If I had a pula saved for every article I have written on happiness, its absence, depression and the like I’d have a tidy sum of money so, adding another proverbial coin to the piggy bank I’d like to share a more global yet local view on the subject from this article written by co-Positive Organisational Psychologist, Coach and colleague Celia Potgieter.
Every year, since 2012, a study has been conducted on the happiness levels of almost every nation around the globe – the Global Happiness Report. Shockingly, to me and almost everyone I speak to, every year, Botswana languishes in the bottom portion of the league. We are one of the unhappiest nations in the world. And it’s getting worse.
Since Gallup started collecting this data in 2005, Botswana has seen the 4th largest drop in score of any country. To put this into numbers, Botswana’s happiness rating has fallen year on year, from 128th out of 158 countries in 2015, to 148th out of 156 countries in 2019, now sitting snugly between Haiti and Syria. We are the 8th unhappiest country in the world, bedfellows with war-torn and extreme poverty-stricken countries.
How is this possible and why this peaceful, democratic, middle-income nation scores so low in the rankings? So, I tried to dig deeper into the data, and come up with some answers.
The first area I looked at was Democracy. This is a big factor in African countries, where the concept is still relatively embryonic, and people are looking to their elected governments to improve their living conditions. I wondered whether Batswana are disappointed with how the government is performing, but the most recent study from AfroBarometer (2016-2018) revealed that in general, people consider the government to be doing reasonably well; they support automatic succession of the Vice President to President; and they think that the government is doing a good job of managing the economy.
The next area of investigation was Poverty. The Lived Poverty Index (LPI) used by AfroBarometer measures experiences of deprivation, including going without food, water, and electricity. Using the LPI, it was found that there is a strong negative correlation between happiness and lived poverty. For example, one of the world’s poorest nations, Burundi, scores very low in happiness (but still higher than us at 145th), whilst Mauritius has low Lived Poverty, and scores far higher on the happiness index (57th). But, Botswana does not score badly on the Lived Poverty Index. Most people (82%) have easy access to running water (compared with the African average of 63%) and only 22% of people do not have an electric connection to their homes from the mains (compared with 35% Africa average). Similarly, food security is slightly better in Botswana than the African average, with 7% of Batswana reporting having gone without food many times over the past 12 months, compared with 11% for the continent’s average.
Next was Corruption. Could that be the key factor affecting the nation’s happiness? The Global Happiness Report has found a relationship between happiness and corruption, where long-term changes in corruption levels, and citizen’s perception of their government’s performance in fighting corruption, correlate with happiness levels. This is where the data for Botswana gets a little tricky. 53.5% of respondents to the 2016-2018 AfroBarometer study reported that corruption has increased somewhat or a lot. To give more detail, 81.7% of respondents think that either all, most, or some government officials are involved in corruption, and 68.9% think that ordinary people who report incidents of corruption, risk retaliation. This is worryingly high, yet at the same time, 62.2% of respondents said they agree or strongly agree that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption and 51.5% think that government is doing well or fairly well at handling corruption in government. So, it appears that there is a perceived problem of corruption, but also optimism about the way that it is being tackled.
Rather than democracy, poverty or corruption, we could, perhaps, be looking at a simple case of the effects of extreme inequality. As at 2009, Botswana has a GINI score of 60.5. The GINI measures the level of inequality in a nation, with 0 being a score of perfect equality, and 100 of perfect inequality. Botswana is up there with the most unequal countries in the world. In other words, a tiny fraction of the population earns and owns the majority of the country’s wealth, whilst the majority of the population are barely surviving.
In the education world, this inequality leads us to a scenario where rich children, who live in Extension 11, go to private school, have extra tuition, and countless other privileges and advantages, are scored on the same exam system (BGCSE) as poor children living in Old Naledi who often leave for school in the morning on an empty stomach, and return at the end of the day to either an unsafe environment, or a home where they are expected to take care of sick or elderly relatives and younger siblings. A school grade for the latter child, is definitely not an indication of the extent of his or her capabilities, and yet, their futures are determined in this way.
In terms of the values of our nation, this inequality also raises some interesting points: 85% of respondents say they agree or strongly agree that people must pay their taxes, and yet, 74.7% of respondents think that it is likely or very likely that a rich person could pay a bribe or use personal connections to get away with avoiding paying taxes they owe to government. Additionally, 63.8% of respondents said that they either strongly agree or agree that the law must require senior government officials to declare assets, a topic that has been quickly shut down whenever it has been raised in parliament, resulting in the poorer members of society, believing that the law is there to support the rich and their personal and cultural values being disregarded by those in authority.
I have often wondered at the lack of citizen participation in the nation’s affairs, but the data has also turned up some interesting figures on this topic. As I perceived, 85% of respondents said they had never contacted a member of parliament about some important issue or to give them their views. And now I think I understand why. 77.8% of respondents think that MPs never, or only sometimes, try their best to listen to what people have to say. If you do not believe that anyone is going to listen, why bother speaking out? Which is a shame, particularly in today’s politically volatile climate. I suspect that the current behaviour of some MPs might differ if the 79.8% of people who said they approve or strongly approve of MPs who resign from their party being forced to vacate their seat, had spoken out and made this clear to their government.
Sadly, as interesting as this data is, I still feel that I am missing something vital. What is the main cause of our beloved country ranking so low, year after year, for happiness? What is missing from our lives that makes citizens feel unhappy?
Academic studies have demonstrated that for humans to flourish, we need a core set of factors to be present in our lives. These are: positive relationships (arguably the most important factor); a sense of seeking and finding meaning in our lives and work; engagement in the world around us; working toward personally meaningful goals and a sense of achievement and progress; a healthy and vital body; and moments of joy.
And out of this flourishing, we see numerous, far-reaching results. People who are happy tend to be healthier, perform at higher levels, set goals and attain them, look out for others, are more generous, more creative, have better communication skills, lower stress levels, earn more money, attain higher positions in work and live longer,
How can we weave these factors into the fabric of our society, so that even in times of hardship, our citizens feel supported, resilient, optimistic, capable, connected, and hopeful? How can we bring the science of happiness into our homes, schools, and places of work, so we can do better, and be better?
My hope is that we can use this disappointing ranking as a wake-up call to start an open and honest national debate, and hopefully, just maybe, next year we’ll see a different result.