Why it is time for the Arab world to invest in happiness
Economic indicators are not strictly representative of the overall happiness of a nation
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can get you pretty close – at least that’s what the United Nations World Happiness Report reveals. The report has been released to mark International Day of Happiness shows that the UAE to be the happiest country in the Arab world. While the Gulf member states fall shortly behind, the rest of the Arab states rank well below 50th in the world. The lowest ranking Arab state being war-torn Syria, at number 156 or 157 countries surveyed.
Despite a number of countries in the region enjoying a GPD per capita that is greater than the global average, when ranked by region, the Middle East and North African region is the least happy in the world. This goes to show that economic indicators are not strictly representative of the overall happiness of a nation.
A happier population does not just impact the mental health of an individual, rather the economic and social health of entire nations. Perhaps most importantly, happier countries tend to have a lower crime rate, as discovered in a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report earlier last year. Happiness is one of the many keys to national security. For a region like the Middle East, which is battling turmoil, now is a better time than any to invest in the happiness.
Path to happiness
There is no universally applicable definition for happiness. Some may consider financial freedom to be key to happiness while others see personal freedom. While these are some of the metrics that were taken into consideration in developing the report, the impact of inequality on the overall happiness of a nation is clear. Countries where there is widespread inequality and high levels of corruption score considerably lower than their equal counterparts.
Despite the clearly direct link between inequality and happiness, it is shocking that over the period of 2005-2015, the MENA region saw the sharpest rise in inequality. Of all the factors that impact happiness, including life expectancy and income, inequality is the one factor which governments and society can do the most to impact and see results almost instantly.
In the region, there is undoubtedly a major divide between citizens and expatriates, even if the families of expatriates have lived in the same country for decades. The report highlights that if the research was to consider the expatriates alone in the UAE, rather than the expatriates and the citizens, the relative global happiness ranking would go down to 31st. Comparatively, if the Emirati citizens were considered independent of the expatriates, the country would rank 15th in the world. The difference these two groups of individuals face is how much support is offered by the government, and in which parts of their lives.
Despite the clearly direct link between inequality and happiness, it is shocking that over the period of 2005-2015, the MENA region saw the sharpest rise in inequalityYara al-Wazir
Significant changes must be taken to combat inequality; this begins with a blurring of the lines between expatriates and citizens. Much of the glamour enjoyed by local citizens is related to government subsidies. These subsidies cover everything from tertiary education at international universities through a scholarship system, to access to job opportunities through “naturalization” processes, whereby companies are required to hire a specific percentage of local citizens each year.
While it is understandable that a wealthy country would want to boost the happiness of its citizens, it must not forget the well being of the entire population. After all, both expatriates and citizens contribute to the economic mobilization and growth of countries.
If the governments in the region were to shift the spending from subsidizing individuals to subsidizing specific industries, such as education, health care, and even industries with a fast-growing job market demand, there is a chance for a happier population. In turn, this leads to a more productive workforce and therefore greater economic growth as everyone is a winner when people are happier.
The UAE has appointed its first minister of state for happiness. While this is an excellent move in the right direction, one can only hope that other countries in the region realize the advantages of a happier nation and follow suit.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir