Most of us are happy …

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Today is World Happiness Day? The world a happy place …? I wouldn’t be surprised if most of us grumbled about most of it being rather awful. But how bad, or good, is it? Where is it great to live and where is it unspeakably miserable? Can it be that 70 per cent of us still find ways to have fun, as one report suggests?

Like so many things, it depends on the questions you ask. Look at purely socio-economic indicators and the developed world pops out tops, but ask if happiness resides in how you live your life and a very different list emerges, one that I am pleased to see includes much of Africa edging towards the better end of the scale.

Denmark: Is this one of the happiest places on earth …? Phot Wikimedia Commons

Kenya: … or is this? Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations World Happiness Report rankings, released by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network today features the survey results of 155 countries. The criteria include gross domestic product per capita, healthy life expectancy, generosity and perceived freedom to make life choices. Rather predictably a lot of European countries come out “best” as they have from day one. They jostle around a bit for sure, but there is very limited movement in and out of the top ten or so “happiest countries”.

So this year Norway leapfrogged over Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland to claim the No1 spot. Big deal. – there is hardly a hair’s breadth of unhappiness between them. The United States, however, slipped to a lowly 14th place: “The United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness in ‘all the wrong places’,” the report says. “The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse.” Well, I think some us might have already figured this out without any help from the United Nations.

And how does Africa fare? Again there are no surprises: “Rounding out the bottom of the list, the unhappiest countries included Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic,” says the report in the way one might list teams facing relegation in a sports league.

The best performers in sub Saharan Africa emerge more or less half-way down the list with the tiny island of Mauritius proudly ahead of the mainland. South Africa squeaks into the top two thirds and thereafter it it’s truly downhill.

So what? We can scoff a little at these endless lists but in fact they do matter, very much in fact. The overview to the report says that it “continues to gain global recognition as governments, organizations and civil society increasingly use happiness indicators to inform their policy-making decisions.”

Africa’s low rankings are cause for concern. But, the report asks: “Are the people in Africa really among the least happy in the world? And if African countries do have a ‘happiness deficit’, what are the prospects of Africa achieving happiness in the near future? (The report devotes an entire chapter to these questions. It makes for interesting reading.)

But are we asking the right questions? Possibly not.

If for instance we take a look at Gallup’s 2016 Global Emotions Report which measures life’s intangibles — feelings and emotions — that traditional economic indicators such as GDP were never intended to capture, a different picture emerges.

African smiles … Photograph Wikimedia Commons

Jon Clifton Managing Director of Gallup Global Analytics asks the following: “If on International Happiness Day you’re wondering who the happiest people in the world are, ask yourself whether you think happiness is how people see their life or if it’s how people live their life. If it’s the former, the results are predictable – the wealthiest countries in the world top the list. If you think happiness is not so dependent on money and is based more on how much people report enjoyment, laughing and smiling – then look no further than this report.

Very interesting indeed. If you think happiness is how you experience your life through laughing, smiling and enjoyment, then don’t get fixated on northern and western Europe and the rest of the developed world. The Latin Americans are the happiest. And Africa doesn’t do too badly either. Things are most certainly not all rosy, but we are generally up there with 70 per cent of the world still finding a way to have fun.

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Peter has a career in publishing and conservation spanning more than four decades. His most recent project has been the development of Untold Africa, a meeting place for intelligent, engrossing and entertaining dialogue for a global community of like-minded people - people who share a common passion for the wild places of Africa, the creatures that inhabit them, and the breadth of African culture. See more

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