From a day (or days) of sadness last week, there was something to cheer about this week with news that Sri Lanka had become a ‘much happier nation’ in the year 2017. Our attention was drawn to this when Kussi Amma Sera (KAS) ran out of the house to share a story with her comrade-in-arms [...]

Business Times

Sad days to happiness


From a day (or days) of sadness last week, there was something to cheer about this week with news that Sri Lanka had become a ‘much happier nation’ in the year 2017.

Our attention was drawn to this when Kussi Amma Sera (KAS) ran out of the house to share a story with her comrade-in-arms Serapina on something she had read in the local newspapers about happiness.

It appears that Sri Lanka had climbed four steps to reach 43rd position among 120 countries in the UN-backed World Happiness Index.

While I pondered on this rating and tried to see a connection to last week’s troubled happenings, their down-to-earth conversation (not to confuse with Dr. Sirimal Abeyratne’s down-to-earth column below) sounded more interesting. I had to strain to hear but not show the two engrossed ladies that I was listening and be labelled a busybody!

“Giya sumane harima dukai… mey sumane godak sathutui (Last week it was very sad … this week we are very happy),” Kussi Amma Sera said, with a flash of sparkle in her eyes.

“Eh – kiyanneē? (Meaning?),” asked a puzzled Serapina, scratching her head while leaning against the fence.

“Aei lamayo, paththare kiyanawa apey rata hari santhosa ratak kiyala (Why child, the papers say we are a happy country),” KAS says.

“Oyata pissu ne-bung,” retorts Serapina, and starts to laugh, while resuming sweeping the garden. “Aney bung ape rate mantrivarun vitharai satutu. Janatava-te kochchara amaru-da (While parliamentarians are happy, the people find it difficult),” she said contemptuously.

For once KAS was beaten at her own brand of fiery argument and like a kicked dog, sneaks back into the kitchen.

The focus of their conversation had been that Sri Lanka had moved into 116th position in 2018 out of 156 countries against the 120th position in 2017. Commendable but still a long way up the ladder to ultimate happiness.

For the record, these rankings of country happiness are based on Gallup World Poll surveys from 2015-2017. Happiness, it is said, is increasingly considered the proper measure of social progress and part of efforts to achieve both human and sustainable development. While Finland was declared the best country in terms of happiness, the top 10 positions have been held by the same countries with some swapping of places. Four different countries have held top spot in recent times — Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and now Finland. The index is computed on the basis of GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption.

The report is released to coincide with International Happiness Day which is marked on March 20 (aren’t these international days a waste of time and money and often an excuse for commercialization and going on ego trips?).

Then there is the World Prosperity Index of 149 countries designed by the UK-based Legatum Institute Foundation, where last year, Sri Lanka climbed to 53 from 56 in the previous year. Since the Prosperity Index began in 2006, Sri Lanka has moved up the rankings table by 34 places. Here countries are measured by economic quality, business environment, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom, social capital and natural environment (in that order). Topping the list are, again, mostly the Nordic countries — Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark with New Zealand, Switzerland and the Netherlands making up the top seven. In both the happiness and prosperity indexes, the most powerful nation in the world – the United States – is nowhere in the top 10, being placed (ironically) at 18 in both the happiness and prosperity indexes. Other powerful nations like China, Russia and India are also not in the top 10, while Sri Lanka has notched a higher score ahead of India (100th) in the prosperity index.

Are these measurements meaningful? Do they reflect the actual position of nations and their citizens (consider also migrants who become citizens)? Pondering on these thoughts, the peace and happiness of the morning enhanced by a gentle breeze across the garden, is shattered by the shrill sound of my landline. Jolly-mood, economist friend Sammiya (short for Samson) is on the line.

“Ah, I was laughing my guts out at this UN happiness report,” says Sammiya, interestingly on the same topic of conversation like KAS and Serapina. It must surely be ‘happy’ news because I could hear him laughing too.

“Why?” I asked.

“Machan, do you measure happiness by the large number of vehicles on the road or the many fast food restaurants that are crowded or the many clothes shops that are forever busy with customers or the many people who are in debt or the many people who have taken loans just to meet basic needs? Can we be happy about our people slaving away in foreign households and politicians singing hosannas because they are valuable foreign exchange earners? Ovun-ta pissu (they are mad),” he says, again laughing.

“But …” I ask, before being cut short by another outburst from him. “Are we at peace? Have we stopping fighting each other (a reference to last week’s troubles in Kandy)? Do we respect each other,” he asked, this time on a more serious note.

I am then reminded of what an erudite Buddhist monk had said last week in the aftermath of the Kandy crisis. Even though it was referred to in last week’s column, there is a need to repeat this. He says that in the 70 years since Sri Lanka got independence in 1948 from British colonial rule due to intermittent communal clashes and other conflicts, the country has seen only seven years of peace. So shouldn’t this also be a key component in the measurement of happiness?

Sri Lanka, they say, is a country of smiling faces, a country of warmth, a country of beauty, a country of natural resources – all of which are used to promote the nation as a vibrant tourist destination. In a sense yes, but that doesn’t belie the fact that the nation is also a troubled state where politicians are corrupt, some people still don’t have one proper meal a day (even as Sri Lanka moves to an upper middle income country status as defined by the World Bank), village schools don’t have proper facilities and access to water is still a serious problem in the countryside. Nothing to smile about, nothing to be happy either.

In this context, a much better and realistic index of measurement is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) designed by Bhutan, many years ago, which is definitely more important than the Gross Domestic Product.

“The concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing,” say Bhutan’s promoters of this index. They also state that this is a holistic reflection of the general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population rather than a subjective psychological ranking of ‘happiness’ alone.

Below, columnist Sirimal uses the “Motorola” example to imply that political stability is a crucial fundamental towards securing foreign investment even if there are ‘right policies’ and a welcoming attitude.

Similarly a country will not progress or secure general wellbeing as seen by these international measurements and as rightly pointed out in Serapina’s theory of “the politicians are happy while the people are sad”. A country will progress and be prosperous only if all the people “are happy all the time”; not when some people are happy all the time or when all the people are happy at some time!

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