WHAT makes a person happy? As if that question is not complicated enough, there are attempts to measure the happiness of nations as a whole, basically through surveys of how happy the individuals are.
Such an undertaking is fraught with difficulty no doubt, and will have to be taken perhaps with more than just a pinch of salt, but the general results may still have some lessons to offer people, nations and governments.
In one such measure of happiness outlined in the recently released World Happiness Report of the United Nations, Malaysia ranked 51st among some 150-plus nations surveyed, a creditable performance with only Singapore at 33rd place beating it in the Asean region.
One outcome that the survey clearly showed was that there was a strong correlation between the stage of development and happiness as the people perceived it – there was a preponderance of developed countries in the top 50 list.
Scandinavian countries took the top three spots, with Denmark the happiest followed by Finland and Norway at second and third and Sweden at seventh place.
That sort of validates my own belief that Scandinavian countries are the most advanced in the world with a right balance between work and leisure and a healthy respect for individual freedom.
Mighty US, the world’s largest economy, languished at 11th place, just above Costa Rica at 12th whose position is a bit difficult to explain, as is Israel’s at 14, a country which has been in a constant state of war and siege for over 60 years.
The other countries in the top 10 were the Netherlands (4), Canada (5), Switzerland (6), New Zealand (8), Australia (9) and Ireland (10).
Despite some of the anomalies and outliers, it is still possible to make some generalisations about what will make people happier, with a little bit of help from Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs that he first espoused in 1943.
Maslow split up needs into five levels, starting with the lowest physiological level and going up to security, social, esteem and self-actualisation needs in that order. Each has to be satisfied before the others have a chance of being achieved.
At the physiological level, we are talking about survival – food, water, shelter, sleep, and some even include basic needs such as sex.
Security needs move a step up to include steady employment, insurance, and neighbourhood safety while social needs cover belonging, love and affection.
Esteem refers to things that relate to self-esteem, personal worth, social recognition and achievements, while self-actualisation refers to the accomplishment of personal goals and fulfilling individual potential.
Based on these, here are 10 things which Malaysia could be doing to make us all happier, a mix of the basic and eclectic.
1. Provide adequate food and water. Large sections of the public go without access to tap water and good food.
In some areas, we may need to redress this by supplying adequate nutrition in some schools. But let this not again become yet another scandal-plagued operation with poor food being supplied at exorbitant prices through a lousy contract (see 6 later).
2. Give shelter. Any good government must ensure the provision of decent housing at reasonable and affordable prices to its people or risk incurring their wrath.
3. Move towards higher income. To ensure basics are met and that people can buy food and shelter, you need higher income through higher productivity, and eschew cheap labour policies. Minimum wages are a step in the right direction and this should be followed by curtailment of the use of cheap imported labour.
4. Improve healthcare. Sure, private healthcare has increased by leaps and bounds but how much has public healthcare improved? There is a need to ensure that everyone continues to have access to good healthcare either for free or at affordable prices.
5. Put in a social safety net. This covers a minimum wage and healthcare but must also include adequate welfare benefits for those who really need them. One simple way is to progressively increase the retirement age to 65, or simply do away with it as in some countries so that everyone’s productive life will be extended.
6. Cut corruption. The curse that afflicts the Third World is corruption where the elite siphons away billions in funds in all currencies, comes up with unnecessary projects awarded to cronies and in the process stops the overall development of the country.
None of the happiest 10 countries have a corruption problem – in fact, they tend to be among the least corrupt.
7. Better education. The right education provides the means to improve productivity, enables people to become employed, produces thinking human beings, increases self-esteem, and enables individuals to realise their personal goals.
8. Freedom of expression, action (when it harms no one else), media, assembly and criticism.
Freedom is an essential component of happiness. How can you be happy if you are oppressed and live in constant fear that you may be harassed because your beliefs are different if still peaceful?
9. Respect for individual rights and self-determination. This is closely related to the previous point but goes a bit further than that. It means putting the individual above the state. The state exists for the individual, not the other way around.
To contradict Kennedy by paraphrasing him, “ask what the country can do for you” to hold the government accountable.
Let me put it this way – the country exists so that individuals benefit, the country is made up of individuals, the country does not live but the individuals in it do, individuals make the country. I hope that’s clear enough.
10. Put it all together. We should always have the big picture in mind when we do things. Economic growth by itself is of no consequence but for the benefit it brings to individuals in terms of better living standards.
It’s good to choose those activities which bring the greatest income with the least amount of damage to the individual and his environment.
After all, isn’t the purpose of life to live? And would we not be happier if we lived well?
**By P Gunasegaram. This post was previously published in The Star here.
The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.