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The pursuit of happiness


Wednesday 20 March was International Happiness Day. The theme for this year is, “Happy Together”. It emphasises the values of human interconnectedness as opposed to what the Canadian political philosopher C. B. Macpherson termed “possessive individualism”.


Economists have devised various approaches to measuring progress. One of the most popular is, of course, the gross domestic product (GDP), which measures growth over time. The per capita GDP measure takes the overall output and divides it by total population, to get an idea of average individual wealth.

An analogy has been drawn between GDP and the automobile speedometer. If you have driven on the German autobahn as I have, with no official speed limits, you will enjoy the exhilaration of speed. Youths from as far away as North America bring their Lamborghinis and Ferraris to test-drive on the autobahn. However much you enjoy the experience, your speedometer will not tell you if your car is mechanically sound or even that you are running out of fuel or the quality of the road. It only shows you your rate of velocity.

Similarly, GDP leaves out a lot of things. It does not factor in the all-important question of inequality, for example. Some of the richest countries by GDP are ironically also among the most unequal on earth. French economist, Thomas Piketty, in his famous work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), made his name by demonstrating through rigorous statistical analysis that return on capital is rising more rapidly than economic growth in the advanced industrial countries; leading to deepening inequalities within and between nations.


Another measure of economic progress is the Human Development Index (HDI), first developed by the UNDP, focusing on the three criteria of health and longevity, knowledge and income. It measures not just income but also the quality of life and general well-being of the population. In 2018 the World Bank also pioneered its own HDI, which made quite an impact.


In 2009, French president Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a study on alternatives to GDP focused on human well-being; bringing in giants of the economics profession such as Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Most recent measurements of socio-economic well-being by the Paris-based OECD focuses on three core elements: material living conditions (consumption possibilities and their command over resources); the quality of life (defined in terms of non-monetary factors that shape opportunities and life-chances); and sustainability (which links living conditions to future stocks of natural assets and the long-term well-being).


In summary, well-being is measured both in terms of the material elements focus on income and wealth, jobs and earnings, and housing; it also includes sustainability and preservation of different forms of capital – natural capital , economic capital, human capital and social capital. It also embraces non-material aspects such as quality of life, health status, work and life balance, education and skills, social connections, civic engagement and governance, environmental quality, personal security, and subjective well-being.


The ideal of happiness is an ancient one. The ancient Greeks defined it as Eudamonia, or human flourishing. The purpose of the state, according to the Greeks, is not only to ensure the security and welfare of the people but also to actively promote their happiness.


The American Declaration of Independence 1776 remains the most glorious tribute to the pursuit of happiness as a constitutional principle: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.-that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The famous novella, The History of Rasellas, Prince of Abissinia, by the eighteenth century writer Samuel Johnson, is a paean to human happiness. The young prince wandered far and wide in search of an elusive happiness, only to find that it is within him. In the end, we learn that happiness is a matter of personal choice: “Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content”.


The nineteenth century British thinker Jeremy Bentham, intellectual godfather to John Stuart Mill, spun an entire philosophy around happiness, which he termed “utilitarianism”. He underlined the pleasure principle as the foundation of all public policy. Society should promote all those public goods that maximize pleasure while minimising those elements that bring only pain.


In his famous novel, Siddhartha, German-Swiss writer Herman Hesse teaches that true happiness comes from love, enlightenment and wisdom: “Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”


Happiness is not the absence of pain but its transcendence. Siddhartha again: “I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” 

In 2011 the remote Himalayan nation of Bhutan proposed to the UN to dedicate a day for world happiness. It raised not a few eyebrows when it announced that it would use happiness rather than GDP to measure national development.


In April 2012 the International Happiness Index was launched under the framework, “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm”. For 2019, the top 10 happiest countries out of 156 are: Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. By contrast, the 10 worst are: South Sudan, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Yemen, Malawi, Syria, Botswana and Haiti. It’s clear that there is a strong correlation between unhappiness and conflict, poverty and poor governance. Interestingly, none of the big powers feature among the top ten.


None of the big powers featured among the top ten. Britain came in 15th place, Germany 17th, USA 19th, Japan 58th, Russia 68th, China 93rd and India 140th. Economist Jeffry Sachs, believes there is a direct correlation between the epidemic of addictions and unhappiness, which he believes explains America’s lacklustre rather performance.


Remarkably, the happiest countries are predominantly Scandinavian, where a high level of technological development is linked to commitment to the rule of law, human security, welfare and inclusive development.


Nigeria is ranked at 85th place, a good jump from its previous position at 91 in 2018. As far back as 2011 an international poll had ranked us as being the most optimistic in the world. If the poll was taken today I’m afraid, we might fare among the worst. We have the worst carnage on the highways. We are the kidnap capital of the world and the new gravity centre for global poverty. Boko Haram, murderous herdsmen militias and random, nihilistic criminal violence have made us a by-word among the nations.

The saddest part is that a lot of our problems are self-inflicted. We are a tragically divided people. And our leaders, instead of healing those wounds, have taken it upon themselves to add salt to injury by playing roulette with our societal fissures. Corruption, civil strife, impunity, lawlessness, bad leadership and lack of vision are the greatest sources of our unhappiness.


One thing that is clear, though, is that natural or man-made catastrophes cannot undermine happiness. New Zealand, which came in 8th place for the second year running, suffered a horrendous terrorist attack on a mosque on Friday 15 March, where 50 Muslim worshippers were massacred in cold blood. I have visited the country — a prosperous, tolerant and peace-loving people. The white colonial rulers as far back as 1840 signed the Treaty of Waitangi that guaranteed peaceful co-existence with the native Maori people. The recent massacre was a one-off recrudescence of evil. I am glad that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came out to forcefully condemn this diabolical act while reaffirming New Zealand’s place among the ranks of civilised democracies.


In the words of one expert, “What stands out about the happiest and most well-connected societies is their resilience and ability to deal with bad things”.


Obadiah Mailafia

1 Comment
  1. […] The pursuit of happiness Fri, 22 Mar 2019 Wednesday 20 March was International Happiness Day. The theme for this year is, ‘Happy Together’. It emphasises the values of human interconnectedness as opposed to what the Canadian political philosopher C. B. Macpherson termed ‘possessive individualism’. Economists have devised various approaches to measuring progress. One of the most popular is, of course, the gross [] read more… […]

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