Isn’t it high time the South African government understood how to enhance our gross national happiness?

South Africa is one of the unhappiest nations on this earth. We’re not as miserable as Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia or Angola, but we come in at a lowly 118 out of 143 nations measured in the Happy Planet Index. A survey conducted by the New Economics Foundation, the Happy Planet Index reveals “the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered”.

The Happy Planet Index is similar to Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness, which puts the well-being of people and the planet first when making economic policy. It is a pioneering way of measuring national “success”, which was introduced in 1972 by the then King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

The drive behind this unique way of looking at economic development was Buddhist spiritual values, and it remains Bhutan’s central focus for matters related to economic growth and development. This approach is a radical departure from most other countries that make productivity and economic growth the driving force of their vision and strategic planning.

Replacing productivity with happiness
There are four pillars when it comes to the Gross National Happiness model, and Bhutan has learned that “happiness” is driven by sustainable development, the preservation and promotion of cultural values, good governance, and the conservation of nature. If those four aspects are in check then the rulers of Bhutan know they are on the right track to enhancing national happiness.

Little wonder then that Bhutan does well in the “happiness” survey, and currently ranks as the 17th happiest country in the world. The 10 top happiest places in the world, according to the index and listed in descending order, are Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala, Vietnam, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Brazil and Honduras. Other happy hotspots include Nicaragua, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Argentina and Indonesia.

Sad state: South Africa comes in at a lowly 118 out of 143 nations measured in the Happy Planet Index.

What’s interesting about Costa Rica is that apart from having the highest “happiness” score, it has the second-highest average life expectancy in the world, second only to Canada. Then notice how many of the happiest countries are situated in Latin America, or are islands?

Money can’t buy contentment
By contrast, how happy are developed nations? It appears that wealth can’t buy happiness. Rich developed nations fall in the middle ground, according to the index. The highest placed is the Netherlands at 43, with the United Kingdom coming in at a midline medium, scoring 74 out of 143. Like South Africa, the United States isn’t fairing too well and is in the bottom percentile, taking up position 114.

Unfortunately, misery seems to be a sub-Saharan epidemic. The report says the “bottom 10 Happy Planet Index scores were all suffered by sub-Saharan African countries, with Zimbabwe bottom of the table, with a Happy Planet Index score of 16.6 out of 100”.

In summary, the report says: “The countries that are meant to represent successful development are some of the worst-performing in terms of sustainable well-being.”

Happiness doesn’t cost the earth
Launched in July 2006 as a radical departure from the world’s obsession with GDP, the index identifies “health and a positive experience of life as universal human goals, and the natural resources that our human systems depend upon as fundamental inputs. A successful society is one that can support good lives that don’t cost the Earth”.

This thinking behind the Happy Planet Index and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness concept is starting to resonate with the rest of the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is looking at new ways of measuring progress that will focus on human well-being. In March this year, the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics met for the first time to look at well-being as a national meter, national goal and complementary measure to GDP. Well-being and happiness projects have been launched in Belgium, Italy, Canada and Australia.

Back home, a tsunami of stories on greed, corruption and self-interest flood the South African media, while our leadership is enraged in debates about nationalisation and other mechanisms to enable crony capitalism, entitlement and quick access to high-paying government work. This debate, often reframed with racial metaphors, attendant name-calling and mudslinging further obfuscate the real issues at hand.

Before the next round of service-delivery riots begin, perhaps our leaders can leave the cursing and corruption aside for long enough to ponder on the concept of happiness. Perhaps they could learn from what other nations are doing to build national well-being, and start becoming obsessed with improving South Africa’s gross national happiness, instead of wealth, privilege and power.



Charles Lee Mathews

Writer who likes to draw.

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