreciate the relevance of some of them-such as trust in government, perceptions of corruption and competency-to the happiness of individual, community, or country. But at some point, a citizen or group of citizens would express their unhappiness with the direction of their country, and/or competency of a Government.
I see a focus on happiness (call it well-being) as being consistent with the Government’s mantra of “Putting People First.” Might I say in passing, that while I’m deeply attracted to this mantra, I feel it could be buttressed by a national vision and a core set of principles that drive the attainment of happiness. When you think about it, isn’t happiness the overarching objective of development policy? Practically every action or decision of a Government is aimed at making citizens happy and keeping them happy, whether by creating jobs for them, fixing potholes, curbing crime, improving, and expanding healthcare services, or reducing taxes. Governments and businesses spend unquantifiable amounts of money to ensure employees are happy and can produce sustainably. These things are done in recognition of the grave consequences of unhappiness. Unhappy people are the source of many tensions in the home, community, workplace, and country. Few prisoners would be happy to be incarcerated, and many if not all would cite a predisposing condition – such as persistent poverty, unequal access to opportunities for personal growth and advancement, and hunger, etc, – that made them unhappy enough, to do something that put them in prison.
A Happiness Index can help a Government to determine whether its policies and programmes are making people happy or happier. Mindful that Governments have limited resources and can’t make all the people happy all the time, it is critical that Governments manage the expectations of the people and determine a set of core basic services that the majority can enjoy. Unfortunately, the default disposition of politicians is to promise the people cake when they will be more than happy with bread.
Past vs Present
Growing up in the 1960s, most families didn’t have much, but my perception was that there was not as much unhappiness and anger as there is today. Perhaps, it was because social inequalities were not as pronounced as they are today. Whatever the reason, I perceived a stronger sense of collective contentment. Somehow, families were able to draw on a variety of intangible assets to rise above their unsatisfactory social and economic conditions, and embrace happiness, however temporary. Those among my friends, who didn’t have ready-made toys, made their own. Those who could not afford to order clothes from glitzy foreign catalogues made their own. We derived much happiness from being members of sports and social clubs.
I will always remember my working visit to Cape Verde, circa 2003. Although neither people nor country, are by any means rich, I was struck by the joie de vivre of the people. During my visit to a night club, I was impressed that the mass of young people there responded with greater alacrity to the music of Cesaria Evora-the country’s version of our Sessene-than they when foreign hits were played. That, to me reflected the people’s sense of identity and reinforced in my mind the positive linkages between national consciousness and happiness. I saw similar evidence of this, in the simple, communal, lifestyles of the people of Seychelles. I used to get the same vibe whenever I visited Dominica. While political acrimony has eaten into the mood of the people somewhat, I continue to see Dominicans as happy people.
There is too, the case of Finland, which is often ranked the world’s happiest country. Finlanders pay through their noses in taxes, but the benefits they receive far exceed what the State takes from their salaries. Finlanders receive, amongst other things: free, high quality, healthcare; a cradle-to-grave social protection system; and excellent and affordable schooling and daycare. Upon the birth of a child, each parent receives a whopping 164 days of parental leave. Some reading this might say, Finland is an oil-rich country. That’s true. But there are many other wealthy/wealthier countries that are crippled by social inequality and poverty and whose people are very unhappy as a result.
Happiness of the Person
At the level of the individual, persistent unhappiness is always a cue that some type of intervention is needed. Teachers are often best placed to observe signs of chronic unhappiness in children. But are they trained to intervene? Are adequate resources made available to enable children and their parents to work through the relevant issues and challenges affecting the child? What protocols exist for managing mentally disturbed children in our schools and communities? What local data and insights informed the design and use of these protocols? We need only reflect on the incidence of mass killings in US schools to appreciate the seriousness of this matter.
For adults, the situation is no less urgent. Writing in the January 2021 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Penny Locaso, a world-renowned “Happiness Hacker” shared that many of the people she has interacted with, carried with them, “a fear of failure, financial instability, and judgement from others and themselves, around not being good enough.” Often, such fear manifests itself as anxiety, which is the likely cause of many of the mental and physical illnesses that we are witnessing in our country. What support mechanisms are available to enable those afflicted by fear-borne anxiety? Instructively, Locaso found that those people who allowed themselves to fully process so-called, “negative” emotions, along with the more positive ones, led happier lives. She deduced that this mindset and behavioral shift helped them “lean into uncertainty, embrace emotions (both positive and negative), and adapt to their environment with intention and meaning.” As they did so, it helped them uncover what truly mattered to them.
Balance and Harmony
Some psychologists refer to this as emodiversity – that is, the ability to experience a diverse range of emotions in equal measure. Emotional diversity is a strong feature of many Asian societies, and cultures. I recall an address by Indonesia’s Environment Minister at an international conference in Bali, Indonesia, circa 2001, in which he highlighted “balance and harmony” as lynchpins of Indonesia’s culture. Family members try to maintain balance in their families to sustain harmony. At the workplace, collaboration, teamwork, and harmony are highly valued. At the national level, even though a family is an independent social unit, it is also bound by societal values, in which kindness, consideration and appreciation for others are important aspects. In such a setting, the precursors of unhappiness and social tensions are controlled.
In all of this, I feel that the role of spiritual well-being in promoting emotional balance is highly underrated. Countless of our young people, who once faced emotional challenges, have been rescued by the spirituality-infused programmes of entities, like the Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation Renewal and Education (CARE), and Our Boys Matter (OBM). Additionally, many former prisoners attribute their rehabilitation to a deeper sense of spirituality.
It’s my sincere hope that some part of this commentary will spark the requisite investment of time and resources to build a culture of happiness in our country. I can see only upsides flowing from this investment.