Melanie Verwoerd | What really makes us happy?

More South Africans are happier to be home than at the beginning of lockdown according to a new study.
More South Africans are happier to be home than at the beginning of lockdown according to a new study.

Results of the Gross National Happiness study show that South Africans appear to be happier to be at home than they were at the start of lockdown, but there were other perplexing findings, writes Melanie Verwoerd. 

On Monday, I heard a radio interview with Professor Talita Greyling that at first really surprised me. Greyling researches South Africans' happiness - or if social media is anything to go by - unhappiness levels.

Ironically, she actually uses social media and specifically Twitter to gauge the national mood. Since I am of the view that Twitter is the medium of choice for the super-moaners, I assumed her research would show that South Africans are at the highest possible level of miserableness at the moment.

Not so. Yes, overall we are now unhappier than we were before lockdown, but it is showing an upward trend. It seems particularly that people are happier to be at home now than they were earlier under lockdown.

I would have thought that people would be taking more and more strain as the lockdown progresses and thus become more unhappy – not happier - so I phoned a friend of mine who has a very busy psychology practice. I wanted to check if he agreed with Greyling's findings.

My friend's practice seemed to confirm the Gross National Happiness study. According to him, about 80% of his patients are now more content to be at home than a few months ago and are firm in their commitment to make big changes to their lives - particularly to slow down.

This makes sense to me.

As Carl Honore, the author of "In Praise of Slow" points out, modern society values speed. We speed read, speed walk, speed date and speed dial. Apparently, there is even such a thing as speed yoga. Seriously?

He quotes Carrie Fischer who said: "These days even instant gratification takes too long."

Honore says: "It often takes a wake-up call such as an illness to alert us to the fact that we are hurrying through our lives instead of actually living them."

Creating illness on a global scale, Covid-19 has been the ultimate wake-up call.

It seems that this pandemic has helped people to look critically at the ever-accelerating treadmill of life. More and more research is showing that, after the initial shock, people are appreciating the slower pace of life imposed by lockdown.

They are re-evaluating what it means to live an authentic life and want to reconnect with that which is important to them.

In addition, people are increasingly questioning the never-ending race for more possessions, which underpins our economic framework.

Of course, this is not completely new.

The slow food movement started in 1986 and grew rapidly. That gave birth to the slow city movement (Cittaslow) and apparently there is now even a "slow sex movement" (unsurprisingly, it started in Italy).

As Honore says: "People realise they eat better, live better, make love better, and work better when they slow down."

As much as I want to celebrate the slowing down and reflectiveness of people during this time, it does seem to me that this would only apply to a fairly small section of our society – those who can buffer the economic fall-out to some extent and have comfortable home surroundings.

I can't imagine that the millions of South Africans, who are increasingly fighting for survival, are experiencing an increase in their level of happiness.

There were a few other findings from the Happiness study that troubled me.

According to Greyling, the few hours after the second alcohol ban was announced showed the biggest slump in happiness ever recorded in South Africa.

According to the professor, this is not only because people need the actual substance, but because it is so integral to our social engagement with others (of course, that is one of the reasons why the government brought back the ban).

I was also troubled by her finding that people's happiness level was not really affected by the infection, or death rate of the Covid-19 virus, but more by how likely they are to get infected themselves.

So I'm wondering what it says of us as a nation if we are happy as-long-as-it-is-not-in-my-backyard, and that nothing can make us more unhappy than not being able to dop?

Hopefully a lot more than can be deducted from Twitter.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland


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