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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The minor campaign to mark last Monday’s World Happiness Day in T&T revealed, quite inadvertently, the fundamental defects that retard progress in this society.

On March 15, an organisation called Rethink (with a mirror-image “k” to demonstrate their innovative mindset) published a full-page ad with the headline “What would make you happy?” Although they have been around since 2012, I had never heard about Rethink until I saw this ad, but their website describes them as a “personal and organisational transformation centre dedicated to the discovery and sharing of positive, life transforming perspectives and experiences”. More importantly, though, their postal address is the same as that of a leading ad agency.

So I assume that their happiness campaign is part of their marketing strategy, although my initial concern was whether taxpayers’ dollars were being used to fund the initiative. But the ad itself revealed an interesting mindset on the part of the organisation: out of a listed “12 steps towards making our nation a happier place”, three related to food and seven to freeness. On Happiness Day itself, another full-page Rethink ad announced free bake and shark from a popular Maracas Bay vendor “served hot and fresh” between 6.30 am and 9.30 am by the Port-of-Spain-based ad agency, as well as “free doubles and cups of kindness coffee”. So their act of happiness was giving people in the capital city gustatory pleasure with fried flour and deep-fried fish that, over a lifetime, could contribute to the unhappiness of high blood pressure and heart and kidney disease.

In doing so, however, the agency accurately identified the Trini perspective on happiness, which might be best summed up as the pursuit of pleasure. In her book The Happiness Myth, historian Jennifer Michael Hecht writes about ecstasy as one kind of happiness, which she breaks down into four sub-divisions: drug-induced, sexual, spiritual, and bacchanalian. The Carnival mentality encompasses three of these four, or all of them if you include the religious folk who go on retreats for the Carnival weekend.

Hecht describes the Greek cult of Dionysus as involving “wine, sex, dancing, and madness”. In medieval European Carnival, “there was permission to eat lots of meat, have sex, drink copiously, and laugh”. But, Hecht notes: “As the Enlightenment took hold, Carnival disappeared as a major force in European lives...Gone was the time of publicly turning the world inside out and upside down.”

She adds, “We first-world moderns are not like everybody else. Historically, the average person expected to be a little miserable most of the time, and ecstatic on festival days. We now expect to be happy all the time, but never riotously so.”

Psychologist Martin P Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, in his book Authentic Happiness writes, “A hedonist wants as many good moments and as few bad moments as possible in his life, and simple hedonic theory says that the quality of his life is just the quantity of good moments minus the quantity of bad moments.”

Seligman dismisses hedonism as a delusion because, he says, “the sum total of our momentary feelings turns out to be a very flawed measure of how good or bad we entire life to be”.

Moreover, even happiness itself doesn’t necessarily reflect social reality. According to a 2008 survey done by Market & Opinion Research International (Mori), 81 per cent of Trinbagonians described themselves as happy or fairly happy, and just 12 per cent said they were unhappy or very unhappy. Men and women were equally happy or unhappy, but 86 per cent of Afros categorised themselves as happy compared to 76 per cent of Indos, while just eight per cent of Afros said they were unhappy as compared to 13 per cent of Indos. By religion, just over 70 per cent of Hindus and Muslims were happy, as compared to just over 80 per cent of Christians. There were no significant age differences in happiness levels, except that people in their 40s and 50s tended to be somewhat less happy. These 2008 rates were on par with Mori’s 2003 findings, even though in the intervening years murder and other crimes soared to unprecedented heights.

Put another way, delusion is helpful to happiness. Economist Bruno S Frey and Alois Stutzer in their book Happiness and Economics states: “It is interesting to note that unrealistic optimism and unrealistic control perceptions also contribute to happiness. Persons with these traits are better able to successfully adjust to unfavourable circumstances, including extremely adverse ones.” They also find that income, unemployment and inflation are the main economic factors influencing overall social happiness, with the important caveat that “income provides happiness at low levels of development, but once a certain threshold has been passed, income has little or no effect on happiness”.

Hecht points out that long-term happiness requires short-term measures such as studying for exams, caring for children, being responsible at work, forgiving friends and spouses who have hurt you terribly, keeping the promises of marriage, maintaining your home, going to the doctor and dentist, saving money, taking a walk, and visiting extended family.

Many of these requirements are antithetical to those people categorised as true Trinis. And that is why this place cannot advance.

Kevin Baldeosingh is a professional writer, author of three novels, and co-author of a history textbook.


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