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Published: Friday January 11, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 22, 2013 MYT 5:22:57 PM

In pursuit of a meaningful life

Having our very own happiness index is a step in the right direction.

DECADES ago, in the era before Playstation, I used to play a computer game called Sid Mier’s Civilization.

In it, you started off a tiny village settlement and over the centuries, built and managed your cities, sent off exploration teams, conquered neighbouring countries, plundered the earth’s resources and eventually, sent your first team to space.

If you didn’t keep your citizens happy, they would revolt and your city would fall. So, there was a fine line to draw in providing certain amenities, utilities and entertainment for your citizens, while developing the city and charging them taxes to do so. In short, the game was a simulation of the real world.

I bring up the game because underlying it all, was the key premise that the happiness of the citizens was of paramount importance in keeping your empire going.

Last year, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak officially announced a Malaysian Happiness Index. When he did so, he rated the country’s happiness index at 7.55 on a scale of 10 and graded it a B-Plus.

This news was a follow-up from an earlier report last April, when the United Nations released the first-ever World Happiness Report.

In the UN report, Malaysia is the second-most happiest nation in Southeast Asia, after Singapore, and the 51st happinest nation in the world out of 156 countries.

Interestingly, the happiest countries were all in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands) and the least happy countries were the poor nations in Sub-Saharan Africa (Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone).

The report also gave a rundown of what it was that made people happy. And it turns out money doesn’t quite make the world go round.

Other aspects of the happiness index had to do with political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption.

On an individual level, good mental and physical health, someone to count on, job security and family stability are crucial.

The UN World Happiness Report was prepared by the Earth Institute of Columbia University in the United States. It reviews the state of happiness in the world today and gives an insight into how the new science of happiness explains personal and national variations in happiness.

Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs noted that the report reflected a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness and absence of misery as criteria for government policy. Several notable outcomes presented itself as a result of the report.

For one thing, it turned out that the world has become a little happier in the last 30 years.

Over time, as living standards rose, happiness increased in tandem in most countries, with the exception of a few (the US being one of them).

Good behaviour also makes people happier — so parents who teach their children the values associated with them are on the right path. A stable family life and enduring marriage are another important component for the happiness of parents and children.

The report also drew some attention as to what caused unhappiness. Not surprisingly, a lack of unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation.

Job security and good relationships at work count more when tabulating job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.

One of the single biggest factors affecting happiness in any country is mental health. It turns out only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.

This means there is a whole load of undiagnosed mentally ill people who live, work and have families within our community, and a whole lot of unhappiness is caused by their condition as a result of their unhealthy interactions and relationships.

On a more quirky note, women, it seems, are happier than men in advanced countries, while their position in poorer countries is a mixed bag.

I’m thinking perhaps this has something to do with the freedom and empowerment of women in more wealthy and advanced countries compared with their poorer and less financially endowed cousins.

And we are least happy in our middle age — hence, one assumes, the mid-life crisis!

Most importantly, the report makes it clear that societal progress cannot be measured simply in terms of economic growth — such as GDP figures. It’s like the proverbial rich man who’s unhappy — his money can’t buy him the happiness he craves.

The UN report clearly states: “Societal progress is about improvements in the well-being of people and households.

Assessing such progress requires looking not only at the functioning of the economic system but also at the diverse experiences and living conditions of people.”

As it turns out, in the increasingly complex modern society we live in, it is becoming increasingly important for policy-makers to take into account a whole host of other factors which measuring the subjective well-being policies are meant to offer the people.

Essentially, we need to look at what conditions matter most to people when assessing their well-being because otherwise, regardless of how much economic growth is achieved, the people within any given nation may remain despondent and crabby.

So, I think it’s laudable that our Prime Minister has decided to kickstart our own Happiness Index, which will be a useful tool to gauge what makes Malaysians happy and what makes us unhappy.

More importantly, I think it necessary as part of a sustainable framework to engage with communities and craft policies that touch the lives of people in meaningful ways.

What makes you happy or unhappy?

Sheila Stanley is a writer, TV producer and media & communications consultant based in Kuala Lumpur. You can share your thoughts with her on Twitter @sheila_stanley; on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sheila.stanley1 or via e-mail at sheila106@live.ie

Tags / Keywords: Community, News, Opinion, sheila stanley

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