There was a time most East African high school and university students knew the words to Max Ehrmann’s 1920s poem Desiderata that ended with the words, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” Well, March 20 – a day whose passing was mainly unheralded – is the International Day of Happiness.
We owe the day to Bhutan, whose King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 1972 declared Gross National Happiness (GNH) as more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the monetary measure of the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year.
The UN adopted a Resolution on Happiness and Development in 2011 introduced by Bhutan creating the International Day of Happiness.
Bhutan created a measurement tool, the Gross National Happiness Index measuring “…psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity, resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience and living standards.”
Bhutan was not the first to prioritise happiness. America’s Founding Fathers had enshrined a right to the “pursuit of happiness” in their 1776 Declaration of Independence.
However, it was Bhutan’s initiative that Venezuela picked the happiness baton from, creating, in 2013, a Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness.
In 2016 the United Arab Emirates created a Ministry for Happiness appointing chief happiness and positivity officers and sending 60 of them to prestigious universities in the US and UK to among other things, “learn the knowledge and develop the skills of the science of happiness and positivity.”
UAE also launched “happy and positive offices” and a formula that assessed “customer and employee happiness as well as many positives; councils, hours, heroes and medals”. In 2017, Rochas Okorocha, Governor of Imo State in Nigeria, appointed a Commissioner for Happiness and Purpose Fulfilment. A month into the 2018 New Year, the United Kingdom’s Tracey Crouch was appointed Minister for Loneliness.
Setting up happiness and loneliness ministries is still rare with countries that have done so, and is inevitably scrutinised.
Bhutan’s GNH declaration at the height of the Cold War was met with bemusement by a world used to analysis of mainly conflict trends. Some attributed Bhutan’s “happiness” to never having been colonised. Later, others would point to Bhutan as one of the last countries in the world to introduce television and Internet as proof of living in a bubble.
There was also a rather large fly in the happiness ointment with allegations of forceful removals of more than 100,000 Lhotshampa people by the Bhutan government. Nepal took them in as refugees.
Americans today are largely pessimistic on whether their country’s racial divides will ever end. Venezuela’s Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness, tasked to alleviate poverty, has seen its gains largely undone by the current political crisis.
The UAE consistently appears in Human Rights Watch and Amnesty reports accused of assaults on freedoms such as of speech, assembly and exploitation of migrant workers.
The Nigerian Governor, Rochas Okorocha, in an unabashed show of nepotism appointed his own sister, Ogechi Ololo, as Commissioner for Happiness and Purpose Fulfilment. Jokes and memes, characteristic of Nigerian humour clogged social media.
The announcement of a UK Minister for Loneliness followed a report by the Jo Cox Commission on more than 9 million lonely people in Britain.
Critics pointed out the closing of libraries and youth centres by the government as examples exacerbating loneliness the ministry was now expected to deal with.
It is ironical that despite all these efforts, explaining precisely what happiness is remains a challenge. A line in Desiderata says, “Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”
In a world of contradictions, those that welcome strangers, , receive guests arriving unannounced, may have the definition of happiness for others.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]