x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Focus:Reasons to be cheerful

The results of a survey suggest people have never been as happy as they are now. So what's causing all the jubilance?

Smiley, happy people ... Mohammed Yousf, who collects cardboard for re-cycling in Abu Dhabi.
Smiley, happy people ... Mohammed Yousf, who collects cardboard for re-cycling in Abu Dhabi.

"Happiness is not a goal," Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the former US president Franklin Roosevelt, once said. "It is a by-product." Thousands of tomes have been dedicated to how to find it and keep it. Endless hours have been spent on psychiatrists' couches in fruitless pursuit of it.

But one thing is certain. People across the world are united in a common obsession with attaining the ultimate goal: happiness. But for all the research that has been carried out into what lifts our spirits, scientists remain baffled about the seemingly irrational phenomenon of happiness. Until last week, that is, when a global survey revealed how happy we are could simply be a case of geography. Researchers who quizzed people from 97 countries found those living in Denmark were the most contented because of its peaceful atmosphere and social equality.

While the UAE was not included in the questionnaire, neighbouring Saudi Arabia fared well, ranking among the 25 nations with the happiest populations. Predictably, troubled Zimbabwe came bottom of the pile, while the US was ranked the 16th happiest country in the world and Britain was placed 21st. The study, carried out by the University of Michigan, is thought to be the biggest of its kind and involved collating data from 350,000 people who were asked two questions: whether they were happy and how satisfied they were with their lives.

The results, gathered at regular intervals between 1981 and 2007, showed that despite rocketing food and fuel prices, global inflation and a credit crunch, the world has never been as happy as it is right now. More than three-quarters of the countries that were monitored during two decades for the World Values Survey showed satisfaction levels rising, with less than one in four reporting a slump in contentment.

India, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico and South Korea showed steeply rising happiness curves, while Austria, Belgium, the UK and Germany were less happy. And while experts are still arguing about what causes us to feel joy, it is clear the UAE is a reflection of the global phenomenon, with tens of thousands flocking here to set up home thanks to the region's economic boom and rapid development in the international finance and consumer markets.

The National surveyed residents on their levels of happiness and factors responsible for boosting it. While it might be thought that money would put the biggest smile on people's faces, most of those quizzed said family and work were key triggers. Half of those questioned said that on a scale of one to 10, with 10 the highest level of happiness, they ranked theirs at seven or more. Only 15 per cent put their happiness level at below five. Asked to rate overall satisfaction with their lives, more than 75 per cent said they were either pleased, mostly satisfied or delighted.

Fewer than eight per cent expressed significant dissatisfaction with their lives, most blaming an incidental upset that day for their disgruntled outlook. Nasser Rahman, 19, a student from Abu Dhabi, said: "Stability in life is very important to me, as well as prayer, as it gives me a sense of purpose and a sort of inner comfort and warmth. "Family is another thing that makes me happy. What I enjoy here is the growth of society and the culture and mindset of the people.

"I feel we are very open and welcoming to people and yet have a strong sense of culture and nationality." Another student, Alyazyah Nasser, 22, from Abu Dhabi, added that while the high cost of living detracted from her joy, she was delighted the UAE was her home because "the world can finally start to see it for what it is and remove the ill-suited Third World label". Francesca Chy, 24, a Filipina sales assistant, said: "What makes me happy is family and good work. I like working here because the salary is good. Of course, I miss my family and home but apart from that, I am happy. The people I interact with daily and customers are generally very friendly."

Tracey Crystal, 38, a South African-born housewife who lives in Dubai, said family and relationships made her most contented. "To be happy, I need stability and inner peace. I become unhappy when I am stressed, whether it is familial or financial. "What I love most about the UAE is the safety and this helps me maintain my inner peace. It is a safe environment for me to raise my child and the multicultural exposure is something I value for myself and my son as well."

Noria el Kabi, 50, a housewife from Abu Dhabi, said she was generally a "happy, optimistic person" despite ranking her level of happiness as three out of 10. She added: "I love living here but the increase in rent and the disregard of owners over the condition of the apartments we live in is very frustrating." Their responses ring true to Dolly Habbal, a clinical psychologist at the Gulf Diagnostic Centre in Abu Dhabi.

"Security in all its aspects is key to happiness," she said. Depression and sadness occurred everywhere in the world but when people who had support, whether financial or emotional, were contented and secure, enjoying peace of mind. "Having job satisfaction is also an important factor," she said. "People who come to see me have many reasons why they are unhappy, whether it is because of stresses at work, job insecurity, work overload or marital problems.

"Happiness is down to how we perceive events and view things in life. The important thing is to substitute negative thinking with positive thought as that is the root cause of unhappiness. "People are generally happier here because there is plenty of financial and job security with the opportunity to have whatever you want, whether it is villas, maids or luxury cars. "While money does not create happiness, the key is to have an optimistic outlook on life."

Her theory raises the question: is there a science to happiness? David Myers, writing in the journal Psychology Today, said: "During its first century, psychology focused far more on negative emotions such as depression, anger and anxiety than on positive emotions such as happiness and satisfaction. Even today our texts say more about suffering than about joy." He added that it was impossible to attribute contentment to age, gender, race or income.

So why the rise in worldwide jubilance? Economic growth, democratisation and rising social tolerance - changes that give citizens a wider range of options on how to live their lives - are thought to have played a part in boosting happiness. Ronald Inglehart, who was behind the survey, said: "The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives."

He highlighted the tolerant social norms and democratic political systems in Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Holland and Canada, all of which rank among the 10 happiest countries in the world. "The events of the past 25 years have brought a growing sense of freedom that seems to be even more important than economic development in contributing to rising happiness," Mr Inglehart said. "Moreover, the most effective way to maximise happiness seems to change with rising levels of economic development.

"In subsistence-level societies, happiness is closely linked with in-group solidarity, religiosity and national pride. At higher levels of economic security, free choice has the largest impact on happiness." The complex issue of what makes us happy has long intrigued psychology experts. Richard Bentall, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Liverpool University in the UK, has gone so far as to suggest that happiness is a psychiatric disorder because it triggers irrational and impulsive behaviour.

Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, found those who classed themselves as "very happy" were no more sociable, attractive or successful than those who were unhappy but simply immersed themselves in activities or hobbies that gave them a thrill - a formula that has been credited with affording a longer, healthier life. Daniel Kahneman, a psychology professor from the Princeton University in the US, agrees that increasing happiness is not simply attributable to wealth. He carried out a separate study which suggested that while richer countries were happier than poor ones, once people earned enough for a home, food and clothes, extra money had not made them happier.

Scientists think this is because humans adapt to pleasure, where the short-lived excitement of buying a pair of designer shoes or a deluxe car quickly wears off. It is also thought that keeping up with the Joneses prevents us from enjoying the pleasures that ought to make us happy as we constantly compare ourselves to other people. Friendships and family ties are said to be the vital ingredients capable of unleashing joy.

Ed Diener, a professor from the University of Illinois, says family and friends could even have an impact on health and have a protective effect, in the same way that stress can trigger physical problems. "In one study, the difference was nine years between the happiest group and the unhappiest group, so that is a huge effect," he said. And while it is often said money cannot buy happiness, researchers from the University of London said those social interactions could be equated in monetary terms and effectively "purchase" happiness.

They surveyed 10,000 Britons on how happy they were and put them on a sliding "life satisfaction" scale according to their level of contentment, wealth, health and social standing before researchers calculated how much more they would have to earn to move up the scale. They deduced having excellent health was worth the equivalent of a Dh2.2 million (US$602,450) bonus every year, while marriage equated to Dh391,700 a year and chatting to your neighbours was worth Dh291,000 annually.

* The National