x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

If life is better than it used to be, why are we not as happy?

The UAE has much to be happy about, writes Justin Thomas, so why are rates of mental illness increasing?

In 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed March 20 as the annual “international day of happiness”. The official website for this year’s campaign urges us to “reclaim happiness”, and poses the question “have you had enough of being made to feel poor in a world that is rich with opportunities to be happy?”

The UAE has much to be happy about, especially in the light of its rapid economic development. In just over 40 years, the UAE has moved from limited access to electricity and clean drinking water, to boasting the world’s tallest building and largest mall. This is a fairy-tale story, in which the empty bowl became a basket of superlatives. But is there a happily ever after?

The link between economic prosperity and happiness (psychological well-being) has been widely studied by economists.

The common finding to emerge in many countries is that substantial increases in per capita income (beyond a certain point) don’t translate into increases in happiness. This finding has been reported so frequently that it has a name: “The paradox of happiness.”

What are the current levels of happiness and psychological well-being across the Gulf states?

This is a difficult question to answer, especially as most research tends to focus on measuring psychological distress (unhappiness) rather than happiness per se. However, if we take rates of psychological disorder as a negative proxy for well-being, then we can certainly see evidence of the happiness paradox at work here in the Gulf too.

According to Qatar’s Supreme Council for Health, at least three of the top five burdens of illness in the country are psychological complaints, with the number one spot going to major depressive disorder. Studies in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states also identify depression as a significant public health concern.

Similarly, Gulf nations have reported a need to increase the number of beds available at drug rehabilitation centres. There are also reports of sharp increases in the rate of drug-related offences and deaths. All of which provide indirect evidence of increasing rates of substance abuse.

Regional research looking at eating disorders and body image concerns tell a similar story. Most studies report very high rates of abnormal eating attitudes. This essentially means answering “yes” to questions such as: “I feel the urge to make myself vomit after I have eaten” and “I am constantly obsessed with being thinner”.

In terms of body image satisfaction – how happy one is with one’s present weight and shape – the regional data suggests that around three-quarters of college-age females are deeply dissatisfied. The vast majority want to be thinner.

In the more general context of life satisfaction, one study of elderly Bahrainis posed the simple question: “How is life now, compared to the past?” The most common answer given was “zad il khair, uqalat al wanaasa” (materially, things are better now, but not nearly so much fun).

The Gulf region is not alone in witnessing this rising tide of misery.

Increasing rates of common psychological complaints are a global trend, with the World Health Organization suggesting depression will become the world’s leading burden of disease by 2030. Consequently, there is much work being done to identify more effective treatments and develop preventive strategies.

There is also an increasing political awareness that material wealth, labour-saving devices and increased leisure time do not equate to increased happiness.

At a general assembly of the United Nations in 2012, Ban Ki-Moon stated that the world “needs a new economic paradigm that recognises the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.”

The small landlocked south Asian country of Bhutan has long recognised the supremacy of national happiness over national income.

Since the 1970s, Bhutan has emphasised Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product. Perhaps it is time that we begin to focus more intensely on psychological well-being at the national level, seeking improvements in how we measure it and more importantly how we promote it?

Economic depression need not necessarily go hand in hand with emotional depression. Just as increased prosperity is no guarantee of continual uplifts in emotional well-being.

The international day of happiness should be a time to reflect on those things that really do bring a sense of well-being: our commitment to our values, our sense of purpose in the world, and our relationships with other people.

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

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