Nigeria has yielded ground to Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania in terms of the happiest people in the world in the current edition of the World Happiness Report. But it was Nigeria the story started with. The world couldn’t understand it when Nigerians, for instance, featured in the first few editions of the repots as some of the happiest bunch in the world. How could people without electricity in the 21st century be a happy lot, it was asked? It was not a totally wrong headed question but it bore the pitfalls of rationalist reasoning that electricity, for instance, is a universal marker of a fulfilled life. It is the sort of reasoning that makes people who live in Ikoyi to assume that those who live in Ojuelegba or the old slums such as Maroko must be miserable. But, does it work like that?
In this regard, there might be no better illustration of the pitfall that Intervention can recall immediately other than what former president of Nigeria, Obasanjo is reported to have told former prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair. Obasanjo was though explaining why people live longer in Africa in spite of the material poverty relative to other civilisations. The theory Obasanjo put forward is that while Mr. Brown and Mr. Cook in Britain share nothing more than hi, hi on their way into or out of the same compound they live in London or Manchester, the Nigerian is in a permanent ocean of communal, family and peer humanity. His or her problems are shared by immediate others. The ontological security implication of that is such that the typical African is not intimidated by his or her challenges in contrast to the liberal self in the Western world.
Obasanjo’s critics will, rightly, haul counter-narratives against his, with some citing Lee Kuan Yew who said the same thing against the liberal self of the West but came up with a uniquely sophisticated FAIR social welfare system he designed. That makes him a richer critique of Obasanjo but that does not, therefore, mean that Obasanjo’s argument has no merit at all.
In fact, the Obasanjo track is the one being followed in the current World Happiness Report which emphasizes communal solidarity and sharing as pathways to happiness. The neo-liberal humanism of the universities and INGOs behind the World Happiness research report may explain that gaze but even then, the World Happiness Report series is a magnificent step in many respects.
One of the most significant must be where the idea of people’s happiness rather than Per Capita Income, (PCI) which has been the dominant paradigm for measuring national share of wealth came from. It came from tiny, mountainous Asian country of Bhutan. And at the time it did, it was from a monarch, not from all these elite members professing democracy in the day and committing atrocities with people’s rights and resources in the night. The message there is size may not matter all the time.
The second significance as far as Intervention is concerned is the way it throws mud in the face of rationalism and its neo-positivist methodology. The opening paragraph of the synthesis of the 2022 edition by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network is very instructive in this regard. It began by wondering how the World Happiness Report 2022 (WHR) could be showing a bright light in dark times of pandemic, (Covid-19) and war, (Ukraine).
As radical as the orientation of some of the Canadian universities involved in the WHR process, the logocentric thinking in that wonderment must be obvious to any reader. Otherwise, how might African peasant women worrying about gathering herbs to cure sick daughters be expected to worry about war in Ukraine the pictures of which they do not watch CNN or BBC to even appreciate? Even if they do, the wonderment still flows from the rationalist conviction that the world is out there to be discovered when, in fact, the world is in the minds of the individual and from which individual locale every one of us looks at the world.
Be that as the methodological inclination of the WHR writers might be, the whole idea of asking people what makes them happy ruptures the very powerful but contested idea that there are universal criteria for measuring happiness. Happiness and all such conceptual entities have no universal markers. Happiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Without endorsing material poverty as a blessing as some people do, neither is the notion that people being happy in spite of the derelict nature of their existence amounts to false consciousness acceptable. It speaks to the false universalism that makes the World Bank, for example, to use so-called global statistics for Canada as well as Mozambique.
It means that the last significance of the WHR is the methodological lesson it serves on countries, particularly those that are not that worried that the methodological train has left it many decades ago and it is important they strive to see if their universities can make the jump.
The 2022 edition of the report is, as usual, a hefty stuff at nearly 160 pages. Those who may not have the time to read such may be served by the synthesis referred to earlier on and which Intervention is publishing unedited below:
Amid War and Disease, World Happiness Report Shows Bright Spot
In this troubled time of war and pandemic, the World Happiness Report 2022 (WHR) reports a bright light in dark times. The pandemic brought not only pain and suffering but also an increase in social support and benevolence. As we battle the ills of disease and war, it is especially important to remember the universal desire for happiness and the capacity of individuals to rally to each other’s support in times of great need.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the World Happiness Report, which uses global survey data to report on how people evaluate their own lives in more than 150 countries around the world. The interest in happiness is, of course, global. The World Happiness Report reached more than 9 million people in 2021. Since it was first published, the World Happiness Report has been based on two key ideas: that happiness or life evaluation can be measured through opinion surveys, and that we can identify key determinants of well-being and thereby explain the patterns of life evaluation across countries. This information, in turn, can help countries to craft policies aimed at achieving happier societies.
Jeffrey Sachs explains the origin and purpose of the WHR in this way. “A decade ago, governments around the world expressed the desire to put happiness at the heart of the global development agenda, and they adopted a UN General Assembly resolution for that purpose. The World Happiness Report grew out of that worldwide determination to find the path to greater global well-being. Now, at a time of pandemic and war, we need such an effort more than ever. And the lesson of the World Happiness Report over the years is that social support, generosity to one another, and honesty in government are crucial for well-being. World leaders should take heed. Politics should be directed as the great sages long ago insisted: to the well-being of the people, not the power of the rulers.”
Since the World Happiness Report was launched ten years ago, there has been a growing interest in measuring well-being and life satisfaction. This has been to a significant extent enabled by the data available in the Gallup World Poll since 2005-2006. Every year the World Happiness Report compiles data from the previous three years of surveys to increase the sample size and allow for more accuracy.
The availability of fifteen years of data covering more than 150 countries provides a unique stock-taking opportunity. The three biggest gains were in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The biggest losses were in Lebanon, Venezuela, and Afghanistan.
“Data considered in the World Happiness Report offers a snapshot of how people around the world evaluate their own happiness and some of the latest insights from the science of well-being,” said Lara Aknin. “This information is incredibly powerful for understanding the human condition and how to help people, communities, and countries work towards happier lives”