Be Happy, Not

Governments do not see people. They only see the statistics that represent them. They do not measure in terms of the individual, because in most cases there are too many individuals – a hundred million of them in Ethiopia’s case so far.

What is quantified is the unique member in each sector – whether a certain gender made it into Parliament, or a particular race plays in the national soccer league. Otherwise, it is how many people have been lifted out of poverty or, everyone’s favourite, the gross domestic product (GDP). From the latter, supposedly, economic viability, the well-being of society and political stability could be glimpsed.

The World Happiness Report, an initiative by the United Nations, published by its Sustainable Development Solutions Network wing, is different. It claims to know how happy individuals in 155 countries are.

But how can one measure happiness anyway?

Easy. A sample group of people are asked what they think of their current lives. They answer on a scale of one to 10 and the aggregate value will attest to which country has the happiest people. There are obvious reservations as to the actual viability of the report – the participants can simply lie. But, granted, this is the most efficient way short of hooking up hundreds of thousands of individuals to a lie detector.

From Norway, a thousand people, as required by the sample size, participated in the survey and the report showed that the country’s people are the happiest in the world. In the same token, the country has a high GDP per capita, with its citizens getting adequate social support from the government and remarkable life expectancy. The Norwegians have got it all.

And not just the Norwegians, but the Scandinavians as a whole. The Danish, the Swedes, the Icelanders, the Finnish are all preternaturally happy. They outperform the Americans and the Brits, which by themselves are doing OK, but whose constant grumblings about freedom and justice ring dimmer by the fact that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is tagged too close to them in the report.

What of Ethiopia?

But perhaps it is better to look at China first, as the East African country’s growth and transformation plans are generally geared to the East Asian nation’s style of development. The study found that the Chinese are not happier than they were a quarter of a century ago, which is strange because they have nonetheless grown wealthier within the past decades.

Maybe democracy has little to do with happiness. Some can claim that the UAE is a glitch. But what of Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, or Russia, whose people live under the oppressive thumb of Vladmir Putin. Both of which have happier citizens than Japan, where institutions have real power and the rule of law is respected.

If I had to guess, Ethiopia would have come somewhere close to the top ten. There is not a society in the world – or does not seem to be – so content with its country’s history, current (relative to Africa) stability, and conservatism. If good governance is not essential to the well-being of society, and thus the happiness of the populace, then Ethiopia may just have a chance.

As usual, no luck. Ethiopia is an unhappy country. Out of 10 points, the sampled people could not even average half. The report puts Ethiopia behind 118 countries, which is to mean not-so-terribly-happy.

But where is all of that GDP growth and the rise in the number of the middle class and disposable incomes going if it is not at least making people a little bit more jolly?

Even Libyans rate better when it comes to happiness, and they have undergone a violent change in regime and are still living under precarious political conditions.

It is hard to pinpoint the reason, but it is also important to note such discrepancies. The cliché may be that money does not buy happiness, but that is just in movies and songs. Money does buy happiness. Everyone knows this. Even researchers have testified that the more people have to spend on non-necessities, the happier they get.

The issue may lie in the distribution of wealth. Some have gotten richer faster and more royally than others. Others are poorer than they ever thought they would be given the increase in the price of foods. The dilemma governments always face is how to deal with the so-called silent majority, who somehow barely figure in impressive growth figures.

The report though could be a blessing in disguise. I have always believed the major problem with Ethiopians is complacency, either with the status quo or by little but new developments. There is a culture of ‘thank you’ in Ethiopia, which has come as a result of a long history of destitution. The tiniest things excite people because what is grand seems too far away to grasp. But the report is a welcome development.

People are not happy. They have not been uplifted by a double-digit growth (which has slackened off this year), new and shiny roads or massive dams. They are not saying thank you – they are saying they want more. The future is not so bleak after all.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Sep 23,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 908]



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