In February this year, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, laid out in an op-ed piece in Gulf News the importance of happiness to the future development of the UAE. He stated that government “should nurture an environment in which people create and enjoy their own happiness” and that “happiness of individuals, families and employees, their satisfaction with their lives and optimism for the future, are crucial to our work, which cuts across every sector of government”. As part of this commitment of the state, Uhoud Bint Khalfan Al Roumi was sworn in as Minster of State for Happiness.
We may ask why the UAE has decided to create this post and what underlying purpose might it have? There may be several reasons. For one, it is clear that the UAE is always striving to improve and innovate. The creation of the portfolio of Minister of Happiness is undoubtedly part of a broader strategy of progressive thinking and policy-making, which is already in place in many other sectors of the country. According to the United Nations 2016 Happiness Report, the UAE ranks as the 28th happiest country in the world. The appointment of a woman Minister of Happiness is also a symbolic and practical way to empower more women in leadership positions, thereby creating a fresh flow of new ideas. Two other minsters, appointed around the same time, namely the Minister of Tolerance and the Minister of Youth and the Future, are also women.
The 2016 UN Happiness Report includes the rankings of 157 countries based on survey data from 2013 to 2015. Each country had a sample size of around 3,000 people who answered questions pertaining to six variables: Per capita gross domestic product (GDP), healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption. Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland topped the list of happiest countries in the world, while Togo, Syria and Burundi were the least happy countries on the planet — from among the 157 surveyed.
If the UAE is striving to improve its state of happiness, then looking at the happiest countries is a logical step. What, if anything, can the UAE learn from small, but happy, European states like Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland? Can the Danish model, for example, be implemented in the UAE?
Among other things, Denmark offers its citizens generous unemployment benefits, free university education, universal health care, maternity and paternity leave. It has low crime rates and five weeks of paid vacation a year. In those regards, Denmark bears striking similarities to the UAE. However, one major difference is the high tax rate in Denmark. Despite the tax rate hovering around 60 per cent, Danes in general are willing to pay these taxes since they seem to cherish the life-work balance that their country has to offer. But are Danes truly happy or just satisfied and content? Does the concept of happiness vary cross-culturally? It’s hard to tell.
Goal to foster dreams
The study of happiness is fraught with this and other problems. Accurately measuring happiness is a difficult endeavour. Happiness is a subjectively experienced mental state that cannot be empirically captured in its totality. Are happiness scholars confusing the abstract concept — represented by subjective measures — with happiness in a sense that the word has a moral and normative significance? Some have claimed that ‘Happiness’ is actually the gap between perceptions of life-as-it-is with notions of how-life-should-be and the opportunities that one perceives are provided to reach this should-be level, in other words ‘hope’. The discrepancy between life-as-it-is and the should-be level is also connected to the influence of the advertising industry and its goal to foster dreams and expectations of a life that may be out of reach for many. There are some lingering doubts as to the comparability of happiness across countries. Average self-reported happiness varies considerably across nations. Some have attributed this to different understandings of happiness, given the likely reality of cultural relativity of the concept. Others have stated that the average happiness is lower in collectivist countries than in individualistic ones. This, one is told, is the result from differences in moral appreciation of happiness. In countries, where happiness is regarded as morally desirable, respondents might over-report their satisfaction with life. What complicates matters further is that expectations of what constitutes happiness differ from person to person and depends on a number of variables such as: Personality traits (self-esteem, optimism, extraversion), socio-demographics (gender, education, marital status), economic factors (unemployment, income) and contextual and situational factors (health, inter-personal relations).
What initiatives can be implemented to achieve a higher state of happiness? There are challenges, but the UAE’s Minister of Happiness, Al Roumi, has suggested a variety of ways to address and improve happiness. For one, she has proposed transforming customer care centres into customer happiness centres so as to reduce service time. She has started conducting surveys to better understand the current state of happiness. She has offered educational seminars for government employees to improve administrative efficiency. Lastly, she is preparing annual reports to track and document progress and has put forward a National Happiness and Positivity Charter.
The pursuit of Happiness is on the right path. The UAE is employing a holistic approach to government policy rather than the traditional economic developmental priorities that have dominated the world of public policy. The overarching framework incorporates sustainable and equitable social development, conservation of the environment, improvement of living standards, preservation of culture and the promotion of good governance.
— Kristian P. Alexander is assistant professor in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi