Our unhappiness is really sad … or is it?

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By Howard Feldman, Head of Marketing & People at Synthesis

It turns out that we are not very happy. Officially anyway. According to the World Happiness Index, released ahead of International Happiness Day, South Africans are the 91st happiest people in the world. We are less happy than our counterparts in the Ivory Coast and only slightly happier than people in Laos.

Which seems sad.

What might make it sadder still, is that in 2020 South Africa was the 76th most happy country. Meaning we are 15 countries more miserable than we were last year at this time.

Some context.

For the last ten years, The World Happiness Report, a publication of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and powered by the Gallup World Poll data, has used various data points to establish a universal measure of happiness. In doing so, they created a fictional Dystopia (a negative benchmark from which to gauge levels of happiness). Dystopia is, in essence,  an imaginary country that has the world’s least-happy people. 

In South African terms, imagine that you worked for Eskom and Eskom was a country.

According to the organisers, this is the 10th anniversary of the World Happiness Report, written as the world is entering the third year of COVID-19. “As a result,” the organisers say, “the report has a triple focus: first looking back; then taking another close look at how individuals and countries are doing in the face of COVID-19; and finally looking ahead to how the science of well-being and the societies under study, are likely to evolve in the future.”

The report factors a country’s GDP, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, citizen generosity and perceptions of corruption into its ranking.

The report, of course, is wrong. Perhaps on paper South Africans are not happy, but is there greater joy when the lights come back on after Eskom load shedding? Is there a more grateful person than a South African with both running water and electricity on the same day? Or a more euphoric citizen than one who receives a renewed driver’s licence?

I would go a step further. Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning illustrates how in the worst of circumstances, provided there is purpose, we are able to achieve happiness. Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who endured the persecution of Hitler’s Europe. He was sent to a concentration camp because of his religion where he was forced to endure starvation, deprivation and dehumanisation on a level that is hard for us to imagine. It was under these conditions that he established his theory.

According to Frankl, it is not the speed of the internet (my words, not his), or the number of followers on Instagram (again me), that brings us meaning, but rather being committed to ideals, to having a focus and to recognising that we are on a mission that makes us happy. Truly happy.

We might not be proud of it, but as South Africans, we are reminded of the adversity faced by others at every traffic light. We are awarded the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of others every time we leave our homes. We are acutely aware that our government has failed the people and that it is up to us to assist.

And that is something that is not measured by the Happiness Index. We might indeed be unhappy with the level of corruption and service delivery, but that doesn’t mean that we are unhappy and unfilled. Ironically, I would argue the very opposite is true.

The Index also does not take into account how funny and generous South Africans are. We are the people who celebrate the non-birth of 10 babies, who laugh when a teenager rides into a rugby post and who raise money when we see a couple getting engaged at KFC. We make music out of the utterings of our politicians and we forgive the past when most others would not.

To be listed as the 91st happiest country in the world is not something that we should be proud of. But as the ranking talks more to the failure of the South African government and less about the South African people, it is hardly something that we should take too seriously.

Rather let’s continue to do what we do best. Help each other out, laugh when the opportunity presents and make sure that we live with purpose and with joy.  Despite the circumstances.

And if that is enough it is always good to know that we are still happier than the Iranians.