Malaysians should learn how to be happy

During a visit to Europe last month, I conversed with many Scandinavians and observed their lifestyles. This got me thinking about the topic of happiness.

It seems like Malaysians are suckers for bad news. We love to troll news portals each day, devouring bad news and churning out the same in our coffee shop conversations. We barely talk about any good news.

Conversations are dominated by the massive corruption of Najib’s era, and the extravagance and excessiveness of the players in the previous administration. Just a glance at the most read articles in one news portal will show you what I mean: Rosmah and aide charged with taking bribes, students march to protest PTPTN loan repayments schedule, MACC arrests Ku Nan, Jho Low legal team spent more than RM4.6 million to help improve his image, and even bad news for foodies as KL dethrones Penang in the nasi kandar league.

It’s hard to find any good news these days. It’s about time news portals develop a section for good news – positive and heart warming stories that we can share to uplift our spirits.

How do we define happiness? There’s a saying that money can’t buy happiness. You may have diamonds bigger than your eyeballs, thousands of Birkin handbags, expensive watches and costly coiffed hairstyles, but does it make you happy?

How do we measure happiness? One reference is the World Happiness Report, an annual publication by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It contains the rankings of countries in terms of national happiness and analyses of the data from various perspectives.

The happiest people appear to live in Nordic countries. Finland is tops in the world when it comes to happiness, according to the 2018 report, followed closely by Norway and Denmark. Malaysia is ranked 35th, neighbouring Singapore 34th, and Saudi Arabia 33rd.

Happiness is difficult to quantify, but the report cites six significant factors which contribute to happiness: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels.

There are many questions with regards to the rankings. Saudi Arabia ranked above Malaysia? How can this be? This is a country accused of brutally killing a Washington Post journalist, and which beheaded an Indonesian maid who was protecting herself from her employer’s sexual advances without informing her government.

But despite the questionable rankings, the happiness and well-being of Malaysians is something we need to spend more time on. It will be interesting to see Malaysia’s world ranking post-GE14. With more freedom of speech and the government’s efforts to eradicate corruption, it remains to be seen whether we can climb up the happiness rankings.

When I asked some Danish people why they are regarded as the happiest people in the world even though they live in a country with one of the highest tax regimes, their general answer was: we know where our money is used, and it’s given back to the people in terms of free education, free medical services and better infrastructure. Every cent goes back to the people.

I managed to get a copy of international bestseller “The Little Book of Hygge”, which looks at why Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world. Since then, I have been obsessed with the subject of happiness. The author, Meik Wikng, is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and a renowned expert on the subject of happiness. His book is a fascinating read for all who are tired of bad news and looking for a happy respite.

Meik is particularly interested in how the design of cities impacts behaviour and happiness. Our city planners should take note. Building taller buildings in high density areas creates more social problems, and people become strangers in their own communities.

One of the key builders of happiness found in Meik’s research around the world is togetherness. It has to do with moai, which means “to come together in a common purpose”. It is part of Okinawan tradition to create small, secure social networks in which members commit to each other for life. This is supposedly why Okinawans live longer and better.

Moai is created when a child is born and helps integrate the child into a lifelong community. When you face serious problems in life – economic struggles, sickness or grief over the loss of a loved one – the moai will be there.

In Australia, for example, Shani Graham, a young Canadian woman, turned a street in a suburb of Perth into a community by introducing pizza nights, movie nights, herb gardens and goats by asking people to dream of what kind of street they would like to live in. Knocking on a neighbour’s door for the first time can be terrifying for some, but the rewards can be big. Shani helped lead a sustainable living revolution that resulted in strong neighbourly relationships, fences being pulled down, and even the establishment of a street festival. You can see her on TEDx Perth 2013.

If you are tired of bad or negative news, I have found that Denmark has a news portal on the “World’s Best News”. It is a journalistic awareness campaign that publishes news about the progress in developing countries and global goals, with localised editions in Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.

The United Nations General Assembly in its resolution 66/281 document of July 12, 2012, proclaimed March 20 as International Day of Happiness, recognising the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals in the lives of people around the world, and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives. It also recognised the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples.

Malaysians should celebrate the next International Day of Happiness in a big way. We should go out on the streets, hug each other and do community work to strengthen our bonds. With a new government in place, we should be happier than we have ever been since independence.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.