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Happiness: Its literal and figurative dimensions

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Amid the global jitters over Covid-19, the UN-sponsored World Happiness Report 2020 was published on March 20. Identifying the extent of happiness in different countries in this fraught situation may seem not properly timed. But the study has been a routine exercise since the UN General Assembly called on governments to "give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development." As has been found by the World Happiness Report for this year, prepared by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Bangladesh has made a little progress in the sector of leading a happy life.

As per its objective, the index has stressed the socio-economic, as well as environmental, aspects of happiness in everyday life. 'Life satisfaction' emerges as the study's leitmotif. According to the index, Bangladesh has moved 18 notches up and found its place ahead of India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. It now enjoys 107th place among 153 countries. Pakistan is ranked 66th and Nepal 92nd in the index. Bangladesh was identified as the 125th happiest country last year. The release of the report coincides with the International Day of Happiness.

Like in the previous two years, Finland is at the top of the index in 2020 meaning it is the world's happiest country for the third year running. Finland is followed by Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand. The United Kingdom (UK) has been placed at the 13th place followed by Germany (17th), the United States (18th), France (23rd), Japan (62nd), Russia (73rd) and China (94th).   A few highly industrialised countries in the list such as the United States (US) and the UK have gone ahead one or two spots from 2019. Some others have slipped down 4 (four) to 5 (five) points from the previous year. They include Japan and Russia. In the report, Afghanistan has been adjudged the unhappiest country, followed by South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Central African Republic, Tanzania and Botswana.

As has been seen traditionally, the countries' places in the happiness indexes are determined by mainly economic and social indicators. However, the study also emphasises natural factors that shape happiness. They include weather, green spaces, water surfaces such as beaches and canals. As it finds, people are happier who live near green spaces or amid trees. Pastimes spent in recreational activities with family and friends in open spaces have also been identified as a factor helping increase happiness.

Traditional definition of happiness also includes various types of freedom, political and economic in the main, physical and mental wellbeing, security and overall contentment. On the other hand, the subject also coalesces into the vast area of philosophy. Spiritualism also overlaps with it, especially in the East. Defining true happiness is one of the most difficult tasks facing scholars through the ages. Due to its esoteric nature, lots of philosophers also falter while trying to find the true meaning of happiness. Theirs mostly is the quest which is completely averse to materialistic attainments. This school of thoughts has for ages been found in conflict with that of hedonists. The latter runs after materialistic, in particular sensual, pleasures. As a few thinkers advocated in the 19th century, one should pursue whatever suits one the best. The school of hedonism had its roots in the times of Plato, Aristotle, Epicures et al. This subject occupied a major place in their discourses.

A dominant human trait, the search for the key to happiness begins with attaining materialistic well-being. As the radius of this happiness is limitless, the hedonists' pursuit of materialistic comfort hardly ends. Ironically, the ascetics' search for the ultimate bliss also continues indefinitely.

In fact, in the material world itself few social scientists can satisfactorily elaborate on happiness. At the same time, life continues to expand its peripheries beyond the narrow confines of human existence. It makes the definition of happiness complicated for those opposed to metaphysical quests. In today's world, happy persons are found in the mostly unlikely places. In the lower-income nations included in the happiness index, one may not find a significant dearth of fully content persons. Along with their countries, they, too, are generally termed unhappy. But there are stunning exceptions. Even the well-researched studies on happiness often fail to locate the persons who can manage to remain happy with meagre belongings and humble ambitions. In society they lead a life different from others. A common term people choose for them is one of 'recluse'. These people have been filling the bleakly marked regions and countries for ages.

These people only need the minimum basics required for a dignified existence. But rogue states will not let them survive in peace. If their countries happen to be blessed with natural resources or are located strategically, senseless political or sectarian strife is made to afflict them. Massive supplies of sophisticated arms keep pouring into their countries. Cycles of intervention, at times leading to overthrows of the ruling governments, grind on for years and decades. Collective happiness, thus, becomes a chimera for the peaceful segments in society.

As has been elucidated in the definition of happiness in the 2020 index, sylvan atmospheres complete with waterfronts help people to remain happy. These sites are abundant in most of the industrialised and developed countries. Amid these atmospheres conducive to keep people fresh and lively, unhappiness will most likely be a strange proposition. Ironically, there is no dearth of mirthless people in these countries. In spite of the idyllic atmospheres, psychopaths are also found there with trigger-happy or serial killers swooping on innocent people intermittently.

On the other hand, sadness is a different phenomenon. This mental state is found among people in all countries irrespective of their socio-economic status. Some people are born melancholy. In extreme cases, this aversion for a merry life ends up being incurable diseases. The happiness indexes do not take these people into account. But despite their being different from the normal segments of population, they deserve to be the subjects of studies measuring the extent of people's happiness in a country. In some cases, the roots of sadness run deep into socio-economic factors. Poverty, social deprivations and absence of security are also common causes of sadness. Parallelly, spells of sadness keep haunting people engaged in creative pursuits in all societies. 

The discipline of psychiatry these days follows different schools. At times they appear to be opposed to each other. But they are unanimous on one point: unhappy people obstruct nations' growth. Their large presence in an apparently content society speaks of different types of rot within it. In contrast, the ubiquity of unhappy people in the traditionally backward countries is considered a normal scenario. But unhappiness, in the literal sense, continues to cause many an impediment to the growth of countries lagging behind the advanced ones. Even then many unhappy people aren't really 'unhappy'; at the height of their transcendental attainment, they are the happiest in society. 

Seclusion-loving wise people are born sad. They are engaged in their search for Truth or the meaning of life since their first stages of adulthood. But their search is arduous. As dusk approaches their life, a painful realisation dawns on some of them -- all their quests prove to be futile exercises. They couldn't reach nowhere near the 'meaning of life'. Few people are unhappier than these star-crossed souls. To add to their woes, these unhappy people are hardly recognised by conventional indexes. Inclusion of them, actually of the nations they belong to, in the happiness or unhappiness indexes might one day be hailed as a step long overdue. 


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