Thu | Apr 9, 2020

This thing called 'happy'

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2013 | 12:00 AM

S. Brian Samuel, Guest Columnist

The other day someone asked me: Why don't we smile as much as we used to? What happened to that wide, instinctive Caribbean smile we were so famous for? Where did our grin go?

First of all, we need to establish some historical accuracy here: Did we really used to smile that much? Let's be careful with those colonial descriptions of the happy, smiling natives, singing as they work. As the Bajans would say: "Not every kiss-teeth is a smile."

Maybe, the native smiled because he was genuinely happy, or maybe he smiled because that's what the massa expected, and by smiling he might get a few extra crumbs from massa's table. Maybe, when he went back home to his hovel, he wasn't happy at all.

There are two types of happiness:

  • Sublime happiness: "I'm as happy as a pig in st right now!"
  • Enduring happiness: "I'm so happy with my life."

A few years ago, the United Nations (UN) began to ponder this whole phenomenon of happiness. At the end of the day, isn't that what all their economic and social programmes are about - making people happy/happier?

So the UN decided to bring rationality to an irrational subject; and tried to quantify and measure that most intangible of things: happiness. They failed miserably, but we'll get to that later. The first problem: defining happiness. After a great deal of analysis by task teams and working groups, the UN finally cadged together an all-encompassing definition of happiness, basically along the lines of short- and long-term happiness mentioned earlier.

The next problem: How do we measure happiness? Unlike normal things like metal and money, you can't see, touch nor count happiness; the only way of knowing if someone is happy is by asking them. And here we come to problem number two: the cultural context. Someone might say they're happy when, in fact, they're not.

It's not good to be unhappy. Unhappy people are failures, so why say I'm a failure? They might hate their jobs, hate their wife, and their kids hate them, but they won't admit they're unhappy - even to a questionnaire.

On the other hand, the Rastaman on the beach might insist he's not happy. How can I be happy with no job, no money and Babylon on my backside every day? And yet, he might not be as unhappy as he claims; he might actually be fairly chilled (a minor form of happiness). He's healthy as a rock, eats fresh fish and vegetables every day, owns his boat, lives on the beach with his queen and children who love him, and smokes the best weed in the world. What more could you possibly want? In the happiness stakes, all is not as it seems.

World Happiness Report

According to the World Happiness Report 2013, a quasi-official UN document, the happiest country in the world is ... Denmark. Not Tahiti, not Hawaii or some other tropical paradise, the happiest people in the world, officially, are to be found in Denmark - closely followed by Norway.

I lived in Oslo for a year during my student days. Knowing them as I do, would I say that Norwegians are a happy people? Many adjectives spring to mind: dour, polite, civilised, well-intentioned; but certainly not happy. They eat bland food, live half the year in total darkness, and are really bummed out if it isn't ass-numbingly cold by the beginning of November. You call that happy?

But, according to the experts at the UN, happy they are. In fact, all of Europe is ecstatically happy: eight of the 10 happiest countries in the world are in Europe. Interestingly enough, Israel comes in at number 11 - did they also ask the Palestinians? The highest Caribbean country is Trinidad and Tobago, which comes in at number 31. I'm sure if they did the survey around carnival time, Trinidad would be a few rungs higher up the happiness ladder. Jamaica ranks only 75 - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rank as happier places. Jamaica too dread.

I don't know what the Togolese did to deserve it, but Togo is officially ranked as the least happy country on the planet - an oasis of misery. Syria ranks as the ninth unhappiest country in the world right now - no surprises there. Rwanda comes in at number five on the unhappy list - given the gory events of its recent-ish past, one could understand. But I have visited Rwanda many times and always found it to be very peaceful, safe and calm - not adjectives you would normally associate with unhappy.

Tanzania is ranked as the sixth unhappiest country in the world - that staggers me. Dar es Salaam is one of the safest cities in Africa. In the evenings, people of all descriptions can be seen chatting on the streets, jogging along the beach, walking home, waiting for a matatu, drinking a beer or eating at a roadside bar. How does that get interpreted as rank unhappiness? Iraq and Afghanistan rank as happier places. Explain that one to me, because I don't see it.

Is the UN confusing wealth with happiness? Invariably, according to the UN, the happiest countries in the world also happen to be the richest. To demonstrate this truism, we have to think of just two numbers:

Equating happiness with wealth

Is it just me, or is this a no-brainer? He's rich, therefore he must be happy; she's poor, she must be unhappy. Is this the best the UN can come up with? For a global institution with the credentials of the UN, I would have expected a deeper treatment of such a serious subject as the basic happiness of the human condition.

Instead, all we get is: If you're rich, you're happy; if you're poor, sorry for you. What about the outliers, the poor happy countries or the rich countries that should be happy, but aren't (sorry, Norway)? According to the UN, that hardly ever happens, the only 'happy poor' countries are Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.

Well, I beg to differ. I think there's a lot more happiness in the developing world than the UN gives us credit for.

In the West Indies, people have a slightly different interpretation of happiness. Have you ever heard mothers talk about a happy baby? Unless things are really bad, babies don't know whether they're rich or poor - they just know feelings. Yet, some babies from birth have a sunnier disposition than others: they don't cry, they burp easily, and they're quick to give Daddy a smile.

Happy babies become happy children; and happy children become, you guessed it, happy people. This, of course, is an oversimplification, but the fact remains that some people are inherently of a happier disposition than others.

And then there is the cultural factor, let's face it: some cultures are happier than others. At the risk of offending my Norwegian friends, again, I don't need to belabour this point too much.

The kind of happiness that the UN is measuring is not the kind of happiness I'm talking about. The UN doesn't see happiness as an emotion; it sees happiness as having been earned. This is not so much happiness as contentedness - the happiness of a life well lived.

Being wealthy or at least free from poverty does give rise to a certain kind of happiness - but this is not the same as the inner, irrepressible happiness that some people are born with. This, to me, is true happiness: the ability to have a sunny, optimistic outlook on life - despite the slings and arrows.

Revolutionary conclusion

Do I believe the UN's revolutionary conclusion that all of the happiest countries in the world are in Europe and all of the unhappiest in Africa? Absolutely not. I know Africa, I've lived there, worked there, travelled there. Would I describe Africans as unhappy people? In parts, yes. They're unhappy with Africa's leaders and their unfulfilled promises; and they're definitely unhappy about their enduring poverty.

But at the end of the day, is the average African a downcast, despondent, unhappy person? Absolutely not! Africa is home to some of the most vibrant cultures in the world, expressed through spirited music, dance and art. Are these a reflection of unhappy people?

Whoever is doing the UN's happiness research, however, they're defining and measuring it, they've got it wrong. Norwegians are not happier than Trinidadians - period! Sorry, Norway!

S. Brian Samuel worked for the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank, from 1998 to 2007. He currently consults on project financing and public-private partnerships. Email feedback to and