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Can happiness really be measured?

The inspiration for this reflection is the World Happiness Report 2016, released recently in Rome ahead of this year’s UN World Happiness Day, which was…

The inspiration for this reflection is the World Happiness Report 2016, released recently in Rome ahead of this year’s UN World Happiness Day, which was celebrated on the 20th of March. The World Happiness Report surveys the state of global happiness and ranks countries by their happiness levels using such metrics as wealth, health, freedom to make life choices, having someone to count on in times of trouble, freedom from corruption and the generosity of fellow citizens
The background to the introduction of a World Happiness Report was that in July 2011 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use such to guide their formulation of public policies.  The World Happiness Report 2016, which is the fourth of such reports, is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions. The first Report was published in 2012, the second in 2013, and the third in 2015.  Authors of the Report are usually drawn from experts from diverse disciplines – economics, psychology, survey analysis, national statistics, health, public policy and so on and so forth. The 2016 Report includes the ranking of 157 countries based on survey data from 2013 to 2015. Each country had an average sample size of 3,000 people who answered questions pertaining to six variables: gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption.
In the 2016 Report, Nigeria was ranked the 103rd happiest nation in the world, down from its 78th ranking in 2015. It also slipped from being the second happiest country in Africa in 2015 to being the sixth happiest in the continent. Globally Denmark emerged the world’s happiest country in the world while Algeria, which was ranked 38th globally, maintains its position as the happiest country in Africa. African countries dominate the bottom of the table.
I have some issues with the World Happiness Report: One, the greatest utility of the Report, in my opinion, is in calling attention to the fact that happiness – just like the notion of work-life balance – deserves a priority place in government policies and ought to be part of the primary indicators of the quality of human development in any country. In fact following the first   UN High Level Meeting on  ‘Happiness and Well-Being’ on April 2 2012, Bhutan became the first and only country so far to have replaced Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with Gross National Happiness (GNH) as its main development indicator.
Two, from all indications, the Report appears to be concerned with ‘national happiness’ or the ‘happiness of nations’ rather than the happiness of people who make up the nations. For this reason, the variables of interest – GDP, healthy life expectancy, social support, generosity and absence of corruption – measure a country’s well-being and not strictly happiness – defined as mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions that could range from contentment to intense joy. For instance if rate of suicide is used as a metric for measuring unhappiness, (the opposite of happiness),  then quite some of the countries which are ranked among the top 20 happiest countries in the world will also feature among the top 20 with the highest suicide rates in the world. A crucial question therefore is whether a country’s well-being is synonymous with the happiness of its citizens. People in some rural areas  who are abjectly poor but have no idea of what it means  not to be poor cannot be convinced that they are unhappy because the GDP of their countries have dropped or because some unseen government politicians looted their country’s treasury.
An even more important question is whether happiness is dependent on societal structures and environmental variables (as suggested by the World Happiness Report) or is strictly an individual’s choice that is independent of his or her social and material circumstances? The 14th Dalai Lama would say that happiness “is not something readymade. It comes from your own actions.” Mahatma Gandhi, the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India defined happiness as “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” For the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy: “If you want to be happy, be.”  In essence, for Dalai Lama, Ghandi, Tolstoy and several others, happiness is an individual choice that is independent of the society, its structures and enabling or disenabling conditions and not something to be measured using  variables that can only capture a nation’s well-being. This means therefore that one cannot really talk of a happy or unhappy nation, but of happy or unhappy individuals.
Three, the World Happiness Report may unwittingly be reinforcing an essentialist construction of Africa and the narratives and innuendos that go with it. Since its chosen variables can only measure well being, wealth and democracy (freedom), which are areas that actually define Africa’s condition of underdevelopment, it becomes axiomatic that African countries will not do well in such rankings.  But a fundamental reason why they underperform in such rankings is the condition of underdevelopment which has already been captured in the key index that defines developed and underdeveloped economies.  Several of the symptoms of this fundamental problem of underdevelopment are curiously being captured in a pick-and- choose manner by several indices such as the United Nations Human Development Index, the Ease of Doing Business Index among countries, the Sustainable Governance Index etc. It is like using four different indices, each ranking people according to how healthy they look, their physical strength, how briskly they work and how fast they can run. A man who is severely ill with malaria and has suffered loss of appetite as a result will be poorly captured by each of the four indices even though his only problem is that he is suffering from malaria. This is Africa’s major problem with several of these indices.  And it is both essentialist and reductionist.
Four, how will the Buhari regime interpret the World Happiness Report 2016? Are Nigerians becoming more ‘wailing wailers’ under him, as his critics will argue and as the Report suggests on face value?  The answer to this can be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Though the 2016 Report was based on survey data from 2013 to 2015, Buhari was inaugurated as President in May 2015, meaning that part of the period covered by the data used in the ranking came from the time of his presidency. However he cannot take all the blame because a disproportionate chunk of the data used in compiling the report also came from the time of the Jonathan presidency.
Promoting education and health: The Bauchi state example I am quite impressed with Bauchi state government’s 2016 revenue and expenditure estimates.  Of its budget budget proposal of N47, 306,964,985, it allocated 52% to capital expenditure and 48 per cent to recurrent expenditure. More importantly, the state has one of the highest (if not the highest allocation to the education sector) in this country. It allocated the sum of N26, 736,579,182 (a whopping 20% of its total budget) to the education sector. According to the state government, projects and programmes it intends to pursue to realize its goal of qualitative education include the purchase of furniture, supply of instructional materials, library books and equipment, construction of more public schools as well as rehabilitation of existing ones. Though the allocation to the education sector fell short of the 26 per cent allocation to the education sector recommended by UNESCO  and the 30 per cent allocation canvassed by  some Nigerian educationists, it is  certainly one of the highest (if not the highest ever allocation to education) by any government in the country – federal or state.  Remarkably there is no elephant project (such as establishing a state University) to gulp this relatively huge allocation, which is commendable.
Bauchi state’s allocation to education compares favourably with El-Rufai’s ambitious education programme in Kaduna state. Of Kaduna state’s 2016 budget of N171.7bn, education received N27.5bn (about 16%). It should be recalled that in 2014 the federal government made a big bone of the fact that it increased the allocation to the education sector to 10.7 per cent, up from 8.7 per cent in 2013.
In addition to an impressive 20 per cent allocation to education, the Bauchi state government also  gave the second highest allocation of N19,685,311,922 (15%) to the health sector. This is one of the few times in the history of this country that budgetary allocation to the health sector by any government in the country – state or federal – has met the 15 per cent recommended by both the World Bank and the World Health Organisation. Thumbs up to the Bauchi State government and its Governor Mohammed Abdullahi Abubakar for these bold steps. I pray the state does not derail at the level of implementation.

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