Sunday 05 April 2020

Defining what makes a happy nation

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

There have been a number of contrasting stories in the news recently during this season dedicated to “tidings of comfort and joy”.

According to a news report carried on TVM , “as in the rest of Europe, it is estimated that 15% of the Maltese at some point have experienced severe depression and one third of the population passes through a period of anxiety”. The report goes on to say that at this time of year when everyone is celebrating, those who suffer from depression and anxiety are bound to be plunged deeper into despair. This is a perfectly understandable situation, and one which crops up annually as we are often regaled with articles advising those who dread (if not hate) Christmas how they can get though the holidays. It is easy to empathize with this sentiment, because there is probably nothing worse when feeling glum than to be surrounded by those urging you to ‘come on, cheer up’. We all have different ways of handling despondency, and some prefer to curl up alone on their sofa and cut off all social contact until they come out of their blue funk by themselves. This is, of course, not referring to chronic depression, which requires professional help, but just those days when one is feeling ‘off’ for no apparent reason.

Sometimes this coincides with Christmas time because it is associated in a person’s mind with negative experiences, sometimes it is because not having a partner or family, or even close friends, is felt most keenly at this time of year when everyone seems to be flitting from one party and get-together to another. No one should be forced to join in the festivities if they really do not want to, we are told by Psychiatrist Anton Grech, as it can make them feel even worse and plunge them further into despair.

In yet another story, an analysis of data collected by Eurofound, the EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions, shows that 49 per cent of the Maltese population believes there is “a lot” of tension between the members of different racial and ethnic groups.

And the recently-released figures of how many people are living close to the poverty line also paint a picture of a country which has its fair share of socio-economic problems in spite of a good economy.

If one had to go just by what one reads on social media, the disgruntled voices seem louder and more prominent, the complaints about bad service, the stress of traffic, infrastructural chaos and dealing with those who are selfish are non-stop. The news about the political situation is often so depressing that even when sharing it, we seem to do so under a fog of helplessness and hopelessness.

However, in complete contrast to this we have also been told by The Times that, according to a Eurobarometer survey, “Life is good in Malta – at least for 95% of those who live here, with 30% saying they were ‘very’ satisfied with the lives they lead. Malta was in fifth place, with Denmark at the top with a 97% satisfaction rating. It was one of 11 member states with a satisfaction rating above 90%.”

As everyone knows, statistics are always to be taken with a pinch of salt, because numbers can be massaged to tell you anything you want them to. However, two such contrasting views seem very much at odds with each other. So, which is it? Are we a nation which is relatively happy, or are we a people prone to bouts of anxiety, constant grumbling and walking through life under a black cloud of negativity?

The measure of happiness, I suppose, depends on what factors define one’s wellbeing. If material things can affect the way you look at your life in order to gauge your contentment, then I suppose this is a pretty good time to be living in Malta where some people seem to be making money hand over fist. Of course, in direct correlation to this there are those who are having to struggle more than ever before, because what used to be a relatively affordable rental market has now spiralled out of control. So I can imagine that a landlord raking in the dough is living the good life, but it is at the expense of their tenant or tenants who have been squeezed until they can hardly make ends meet, and who are barely living any kind of life at all.

With the same argument, developers and construction magnates are definitely living it up, as they buy up old houses, and tear them down to turn them into soulless apartment blocks. On the other hand, the remaining neighbours in that particular street, are living a nightmare scenario of dust and noise and disturbance and cranes (apart from a loss on the value of their property). If seeing historic buildings being demolished rather than preserved is like a dagger to your heart, this will affect you deeply, so while all this investment might seem like a positive factor for one part of the population, it certainly represents a depressing quality of life for others.

Having said that I doubt that having money is a real indicator of happiness as that doesn’t explain why so many wealthy people seem so perpetually dis-satisfied and are always wanting more.

In fact, according to this same Eurobarometer survey, one fifth of the country is obsessed with politics, while the top three concerns are crime, immigration and the environment. So how does all fit in with what is being described as our national happiness?

Well, it could be that, human nature being what it is, there comes a point when those things which we have no control over seem so overwhelming that we turn our backs to them, and focus instead on our own immediate smaller world consisting of immediate family and close friends. Perhaps it is pure survival instinct, a kind of resilience which we have honed to allow us to get through each day, to seek out happiness where we can find it, in order not to get dragged down by the things which make us unhappy.

It explains why some have switched off listening to the news and blocked off the constant flow of online information altogether – they don’t want to know, life is better without knowing. This is also the reason why some have made the conscious decision to get off social media: studies have shown that those who are constantly on Facebook tend to be more depressed because the fact that your newsfeed is full of what seem like the fantastic social and family lives of other people, only serve to make your own life seem woefully inadequate, lonely and incredibly dull in comparison.

It is this I think which can explain the seeming paradox of how this country which on the surface seems to be perpetually in grumpy mode, still manages to rank among the fifth happiest in the world. Because maybe when we are asked to stop and reflect on whether we are happy with our own lives, we can still manage to weed out those external factors which drag us down, and focus on those more important intangibles such as family and relationships which uplift us, instead. And isn’t that what really counts in the end?


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