Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Are Egyptian people happy?

Although Egypt ranks low in almost all global reports on happiness and life satisfaction, Gihan Shahine finds there may be another side to the coin

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Making money is happiness; making other people happy is super-happiness” — Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed Yunus

The wrinkles on the face of Atiyat, a 65-year-old maid, tell of a long life of hardship. But her smile immediately lights up her tired face, bespeaking an inner wealth of strength and faith that seem to be winning the ultimate battle for happiness.

Atiyat lives in a 75-metre flat in the basement of an apartment building. Daylight enters through the small window in her living room. For her, a long life of sacrifice, giving and hard work is the secret fuel that has given her life meaning and kept her going.

“I love it — working hard and then being able to buy delicious food at the end of the day. Nothing tastes better than a meal you’ve earned as a result of your own work,” Atiyat said.

Atiyat, the eldest of five siblings, comes from a poor family. She had to sacrifice her schooling to take care of her siblings when her mother was out at work, and to help her parents in the workplace. She worked to help support her family and help her siblings receive an education.

She got married later in life to a man who was 25 years older than she was and was unable to have children. She refused to remarry and says she now enjoys “a spiritual and religious life, going to work and gathering with siblings and family.”

Ask Atiyat about happiness, and she is quick to reply positively. “I thank God that we are in a better position than many others,” she said. “It is enough that we can eat well. I work to buy the food we need. I also have a pension and a ration card that will support me in case I need to stop working.”

Atiyat shows off a hand-knit shawl her sisters and nieces have brought her as a gift on Mother’s Day. “My mother always told us that although she could not leave us any money, she would leave us wealth in the form of siblings and family,” she said, adjusting the shawl on her shoulders. “I feel the true meaning of wealth every time we gather for a family reunion.”

But not all Egyptians may be as happy as Atiyat, if international reports are anything to go by. According to the UN World Happiness Report, Egyptians have been deemed unhappy in all three reports that have appeared thus far. The last two reports, in 2013 and 2015, even saw consecutive drops in the level of overall life satisfaction among Egyptians.

The World Happiness Report is commissioned by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the US. It was launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012 and is written by independent experts who “do not necessarily reflect the views of the UN,” according to a disclaimer.

But why is the UN interested in the issue of happiness? And how can happiness be measured when there is no single definition of the term? The report put it this way: “People who are emotionally happier are more likely to be healthier, productive and socially connected.”

Such people, the report explained, “in turn influence their families, workplaces and communities.” According to the report, people who have healthy psychological well-being also tend to be more tolerant of others and develop fewer health and mental problems, which in turn reduces the economic burden of healthcare costs borne by individuals and society.

“Depression, which is characterised by low or absent positive feelings, creates problems in social relationships such as divorce, limited social support and distancing from one’s neighbours,” the report warned.

For such reasons, in 2011 UN member states decided to adopt a resolution to measure happiness as a guide to improving public policies in a way that will ultimately lead to more productive, progressive and tolerant societies. The first report appeared in 2012, followed by one in 2013 and the third and most recent in 2015.

The reports cover 158 countries and obtain data primarily from the Gallup World Poll. This is based on the Cantril Scale in which people are asked to place themselves on a scale of zero to 10.

“The top represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you,” it says. As such, it measures people’s sense of well-being rather than their mood at the time. The 2015 report, issued in April, averages responses for 2012 to 2014.

SO WHO IS HAPPY? The 10 happiest countries in the world are Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia, according to the reports.

The US is the 15th happiest country in the world. Except for war-torn Syria and Afghanistan, the 10 unhappiest countries in the world are all in Saharan or sub-Saharan Africa. Nicaragua and Zimbabwe saw the biggest increases in happiness in the period from 2012 to 2014. Greece suffered the biggest decrease, followed by Egypt, Italy and Saudi Arabia.

The surveys covered people’s satisfaction in six key areas: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust, perceived freedom to make life decisions and generosity. Differences in social support, incomes and healthy life expectancy are the three most important factors when measuring happiness.

Poverty and violence were the main causes of unhappiness for those countries at the bottom of the scale, according to the reports. Although it has been found that an extra dollar does not make the rich any happier, it can make a poor person happier, showing why governments should focus on social equity if they care for the well-being of their citizens, the reports say.

“People living in extreme poverty express low levels of happiness with life as a whole,” the reports conclude. “Such answers should spur our societies to work harder to end extreme poverty.”

But, according to the 2015 report, social support and cohesion are equally important.

Strong social support, volunteerism and social empathy have been found to be strong boosters of happiness at individual, community and national levels.

When these social values are deep-rooted, “communities and nations are more resilient, and even natural disasters can add strength to the community as it comes together in response,” the report said.

Equally interesting, perhaps, is a finding regarding child development. “Of the three key features of child development (academic, behavioural or emotional), emotional development is the best of the three predictors for happiness and academic achievement the worst,” the report said.

Among the 156 nations surveyed in the UN reports, Egypt ranks 130th, while the UAE is at 14, Morocco at 99, Iraq at 105 and Tunisia at 104. Egypt’s score dropped on the one-to-10 scale of overall life satisfaction twice. The first was from a score of 5.4, between 2005 and 2007, to 4.3 in the years 2010 to 2012. The country lost another 1.13 points on the scale in the 2015 report, which measures life satisfaction between 2012 and 2014.

Commentators attribute Egypt’s low ranking to its floundering economy, endemic poverty, unemployment and the absence of freedoms. It should be noted that the two drops were recorded following the 25 and 30 June revolutions. During revolutions, observers agree, people have high expectations of a better life.

In Egypt, such expectations dimmed as the main demands of the 2011 Revolution — bread, freedom and social justice — were not achieved. Instead, people had to cope with the difficulties of a highly strained economy, inflation, unemployment and the absence of security.

“People lived in an 18-day utopia during the 25 January Revolution, but that soon turned into a nightmare when nothing was achieved,” noted Khalil Fadel, a psychiatrist and author of a new book entitled The Great Revelation: What Happened Between 2011and 2015?

The book chronicles major changes in the lives of Egyptians since the 2011 Revolution. “Instead of realising their dreams, Egyptians have been faced with violence, insecurity, inflation and an unprecedented rise in cases of divorce,” the author writes.

The “deep and harsh social split” that followed the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi “has driven a nail into the social fabric that has harmed social empathy among people, and this in turn has dealt a serious blow to the happiness of many Egyptians.”

 Fadel continued, “The problem with the revolution was that it uncovered scandalous wells of corruption that had been present in the country for 30 years under ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. All manner of things have been creeping out since, encroaching on Egyptians’ lives.”

This has caused a state of uncertainty, and people have “lost their ability to enjoy even the simplest things — to produce and to love their family, their people, their work and their country. This is what happiness is all about.” Fadel added that since the 2011 Revolution, he has also been receiving patients from the poorer strata of society.

“Today, a wider section of society is receiving psychological help. Even a poor person who sells ful [beans] on a cart or drives a tuk-tuk may come to my clinic and spend money for the sake of getting treatment for psychological problems,” he explained.

“Many people are suffering from fear and uncertainty because of a sense of injustice in many aspects of life.”

More than 26 per cent of Egypt’s population lives in poverty, while 49 per cent of Upper Egyptians cannot afford their basic needs, said Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) in a 2014 report.

According to a report issued in 2015, “In 2000, 16.7 per cent of Egypt’s population, and 21 per cent of children, lived in extreme poverty. As of 2013, that number has peaked to 26.3 per cent of the total population, including 28.8 per cent of children.”

Egypt’s unemployment rate has reached 13.2 per cent, and that number is almost double for women, reaching 24.2 per cent, according to CAPMAS. “Poverty does not necessarily mean unhappiness, and most of my clients are well off and yet are often extremely unhappy,” Fadel noted. “However, being unable to fulfill your basic needs, or extreme poverty, causes acute unhappiness.”

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) warns that Egypt has also been experiencing a rise in food insecurity over the past few years. According to the WFP, “The poorest families often spend half of their household incomes on food and buy less expensive, often less nutritious food to compensate, while twice as many people have moved into poverty than have moved out.”

This may explain why another recent survey by the US Pew Research Centre similarly found that Egypt and Jordan headed the countries in the Middle East where life satisfaction declined sharply between 2007 and 2014. The report explained the drop in the light of the political and social turmoil in the region.

“Egyptians are deeply dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country,” said the Pew report. “And the hopefulness of 2011, when a majority was optimistic about the future, has vanished.”

Middle Easterners, it said, were “mostly dissatisfied with the different material aspects of their lives, including jobs and income.” But Egyptians tended to be “among the least satisfied with every aspect of their life that was asked about.”

Thirty-one per cent of Egyptians placed themselves on the bottom of the zero-to-10 ladder of life satisfaction, said the Pew report. However, it said that those who supported President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, a presidential candidate at the time of the poll, were “slightly more optimistic.”

It added, “People in the Middle East are mostly satisfied more with social aspects like personal life and health. Egyptians are split between religious life and health at 49 per cent each.”

EGYPT TODAY: It remains questionable, however, how people feel today. Egypt now has a president, a new constitution and a parliament, which should contribute to a feeling of greater political stability, even if the economy has yet to pick up.

For Fadel, however, many Egyptians are still in a state of anticipation. “Even those who say they are happy are living in a state of denial. They may laugh, but deep down they are worried about the future,” he said.

 Yet, 60-year-old Reda Abdel-Salam insists that this does not apply to her or, she says, to many people living in the impoverished Cairo neighbourhood of Dar Al-Salam, where she resides.

“We know that 30 years of corruption under Mubarak caused a lot of damage to our lives, but now we are happy because we can see a ray of hope and things are improving, thank God,” Abdel-Salam said. “After all, you can’t correct everything overnight, especially when public ethics are lacking and there need to be major changes before many problems can be solved.”

Abdel-Salam’s daughter Rabab joined in, nodding in agreement. “I recently had surgery in the same public hospital of Dar Al-Salam where my sister gave birth during the Mubarak years, and I can safely say that services there have improved beyond imagination,” Rabab said.

 “The new ration card system, the new plan to provide pensions to impoverished women in shanty towns, the fact that power cuts have almost disappeared, and the efforts that are being made to remove rubbish in our area are all signs that something is being done on the ground.”

Ramadan, a 40-year-old worker, is much less satisfied. He is particularly unhappy about skyrocketing prices and inflation, particularly the rising cost of food. “We can hardly make ends meet,” he grumbled, adding that he is not enthusiastic about the new ration card system because he says it means fewer things at higher prices.

“The problem now is that we cannot even express our anger in a peaceful way because of the new anti-protest law. I can’t risk getting killed in a protest,” he added.

Shams, a qualified worker who works in an old-age people’s home and is the only breadwinner for four children, pours her ire on poor public services, especially education.

“Two-thirds of my salary goes to private tutoring due to poor teaching and overcrowded classes,” she said. “In the meantime, food prices have skyrocketed so that we now have to depend on more carbohydrates in our diet. The traffic and public transport are a nightmare. What more can I say?”

But Shams is vibrant and laughing, despite the hardships. “What else can I do?” she asked. “For me, life has always been difficult, but I always feel God’s support and benevolence. We can and do survive at the end of the day.”

Happiness, many experts agree, is largely subjective, after all, and it varies from culture to culture and from one person to another. For this reason, sociologist Ali Leila is sceptical about the findings of the international reports.

“The criteria of happiness that applies to Western nations do not necessarily apply to our culture and our values,” Leila insisted. “Those reports are meant to discourage progress in the developing world, particularly Egypt.”

Not that poverty and poor services are not making the lives of Egyptians difficult, he said. “But the point is that Egyptians know how to adapt to hardships,” Leila explained. “Even in hard times you still see farmers sitting happily among their family and kids, all despite the economic constraints.

“Egyptians still make jokes even in times of misery. They cherish family and social ties and a spiritual and religious life in which prayers can provide heavenly solace. The idea of going to heaven in the afterlife provides a wealth of hope and energy for many believing Egyptians,” he said.

WHAT DO SCIENTISTS SAY? Although happiness has proved as elusive to define as it is to acquire, scientists have reached some interesting conclusions.

The recent research of three leading psychologists who headed to the Mexican paradise of Akumal to “contemplate the joys of being alive” and find out what “makes the human heart sing” is a case in point. One of the most intriguing results of the research was that although most people think that wealth, education and youth cause happiness, in fact they may not.

“Research by University of Illinois psychologist Edward Diener, a.k.a. Dr. Happiness Diener, among others, has shown that once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life,” wrote the US magazine Time. “Neither education nor, for that matter, a high IQ paves the road to happiness.”

Diener has also found that “older people are more consistently satisfied with their lives than the young” and are “less prone to dark moods.” Conversely, research has also found that religious faith and friends are genuine boosters of the spirit.

A 2002 study conducted by the University of Illinois in the US similarly concluded: “The most salient characteristics shared by the 10 per cent of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.”

“Word needs to be spread,” Diener told Time. “It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties and social support in order to be happy.”

In the meantime, science has shown the inextricable link between happiness and exercising gratitude, volunteering and giving to others. Giving, scientists say, provides a sense of purpose, making a person feel that he or she matters to others, while volunteering can distract people from their own day-to-day life, which can also be good.

US author Jenny Santi, is the author of The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-changing Power of Giving. “Through MRI technology we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show that altruism is hardwired in the brain and that it’s pleasurable,” Santi wrote in Time magazine.

“Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful.”

Perhaps this explains why Atiyat defines herself as happy. “Thank God,” Atiyat said with a big smile as she prepared to rush home to enjoy a hot meal with her brother.

But before she went, she adjusted the hand-knit shawl she had received as a Mother’s Day gift and prayed.

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