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State of happiness

(This piece is only half in jest.)

The PTI government may soon be facing a new challenge, that of maintaining Pakistan’s ranking in the World Happiness Index. Pakistanis may be miffed at the prevailing state of affairs, but they have gone up the ladder of comparative happiness.

The UN World Happiness Report 2019 has rated Pakistan as South Asia’s happiest country, ahead of India and Bangladesh, despite the two countries having overtaken us in terms of economic growth and human development. And we are ahead of China in terms of happiness.

Is it all a matter of perception or is there a rational explanation for Pakistanis appearing more upbeat than their neighbours in the happiness surveys? The Indians have been constantly told that their country was surging ahead. That surge, however, is not enough to make its citizens feel happy. Bangladesh, described as an international basket case after independence, holds hefty foreign exchange reserves, enjoys galloping exports, and has registered great strides in education and health. And yet….

One explanation for the Chinese and Indians feeling less happy may precisely be their higher growth rates leading to higher needs and expectations. The large-scale movement of people to the urban centres brings new pressures and atomization of families, adversely affecting individual morale. People may have more money but they are not happier.

In the last three years, we have witnessed a very happy country like the United Kingdom plunging into turmoil on account of a hasty ‘yes’ to leaving the European Union. The political class has shown its selfishness to the extent that Britain now appears to be Europe’s new sick man – or person if you like, for the sake of gender correctness. However, Britain’s happiness ranking has improved in 2019 which makes one ponder whether happiness is above transitory ups and downs.

Officially speaking, the happiness ranking is done on six key variables that support well-being. These are: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. Although the overall world happiness has fallen, Pakistan’s ranking has improved from 75 to 67 over the previous year. In comparison, India has fallen to 140, Bangladesh is placed at 125, China at 93, Afghanistan at 154, Iran at 117 and Iraq at 126.

Among the six variables of happiness in the annual study, Pakistan scores well on freedom, social support and generosity. At first glance, Pakistanis may be lacking many freedoms. But they enjoy many others. They are free to do many things which would usually attract the long arm of the law in some other places. Not many countries can compete with us in offering those freedoms.

For example: a Pakistani can go to a pharmacy and freely buy medicines without a prescription, bypassing the doctor. A large majority also enjoy the freedom of paying no taxes except those that the state imposes on the sale of POL products or other goods and services. Some even like to take the liberty of encroaching on others’ properties, including state lands. More prevalent is the freedom they enjoy while driving on the road. Slow traffic can move in the fast lane and those who love speeding can zigzag between different lanes. Motorbikes can trespass into any lane. Overtaking is tolerated from either side. The red signal does not appear to be mandatory.

Most, thankfully not all, civil servants can spend their office time by enjoying endless rounds of tea and samosas while they ponder over the latest housing schemes. They are not required to work except when the ‘case’ pertains to an influential or a relative or friend, even friend of a friend if you please. The house help can talk to family and friends all day long while at work. How much more freedom can they wish for?

On a serious note, well-appointed crooks and criminals rule the roost. Public education and the health services have been largely subverted to make fortunes by running private clinics and hospitals, schools, colleges and universities. These are not developments to make the people happy but they still find solace in family ties or other support systems. Weddings and mehndis, burials and duas bring them together to share their joy and grief no matter their social standing.

No surprise then that we score well in the happiness reports. The unhappy are usually found in the media and in politics. The former because good news or commentaries don’t create sensations and bring in ratings. And the latter because theirs is a long tale of unrequited desire for pelf and influence, despite being rewarded by the taxpayers rather generously.

The PM often appears unhappy. Most of his public statements are irritating repeats of what a bad deal he has got from the previous rulers. Well Mr Prime Minister, could it be that you got a chance precisely to improve things rather than complaining now? Of late, his lamentations have become louder – possibly because of unconfirmed grapevine that he is passing through a rough patch with the spiritual guides.

There is another serious problem in the sense that politicians are generally groomed to spin positively. In contrast, PM Khan is telling us that we are a monumental mess but that we can get better by punishing the previous rulers and recovering the looted billions from them. This ominously implies that the key to bliss lies with the Sharifs and Zardaris. That is a most awful thought to be propagated by the one who came to demolish them, the evil doers.

Is it not about time the premier holds fire against the previous rulers who are today’s opposition and let the accountability process take its course? The government is really not being correct by publicly discussing cases already before accountability courts. Besides, why not allow the nation to relish the feeling that we are happier than our competitors and neighbours. Let’s party!

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