In the last 10 years, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to the concept of national happiness. The notion was first developed in the tiny Asian Kingdom of Bhutan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhutan), whose advocacy of ‘gross national happiness’ (http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/) as a measure of national achievement just as important as Gross National Product (GNP), has been met with equal parts ridicule, respect and research.
Recently it has moved from being the realm of philosophers, therapists and self-help gurus to a growing academic discipline.
One country to consistently clock high results in polls and studies of national happiness is the West African nation of Nigeria. Africa’s most-populous country – and one of the continent’s economic powerhouses and fast-growers – its positive outlook has left many perplexed because it is a country of extremes of poverty and wealth.
In the World Values Survey (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org) Nigeria came top for happiness in 2003, followed by Mexico.
Nigerians also scored highly for optimism in a Gallup International poll of economic prospects, optimism and personal well-being for 2011, which found the largest number of optimists to be in emerging market countries like China, India and Brazil. The most pessimistic country in the survey of 64,000 people in 53 countries was the United Kingdom.
Gallup’s global polling identified the qualities of a good, productive life: a highly engaging job, spending six to seven hours a day socialising, and exercising five to six days a week.
It also found another factor: the more a person rates their country as positive, the better they feel. This was an especially important factor for the poor and people in poor countries.
In a related factor, researchers of the World Values Survey found that the desire for material goods is “a happiness suppressant.”
Nigeria takes pride in its status in these surveys: airports proudly boast on signboards about the country being “The Happiest Place in the World!”.
But how does Nigeria’s optimism square with its well-documented problems, from endemic corruption and sectarian violence to civil unrest and poverty?
In the Guardian newspaper, Bim Adewunmi tried to nail it down: “Daily life is hardly one glorious Technicolor dance sequence, but I have never lived in such a happy place – and I once lived in hippyville California. I can’t give a definite answer, but I think the joy comes from seeing and living through the worst that life can offer; it is an optimism born of hope.
“There’s a spirit of entrepreneurship – people seem bewildered if you admit a lack of ambition. Nigerians want to go places and believe – rightly or wrongly – that they can. That drive and ambition fuels their optimism; they’re working towards happiness, so they’re happy.”
Nigerian writer T. C. Ubochi made an attempt in an essay to get to grips with why Nigerians are the happiest people in the world, writing:
“I’ve come to learn to basically have hope … The best thing about living in Nigeria is the abiding knowledge and expectation of a Miracle – even if it doesn’t happen in this lifetime.”
And despite its woes, Nigeria has many things to be positive about: a fast-growing economy that saw gross domestic product rise by 7.85 percent in 2010; a big influence in Africa and its fate; and a powerful cultural reach, from musicians like Fela Kuti to writers like Chinua Achebe, Chris Abani and Wole Soyinka, to its celebrated art. And of course oil, a blessing of wealth and a curse.
While arguments abound over what constitutes true happiness, academics are honing in on which lifestyle choices best lead to happiness and which should be avoided. It is a scientific approach akin to the one taken by the medical profession on human health.
Nigeria consistently ranks top in happiness but just middle for life satisfaction. But surveys are notorious for people’s values skewing results. In Latin America, it is better to be upbeat about life. In Asian cultures, there is no shame attached to being unhappy and collective well-being is more valued.
Shinobu Kitayama at Kyoto University in Japan and Hazel Rose Markus at Stanford University, California, told the New Scientist that an individual’s level of life satisfaction depends largely on how successfully they adhere to their particular cultural “standard”. Americans tend to value personal achievement, while Japan places greater emphasis on meeting family expectations, social responsibilities, self-discipline, cooperation and friendliness.
And single-minded pursuit of personal happiness – something that tends to lead to a high score on surveys – also comes from societies with high levels of suicide.
“There are some real downsides to individualistic cultures,” Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told the New Scientist. “People with mental illness are in real trouble with no extended family to watch over them.”
And a good attitude just may be the thing that gives Southern economies that extra edge in the years ahead.
Published: March 2011
1) Journal of Happiness Studies: The peer-reviewed Journal of Happiness Studies is devoted to scientific understanding of subjective well-being. Website:http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/well-being/journal/10902
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
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