Losing out on happiness

Wafiur Rahman
Thursday, April 12th, 2018


Why Bangladesh doesn’t lead as world’s happiest country and why it matters


The recent newspaper headlines are turning out to be morose in its subject matters with every passing day – violence between law enforcement agencies and students over quota reforms, rape, traffic gridlocks, political instability and such. It is best left to be said that the overall happiness factor is certainly on the lower scales. But according to the last Happy Planet Index report, Bangladesh was ranked eighth greenest and happiest country among 140 nations.


UK-based New Economics Foundation (NEF) released its ‘World Happiness Report’ in 2016, where it said Bangladesh has scored 38.4 points. Costa Rica topped the index with a score of 44.7 points while Chad at the bottom with 12.8 points. “The Happy Planet Index measures what matters: sustainable wellbeing for all. It tells us how well nations are doing at achieving long, happy, sustainable lives,” read the website developed by NEF for the report.


The report said that Bangladesh has made ‘sustainable progresses’ in human development in the last 25 years. Bangladesh was in the top 10 countries worldwide in 2014, employing people in the renewable energy sector, it said. “Bangladesh’s wellbeing and life expectancy scores are fairly low, yet they are significantly higher than those of countries with similar levels of GDP per capita.”


The UK ranked at 34, Germany 49, Japan 58, China 72, Australia 105 and the US 108. Bangladesh topped the list among South Asian countries with Sri Lanka at 28, Pakistan 36, Nepal 42, India 50, Bhutan 56 and Myanmar 81.


“Does it matter whether I am happy or not?” said Nurul Miah, a CNG driver who took me to an assignment coverage last week, “as long as I am making money, I don’t care whether I’m happy or depressed.” Needless to say, he was spewing profanities at vehicles and other fellow CNG drivers – those who crossed his path on the road.


“If you look at the evolution of the Bangladesh economy, its happiness is also inter-tangled in a kind-of similar spectrum,” said Md Tarek, a buying house entrepreneur. “Even 20 years back, autorickshaw drivers consented to what the agreed fare was with their passengers. If you yelled at them in protest, they would bow down in remorse or not make any comment. But now, with the country moving forward, everyone is making a quick buck. This financial autonomy gives them the right to question their position in society, as a wage earner, which they think gives them a respectable stand in society. That is why today’s drivers retort or react if anyone from the upper echelon yells at them. They now are economically empowered to counter.”


What makes a country happy?


According to communication and development professional Meer Ahsan Habib, thinks that a combination of elements make up the happy country benchmark – sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance.


“Bangladesh should carefully determine whether its development efforts are sustainable and devised in a holistic, integrated approach to well-being,” he said, “If we pursue individual objectives, such as economic development, and neglect the social and environmental objectives, we might face dire consequences in the future. Many countries in recent years have achieved economic growth at the cost of social exclusion, rising inequality and grave damage to the environment. China, which is presently facing an economic crisis, is perhaps the best example of this.”


Yale economist Ahmed Mushfiq credits Bangladesh’s success in poverty reduction and health as key to Bangladesh’s happiness growth. Historically, the country has had a powerful civil society that runs much of its education and health services. Mushfiq says the sector acts like a parallel government.


Moral ills causing turpitude


But all happiness aside, why should anyone bother whether Bangladesh is happy or not? Domestic news depicts otherwise. Purists are slamming social degradation but let’s be more specific here: How many times have we seen people in authority facing corruption charges brought to justice?


A homogenous nation as we are with rural root and common culture, the society is now in the process of gradual disintegration into a fragmented, greed oriented, selfish entity. This gradual degradation of values make our society less humane and we become poorer in social capital.


While we observe this sad spectacle of the society on the one hand there is on the other hand a corrosive culture that undermines the society. A section of young men and women are driven to drugs –be it yaba or phensedyl or such other substance. The bane of this scourge is felt at all strata of society. The number of “clinics” mushrooming in the cities for the healing of such sickness is a testimony to that.


People seem to be edging gradually to the   kingdom of fully filled with conflict, jealous, envy and violence and hellish situation. Criminal   activities have been increasingly rising outstripping and breaking the previous number and records respectively. According to the social scientists and conscious citizens, the root cause of tendency to returning to the barbaric age could be attributed to degradation of moral values in our society.


It is known that Bangladesh has topped the list of corrupt countries five times.  A developing country like Bangladesh cannot afford to tolerate the perpetrators to committing crime and mischief causing great harm to the country men. When moral decadence has been figured out as the root cause of all social ills as asserted above. Moral standards to restore, have to be focused on priority basis.  Eroding moral values must be resisted otherwise the nation is likely to be pushed into the abyss of darkness.


Dr Mekhala Sarkar, Psychiatrist as well as an Epidemiologist, is currently working as an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry in National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). She took the example of the Holey Artisan attacks and the use of youngsters for such an atrocity. She said there was no research to say exactly what motivates youths to be extremists at this moment, though many of the recent attackers were members of the well-to-do families. But she also added that it was possible to identify a common vulnerable point through detailed analysis of the profiles of the dead, missing or arrested youths.


Regarding road rages and other issues, such as certain reactions over trivial matters – being stuck in a traffic jam or engaging in a scuffle in the middle of the road between two drivers – all attribute to the lack of research into mental health in this country.


“Mental health and wellbeing is not given importance in medical education and the students also do not show interest in this field. That is why the number of mental health experts is low,” she said. “In that situation, we must extend a helping hand instead of pushing that person away. If we do that, it will help create a sense of safety, dependency and confidence in the patient.” The doctor said that we were becoming victims of mental illnesses as the space to express ourselves was gradually shrinking.


Md Abdullah Al Helal, Assistant Professor, Department of General Education, Northern University Bangladesh, said that continuance of corruption in a country leads to economic malaise and squandering of public resources, lowers governmental performance, adversely affects general morale in the public service, and jeopardizes administrative reform efforts and accountability measures, and perpetuates social and economic inequalities.


“A person without moral values is like a lost ball in the high winds,” he said, “For this reason psychologists and sociologists have repeatedly pointed out that moral degradation and ethical decadence are the main causes of corruption. People’s immoral activities, vice and greed to amass wealth, materialistic attitude of life – all these attributes breed corruption.”


Sharifur Rahman Adil, a lecturer of English at a college in Dhaka, said that TV channels are also responsible for moral degradation in our society, because nowadays, some of the Bangladeshi channels are highly influenced by Indian and western channels and are trying to compete with these channels to serve as the translator for our society. They are losing its cultural identity by showing off, glamour, romance, etc. They have forgotten our native culture and customs.


Lookout for a rebound


People who live in the happiest countries have longer life expectancies and more social support, experience more generosity, have more freedom to make life choices, have lower perceptions of corruption and have a higher gross domestic product per capita.


So where does Bangladesh lie in that aspect? Bangladesh has the second smallest Ecological Footprint in the world – bringing it in at eighth place in the Happy Planet Index. Bangladesh’s wellbeing and life expectancy scores are fairly low, yet they are significantly higher than those of countries with similar levels of GDP per capita. In fact, life expectancy in Bangladesh is almost 20 years higher than in Zimbabwe – despite having a similar GDP per capita. This is a country that’s achieving a lot with limited resources.


According to the 2016 Happy Planet Index report, Bangladesh’s Ecological Footprint is extremely small, and the smallest in the top ten by a long way. What Bangladesh manages to achieve with this very low environmental impact is remarkable. Despite having almost equally-sized footprints, Bangladesh’s life expectancy is 15 years higher than Burundi’s, and its wellbeing is higher by 1.3 points. Bangladesh’s small footprint also reflects important shifts in its economy – in 2014, Bangladesh was in the top 10 countries worldwide employing people in the renewable energy sector, a necessary effort given the country’s particular vulnerability to climate change.


Bangladesh has also made substantial progress over the past 25 years in terms of human development. The government set up the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education in 1992 with the goal of universalising primary education and eliminating gender and poverty gaps in primary education. Since then, the average years spent in school have increased from five and a half years in 1990 to ten years in 2014.


Should Bangladesh try something similar, in parallel with the existing economic indicators? It may not be the best idea to replace GDP or GNI with a happiness index, but Bangladesh should strive to find some answers – how happy are Bangladeshis as individuals, as a community and, above all, as a nation. How sustainable are the development figures for the future? In addition to counting economic indicators, taking into consideration an existence of good governance backed by effective anti-corruption drives, a job market which offers decent work environment for all, equal treatment of individuals and conservation of nature could take the country to a whole new level of development and happiness.

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