Unfortunately, unhappiness in all of its forms is a common affliction, regardless of societal status, race or religion. Subsequently, Aamnah Husain believes that society shouldn’t stigmatise a situation where someone isn’t actually happy. “I feel that people have a set of judgements surrounding any type of mental weakness,” she says. “It hinders connection between people. And people who know they are struggling with the issue themselves have these judgements.”
On February 12, at the sixth World Government Summit, the Global Happiness Coalition was announced. The coalition involves six countries: the UAE, Portugal, Costa Rica, Mexico, Kazakhstan and Slovenia.
The idea behind the collaboration is to share knowledge, information and expertise internationally to improve people’s quality of life.
The leadership in Dubai spoke about how happiness had been identified as a benchmark for government efficiency. They see happiness as a gauge of government policies and as something that should be a common objective for both the private and public sector.
Each year representatives and experts from the six different countries will converge at Dubai’s World Government Summit, work on initiatives and review their progress on improving their respective populations’ happiness.
Nevertheless, happiness as a concept is complex and often difficult to measure. Sailaja Menon, DHCC Counsellor from The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre, Dubai, believes that people can have a sense of entitlement when it comes to happiness.
She refers to how people devote significant amounts of time, money and energy to achieving fulfilment. “Today, there is a huge movement towards a school of psychological thought that has devoted its time to the study of happiness called positive psychology,” she says. “There is a lot of discussion on what happiness is — is it a transient emotion, a process or a state of being?”
Menon refers to idealistic expectations that people harbour towards their lives in areas such as wealth, relationships and physical appearance. She believes that this can have a detrimental effect on people’s ability to enjoy a moment. “Due to our dependence on these externals, when we are really unhappy, we don’t accept the reality,” she says. “Instead, we try to overcompensate by, for example, working out more or buying a better house.”
Menon says people’s inability to embrace reality can cause unhappiness. She believes that happiness is transient in its nature and that failing to acknowledge this causes unhappiness.
Aamnah Husain, Counselling Psychologist, German Neuroscience Centre, refers to a Harvard study that took place over a period of 75 years.
“The study reported that one of the most important things for a sense of happiness was the quality of relationships in your life,” she says.
Husain refers to the nature of the largely expat population’s lives in the UAE as one of the possible reasons for their unhappiness. “In the UAE, I feel that many people don’t feel a sense of connection or community as they are far from home, and that is one of the reasons that comes up a lot.”
She cites work-life balance as another factor that causes unhappiness in people living here as a result of working too many hours and not seeing the important people in their lives enough.
The other common issue Husain frequently encounters is when people have suffered damaging experiences such as abuse or loss, which prevents them from reaching a state of happiness.
“They form certain beliefs about themselves and about the world that can make life difficult to live and to find happiness.”
Is the key contentment?
Menon believes that the root to happiness is establishing a feeling of contentment. “When I see clients whose goals are to develop skills of happiness, I generally like to start the therapeutic intervention by focusing on working on contentment as their first goal,” she says.
She talks about spending leisure time on activities that develop relationships and a sense of belonging, fulfilment and purpose. “The real power of leisure is giving meaning to life.”
A personal approach
Husain alludes to happiness in the context of individual values that become more personal once universal basic needs such as food and shelter are achieved.
“Of course, it’s easier to be happy if you’re wealthy,” she says. “The problem with looking at wealth as a marker for happiness is that happiness is not a fixed place or destination. People around the world living in varied circumstances find it possible to be happy.”
Instead, Husain refers to values in terms of freedom of choice and a strong belief in the idea of family. “I think alignment with your values is important for happiness. If one of your values is being free to make choices and if that’s constrained or you make choices that consistently negate your values, I imagine it would lead to unhappiness for many people,” she says. “I believe that happiness is the meaning we assign to our experiences. Changing your perspective can lead to happiness.”