06 July 2014

What is happiness?

A proud happy country. UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar
Pharrell Williams took the world by storm with his ‘Happy’ song. It went viral within days with people around the world making their own video, dancing and clapping along with the tune.

Very few things unite people across borders, culture, religion, race, age, sex, social status, environment, upbringing and this is definitely on top of the list - the primal need to be happy. It is the motivating force behind so much of what we do.  

With that in mind, let’s consider a hypothetical situation. There are only two countries in the world - country A and country B - and you get to decide where you want to be born. Make an informed decision based on the random data provided below.

* GDP per capita is the total income of a country, divided by its population. 
It shows how much money people earn on average.

In addition, child abuse and gender-based violence is much higher in country B than country A. Under-reporting of the issue skews the data but as per one study, 60% of women and 73% of children in country B were physically abused at some point in their lifetime.

Now choose a country. 

If you have chosen country A, you have chosen a country often labeled a “success story”, known for its wealth, efficiency, high standard of living, low crime rate, quality public housing, lip smacking food from every part of the world, clean water, proper sanitation services and top-notch public healthcare. A country also once rated as the least emotional country in the world - not happy, not sad. That itself is a bit sad but welcome to Singapore. 

If you have chosen country B, you have chosen a country often believed to be one of the “happiest” countries in the world. Many here follow a traditional way of life, living in homes they've built themselves, eating food they've grown in their gardens but, as mentioned before, over 40% of the population has no proper toilets among other sanitation facilities. In addition, it is country with one of the highest rates of abuse against women and children. But this country once topped the Happy Planet Index. While the index doesn't mean it is the happiest place in the world, it does take into account how happy and satisfied people are with their own lives. Clearly a very subjective measure but welcome to Vanuatu.

I admit this is not the most scientific exercise but I have compared these two countries because they could not be more different and they each make a very poignant point. In theory, Singapore has so much going in its favour that it should be the happiest place in the world but it isn't. In practice, Vanuatu is battling so many issues but it comes off as a happier place in comparison. This defies rationality right from the beginning of life here. 

Most pregnant women in the villages of Vanuatu’s 83 islands do not have easy access to hospitals or clinics. And some strictly follow their traditional way of life which dictates that modern day medical services are unnecessary and time-honoured conventional methods are better. A child's risk of dying is highest in the neonatal period, the first 28 days of life. Safe childbirth and effective neonatal care are essential to prevent these deaths. 

Mother and child in Port Vila. UNICEF Pacific/2014/Alcock
Then, through the first five years of life, the main causes of death are pneumonia and diarrhoea. With just over half the population with access to proper toilets, chances of exposure to these diseases is quite high. To further complicate matters, only 33% of all children in Vanuatu are fully immunised. Again, increasing the risk of exposure to diseases.

Assuming you survive as a child, you are still at high risk of being abused. Violence is part of the society and culture here. It isn't particularly frowned upon and government policies for child welfare and protection are largely outdated, according to international norms and conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child that Vanuatu has signed.

UNICEF Pacific, along with its partners, has been working closely with the government of Vanuatu to strengthen legislative provisions in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and to change people’s mindsets. But the most important step is to create awareness about abuse, to encourage people to report it and address it. 

It is a fairly daunting task considering that the local people in-charge come from a generation exposed to violence and raised to believe it is normal. So despite being surrounded with abuse, against all odds and defying logic, most people of Vanuatu are happy. You just can’t help wonder what is happiness after all?

What is happiness to you? Share with us your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram by using #talkhappy #UNICEFPacific

All children have the right to good quality health care,clean water, nutritious food and a clean environment so that they will stay healthy (Article 24). All children should also be protected from violence, abuse and exploitation (Articles 33, 34 and 35). This year UNICEF celebrates 25 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Neha Thakkar
Communications Officer

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