Welshman Ncube Weekly: The economics of happiness

IAM a lawyer by profession and a politician by choice, but this week I want to delve into the familiar but treacherous issue of human behaviour – happiness. We might not realise it, but our lives are the sum aggregate of contests between a desire to achieve maximum happiness and fending off sadness. This is why, whenever we campaign as a political party; or engage our constituencies, we make commitments to instil hope, courage, faith and ultimately a sense of confidence that we will bring maximum happiness to every citizen if we are voted for.
Our national constitution may not specifically mention the term ‘happiness’, but the principles that it stands for must be able to guide any sensible leader to inculcate in the citizens, as Greek philosopher Aristotle termed it – eudaimonia – a desire tothrive. Sadly, apart from those that are closely bound to the ruling Zanu PF cabal or those who benefit from the party’s patronage, most Zimbabweans are an unhappy lot.
You may not agree with me on the meaning, context and definition of happiness, but when you travel to other countries – including our neighbours – you encounter ‘happiness’ in supermarkets, bars, clubs, stadiums, colleges, trains, bus ranks, vegetable markets and places of employment. Moreover, the economies of these countries seem to fare much better than ours – a sign of correlation between the state of a nation’s economy and the happiness of its citizens.
In researching a bit more about the nexus between happiness and economic prosperity, I bumped into a study entitled World Happiness Report edited by John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs (2015). Many enlightened political leaders and scholars have encountered Jeffery Sachs in their readings – so this made me even more curious.
As one of the authors observes, happiness is as much ‘economic’ as it is ‘biological’. He talks about the ventral prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain associated with wanting, liking, and reward … activated by hedonic pleasure. Before inundating you with the virtues of Hedonia (pleasure or momentary well-being) and Eudaimonia (flourishing, living a meaningful life) as first described by Aristotle, let me hazard an explanation why we Zimbabweans are unhappy.
Zanu PF politicians, for almost two decades, have claimed that we Zimbabweans are ‘resilient’ – the maintenance of high levels of well-being in the face of adversity. Of course, you and I know that ‘well-being’ deserted us in the 1980s while ‘adversity’ is Zanu PF’s euphemism for ‘sanctions and Western imperialism’!Advertisement

Since the 1890s, we had suffered racial, economic and social segregation through 1965 when Ian Smith’s false independence embroiled us in a violent but necessary war of liberation. The quality of life may have been high for white Rhodesians  but was certainly low for Aficans largely because of systematic and endemic oppression.
Like Ian Smith and his Rhodesia Front, President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF were intent on political exclusion. Their vindictive ways imposed a cruel one-party rule that resulted in Gukurahundi, electoral violence, widespread poverty, human rights violations, unemployment and a complete collapse in infrastructure. Millions of Zimbabweans expressed their unhappiness by leaving the country while some sections of the Western world imposed what they called targeted sanctions on the country.
Today – despite concerted efforts by MDC to democratise Zimbabwe – most citizens are unhappy with Zanu PF’s coercive cling on power. Millions of rural citizens cannot afford basic healthcare, three meals per day, basic education while at least eighty per-cent of adults are trapped in insecure informal employment. In my neighbourhood cities of Gweru and Bulawayo, you encounter unhappy faces because most industries closed while the pavements are crowded with vendors struggling to make a living. In the rural areas of Lower Gweru, Kezi, Mangwe and Tsholotsho, poor citizens are unhappy because they are staring down the barrel of starvation, relying on a government too broke to save them.
In the World Happiness Report I read of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who said, “The first objective for the Dubai Plan 2021 is achieving people’s happiness.” He then touches on “creative and empowered people; an inclusive and cohesive society; the preferred place to live, work and visit; a smart and sustainable city; a pivotal hub in the global economy; and a pioneering and excellent government.” Is this not why Dubai is one of the favourite destinations on this planet?
The United Nations also emphasises that the year 2015 will adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by heads of state at a special summit in September 2015 because “sustainable development is a normative concept calling for all societies to balance economic, social, and environmental objectives in a holistic manner.” No doubt President Mugabe will be first on the plane to New York!
I noted that the following countries register the highest ‘rates of happiness’: Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia. In Africa, Zambia, Lesotho, Nigeria, Mozambique, Morocco and Libya (yes, Libya) are in the top one hundred while South Africa and Zimbabwe are a distant 113 and 115 respectively. Economic development per se does not deliver happiness, but relevant variables include GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, trust, social support, freedom, generosity and the absence of corruption.
Countries with sufficiently high-quality social capital appear to be able to sustain, or even improve subjective well-being in the face of natural disasters or economic shocks, falling incomes and higher unemployment. Conversely, low social capital is characterised by distrust, pervasive corruption, and lawless behavior – traits that are familiar in Zimbabwe. We are anxious, worry about the uncertain future and generally flock to Pentecostal revival churches in persuit of spiritual and economic solace.
The study also touches on democracy, that happiness requires participation, but not just the simplistic version of visiting the polling station once every five years. Full participation is achieved when citizens are given the opportunity to take part in the deliberative process, in our case, better achieved when the system of local governance is devolved. Our electoral processes are crude, coercive, prone to cheating and violence. Our brand of democracy does not evoke celebratory or carnival happiness, this is why the situations in Tsholotsho, Hurungwe West and Dangamvura are tense.
Let me conclude by saying yes, it is commendable for Mass Public Opinion Institute  and Afro Barometer to ‘conclude’ that many Zimbabweans ‘trust’ President Mugabe, but it would be better if such research is done by ZimStats so that subjective well being measurement or satisfaction with life (SWL) surveys assumes a national character.
Antonio Genovesi, a Neapolitan philosopher and economist pioneered the concept of Civil Economy – that human values play a role as a precondition for economic development. Zimbabweans will be much happier when the government creates “participatory rules that move from elitist to deliberative democracy, stimulating bottom-up (political and economic) participation”. The goal of governments should be to increase the happiness of the people. Says Thomas Jefferson: “The care of human life and happiness… is the only legitimate object of good government”.
As a social democratic party, MDC concurs with Jeffery Sachs that we will be much happier where social capital is taken into account. He continues: “ (i)t  is a measure of the quality of interpersonal relations, involving trust, honesty, and mutual support, and these in turn increase mental and physical well-being.”
I made reference the three Scandinavian and other Nordic countries above as relatively ‘happy’. This is the highest social capital region of the world, with all of the attributes that World Happiness Report researchers have suggested: high civic participation, high ethnic homogeneity, high social and economic equality and low public corruption. For now, let me say to you, like Bobby McFerrin, ‘Don’t worry. Be happy’!