What is it that people desire most in life? The answers may vary widely across cultures and individuals, though a good quality of life is sought by almost everyone.
There is evidence which suggests that Pakistanis may be amongst the unhappiest people in the world. According to the Pakistan Medical Association, 34 percent of the population suffers depression. The figures come mainly from larger cities. There may be many more in less developed areas whose condition has never been diagnosed. Even those who do not suffer clinical depression may face severe stress which brings with it unhappiness.
There is of course evidence that happiness arises from a high quality of life and good income levels. According to the Happiness Research Institute, based suitably enough in Denmark – which ranks as amongst the happiest countries in the world, along with other Scandinavian countries followed by European ones – high standard of living is naturally one of the key factors in generating happy citizens. The Scandinavian countries in particular, and other European ones including the Netherlands, have a reputation for offering people the best quality welfare.
Finland’s education system is ranked as the best in the world. Denmark recently reduced its working week to four days, suggesting that working adults spend more time with families – though there would be some question whether this would bring happiness to all involved.
Paternity leave given by Sweden as a matter of right for every father, the development of activities to engage teenagers in healthy, exciting activities in Iceland and other measures are all examples of what states can do to build satisfied populations, with the wealthiest sections paying high taxes to support these facilities for all citizens.
But there are also other routes to happiness. They do not involve money or material wealth or related matters. Vanuata, a tiny island in the South Pacific, has repeatedly been rated as one of the happiest places on earth because of the lack of stress, lack of focus on earning money and a generally relaxed lifestyle which takes away anxiety and discontent.
Bhutan, the little royal kingdom in South Asia, is the happiest of South Asian countries and ranks eighth in the world on a number of surveys. The secret to its ability to create a large body of happy people, despite limited economic development, lies in the emphasis on preserving its culture and with it the spirituality of the only strictly Buddhist state in the world where peace and concern for others rank as among the highest priorities.
There are also few worries about security or crime, with the prince of Bhutan happily playing basketball with street children. Their emphasis on wearing traditional clothing, even though it is no longer compulsory to wear the gho and kira on every occasion, means that the Bhutanese have not been overtaken by Western culture and its consumerist values to the same degree as other Asians and people from other developing nations.
Till 10 years ago, the internet and television were in fact banned in Bhutan, again keeping people away from consumerism and encouraging involvement in traditional activities along with social interactions within neighbourhoods and in the towns and villages of the country of under a million people.
While class differences exist, they are not as visible to the naked eye as they are in many of the countries which neighbour Bhutan, while tourism is still kept strictly limited and is not encouraged in order to preserve culture.
In Pakistan, some reports published years ago suggested that people were less likely to smile than in many other nations. Of course, many of us know this is not true. It can be difficult for surveyors from other places to judge social interactions and how people come across. But we do know that smiles have begun to disappear.
Last year, 13,000 people in the country are recorded to have committed suicide. They include both the wealthy and the poor. Over the last five years in Sindh alone, 1,300 suicides have occurred. There are of course many other attempted suicides and most go completely unreported given the social and religious stigma attached to such deaths or attempts to take one’s own life.
Poverty is a key factor behind the suicides. But in other cases, as parents of young people who have killed themselves, leaving behind often eloquent messages on computer or in written notes point out the emphasis on perfection and achievement led to believe they were not ‘good enough’ to preserve their lives or continue in the world they inhabited. Some of these victims went to the best colleges in the world, and on paper were straight-A students.
The stress we are placing on our young people and even on children as young as 10 or 12 years old is overwhelming. Add to this consumerism spurred on by the advertising which never leaves us, whether on the streets, on television or over the internet, and the mix is not a happy one. The violence and the increased impact of poverty that women face often makes them the most likely to claim their own lives.
There is no evidence at all that programmes offering free meals or cash handouts will do anything to build a happier and therefore mentally stronger nation. In fact, people forced to accept charity often feel even more disempowered and even less confident of their own abilities. The disparity between the class groups based around income has grown sharply over the years.
The discourse on land reforms which was heard into the early 1970s, as a means of making society a more equitable place for all people, has vanished altogether. Many believe they are destined to live in the poverty to which they were born. The emphasis on fate adds to this. Evidence from schools and sporting clubs suggest that, while poorer children may be as talented and as gifted, notably in events which do not measure their command over strictly academic spheres, their lack of confidence when they see those richer than themselves compete in the same events has an impact on their performance.
The support these privileged children receive from influential parents adds to the problem. There is simply no one to speak up for the deprived or to rescue them from the various slights and abuses they so often face. In academics of course, access to expensive schools gives a head start to the wealthy at a time when public sector schooling has collapsed to new lows.
No country should keep its people in this condition. Our policymakers need to think. Whether it is the state of Madina we attempt to emulate or the state of Finland, it is imperative that we empower people and provide at least the basics of a reasonable life. This is not happening and the rising rate of mental illness is evidence of this reality.
The writer is a freelancecolumnist and former newspaper editor