Kwaai, the beloved country: There are reasons to be cheerful
There are many reasons Saffers are unhappy, but the world's top happiness expert has some tips for contentment which cut across socio-economic divides
SA might appear to have more reasons than most not to be cheerful, but contentment is within everyone’s grasp, the world’s leading happiness expert said in Cape Town.
Meik Wiking from Denmark – one of the world’s happiest nations – joined comedian Trevor Noah and Italian chef Massimo Bottura in the line-up at the annual YPO Edge, a global gathering of more than 2,000 CEOs from the Young Presidents Organisation.
While we cry over the state of the beloved country, Wiking says it is important to remember that some factors affecting our happiness are beyond our control anyway, such as “genetics and age”.
“We are born more or less happy and happiness evolves like a U-curve throughout our lives,” he said, warning that the mid-40s represent the “global low point for happiness”.
In terms of what we can control, he has three “best universal tips” which cut across socio-economic divides.
“I think the best universal tip for happiness is doing something active, something meaningful and something with other people,” he said – none of which required wealth.
That was not to dismiss the colossal impact of life’s realities for so many South Africans.
“Housing, healthcare, education, food security and employment are vital for happiness. We do not need happiness research to tell us that. It is unsurprising that, on average, richer countries are happier than poorer countries.”
However, wealth did not automatically equal happiness, said Wiking, author of a best-selling book on happiness and head of the Happiness Research Institute
“Richer countries are increasingly struggling with converting wealth into wellbeing. We see people becoming richer without becoming happier.
“So, improving GDP levels is important, but it is also important to understand how we get the most bang for our buck when it comes to happiness.”
His research found that health is the single most important factor that affects happiness.
“And the more I study happiness, the more I see how alike we are. We might be South Africans and Scandinavians, but we are first and foremost people.”
Wiking’s award-winning The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, is defined by a word that we do not even have in the English language. “Hygge” is about coziness and warmth, and deriving contentment from the simplest things in life.
Pronounced hoo-gah, it is likely to be a survival strategy that has evolved from living in a land where winter is punishing and summer short. Also, it rains for half the year.
Wiking said the research on happiness and what it tells us is an endless body of work. “So many things come from happiness research these days – from how marriage impacts happiness, to what day of the week people are more or less happy, to how your soccer team winning or losing influences your mood, to companies being turned into happiness labs,” he said.
“That is what makes happiness research so exciting. We are using science to understand how we can improve quality of life.”
The science of happiness is a growing area of interest, and one recent finding says the quality of air affects our ability to feel happy.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered in 2019 that air pollution in Chinese cities is probably contributing to low levels of happiness in the urban population.
“Pollution has an emotional cost,” said lead researcher Siqi Zheng, adding that on polluted days people were more likely to engage in “impulsive and risky behaviour”, probably due to anxiety and depression.
A US study found a link between “happiness exercises” and boosting the mood of people recovering from substance abuse. One exercise, dubbed “rose, bud, thorn”, involves listing a highlight and a challenge of the previous day, and a pleasure anticipated for the following day.
Another study, at the University of British Columbia, found that if you take time to notice nature, even in a highly urban setting, it boosts happiness and wellbeing.
“This isn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,” said lead researcher Holli-Anne Passmore. “This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”