Today I was wondering to myself… am I happy? It's a question which pops into the pool of my mind every now and again, has a little paddle at the shallow end and then hops off to the showers to dry itself off and have an ice cream. But today it stuck with me a little longer than usual.
Perhaps it was something to do with having just seen 'On the Road' the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's diary of hedonism, or perhaps it was something to do with the smiles I remember on the faces of the kids in Ethiopia. Children living with AIDS, who still spend the majority of their time upbeat, happy and content.
I remembered some time ago, a friend of my brother who committed suicide in New Zealand. This was when I was about 13 or so and the funeral was held at my local church. I remember the priest giving the sermon being particularly scathing of the wasting of what he called 'The Greatest Gift'. I thought 'What could have been so awful that would have made him do such a thing? How must his parents and friends have felt afterwards?' I tried to put myself in his position, to see it from his perspective, but of course that was absolutely impossible, because if I'd been feeling what he was feeling then perhaps I would be dead too.
Anyway, it got me wondering about our society. Most people would think of New Zealand and say. 'Yeah. New Zealand. What a brilliant place to bring up your kids. It's got all that green stuff and mountains and space that I saw in Lord of the Rings. Maybe I could meet a hot elf and have magical babies.' Maybe they wouldn't, but it's generally agreed that NZ is a pretty great place to grow up. Safe, prosperous and happy. And I would agree, I had a great time there.
In fact according to the Legatum Prosperity Index, (which Forbes, no less, use as a measure of a nation's happiness) New Zealand is the 3rd happiest and most prosperous nation in the entire world. Isn't that nice? So then you have to ask the following question...
Why does it have the 4th highest suicide rate in the whole world for young men?
I don't know the answer to this question. But I think some of it may lie in how it seems western civilisation is classifying 'happiness'.
In the Legatum Prosperity Index (and I quote from their own pages):
"Each of the sub-indexes provides us with two important analyses: first, an economic assessment, and second, an assessment of a country’s subjective wellbeing, or happiness."
An economic assessment first? Then subjective wellbeing? I find this to be a fairly damning indictment of western values. If we have managed to wittle the human condition down to just two assessable areas then at the very least, shouldn't 'subjective wellbeing' be the thing that comes first on the list?
Within those categories are the following sub indexes. Again listed as they are on the index (you'll note that Economy is no.1, followed by Entrepreneurship etc. Personal freedom and Social Capital happily bringing up the rear.
And this is how we, as a Western Civilisation, deign to judge the happiness or sadness of other countries. Certainly these things have merit on their own and it is useful for us all to know them and be aware of the hardship other countries are facing but to use them as a measure of happiness is beyond ridiculous.
I can absolutely guarantee that the person who finalised the list could never have been to Ethiopia.
Have a look, it's listed at number 108 and is apparently the third most depressed country in the entire world, coming in just above Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic. If this person had been to Ethiopia they could not in good faith have published this list as it stands.
It's a different culture, with different standards and different values. It might as well be a different planet as far as the LGI scale goes. It's like putting a whale next to a human and judging them on who can swim the fastest. OK, Ethiopia has got it's problems. In fact they are huge problems, their democracy is hardly a democracy, construction on new buildings rapidly grinds to a halt because they run our of concrete more often than water and the poverty is absolutely appalling.
However, I would argue that these things do not amount to unhappiness. Addis Ababa, the capital, has a very poor standard of living, but spiritually speaking they seem to be among the most content I've ever met. Certainly they are (of my limited experience of both) happier than Londoners, but also on a whole New Zealanders. It is not a prosperous country but in many ways it is richer than any Western Country.
You can be happy with very little and you can be sad with an awful lot.
If I know anything at all it's that happiness is relative. The journalist for this article http://www.ezega.com/news/NewsDetails.aspx?Page=news&NewsID=3176 has made some good points. She points out that when judging using something like the LGI, the thing which is most important is not the index item itself, not safety, not prosperity, not personal freedom or social capital.
The thing that they have not listed is the peoples' ATTITUDE to these things.
Now I do not know an enormous amount about politics, but in my 32 years on the planet I have learnt a couple of things:
1. People are different and value things differently
2. Cultures are different and value things differently
For the LGI to have the arrogance to judge other cultures based on western 'ideals', and I'm speaking of Ethiopia in particular (purely because it's the place that I have been to where the culture is most different from my own) is absolutely outrageous.
And in any case, it looks like Western Civilisation is really getting something wrong given the suicide rate in places like New Zealand.
Happy people don't commit suicide do they?
For your information, in the LGI the countries rated top are all Western countries. The bottom 10 are 90% on the African continent.