Discovering the Voice of Youth on the Happiness Factor

November 14, 2016
Discovering the Voice of Youth on the Happiness Factor
Ally Dunhill
Ally Dunhill Non-Resident Fellow in Rights Education

What makes us happy?  Does happiness contribute to successful economies, peace, development, a good environment?  The United Nations, in 2012, held a high-level meeting to address the issue of “Happiness and Well-Being.”  The impetus for this meeting came from discussions over the sustainable development goals and the well-being of societies.  The government of Bhutan was the initial instigator of this development as it has measured national happiness as part of government policy since the 1970s.  From the 2012 meeting, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution designating 20 March as the International Day of Happiness.  The purpose behind setting this date was recognition of the relevance “of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”

There has been a growing number of organizations and individuals across the world researching happiness and discussing the benefits it brings to national and global development. The Happiness Research Institute in Denmark is an international Think Tank, carrying out research and “informing decision makers on the causes and effects of human happiness”. The Journal of Happiness Studies is an international research journal presenting research on the psychological and sociological conditions of happiness.  The economic benefits accruing from happiness have also been studied showing “happiness research is not a futile or eccentric activity, but is able to provide relevant new insights and can serve as an inspiration for future research in economics”

Since 2012 we have seen a rise of interest in the science of happiness, as well as the production of The World Happiness Report, which surveys global happiness as an integral aspect of government policy.  At present four states have created ministerial positions responsible for Happiness -Bhutan, Ecuador, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.  We further see developments at the sub-state level and the growth, to research institutes specifically addressing happiness and how policies and practices can be designed.  The UAE has placed happiness on the national agenda, as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has explained “happiness and positivity in the UAE are a lifestyle, a government commitment and a spirit uniting the UAE community. The government system is evolving to realize the goals that every human seeks: happiness for him and his family.”  Her Excellency, Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi was appointed in February 2016 as the UAE’s Minister of State for Happiness leading on government action in this area.  Her Excellency has commented, “The role of the government is to create an environment where people can flourish – can reach their potential – and choose to be happy.”  She has further commented, “The minister’s job also involves coming up with new ideas and policies that would help government improve people’s well-being so they can have happy lives.”

At the outset it is important to recognise that happiness is a result of range of variables and contextual circumstances.  The formulation and implementation of government policies to support happiness is a complex area requiring multi-sectoral approaches.  As one example, various surveys and research projects across the world have identified happiness as being more important to individuals than money. This does vary depending on the age of the person. Young people tend to chose happiness over money, as they become adults with responsibilities they then begin to state that money is more important.  The important point is that what we normally relate to happiness may or may not be a factor.  Crucially, in many countries, initiatives and projects dealing with government policy and happiness are aimed at the participation of youth to raise awareness of government plans and to actively engage and listen to the voices of youth. These events allow young people to raise specific issues that affect them. For example, the Scottish Youth Parliament represents Scotland’s young people.  Their vision is for Scotland to be “a nation that actively listens to and values the meaningful participation of its children and young people”.  Their goal, to ensure Scotland “is the best place in the world to grow up”.  Clearly there is no easy path to, or definitive measure of what makes people happy.  What is perhaps a key issue in this matter is talking about what makes us happy and what the government can do to support happiness in society.

In support of the global efforts to further happiness, on 26-27 October TRENDS organized an online jam on “The Happiness Factor.”   For two days there were up to 50 participants in this online activity, including TRENDS staff, Non-Resident Fellows, invited experts and students from a range of UAE universities.  As a Non- Resident Fellow of TRENDS, I was invited to participate in the “Online Jam”. This was a great opportunity for me to not only present my understandings of happiness, but also to discuss this important and contemporary topic with a range of undergraduate students at universities, local academics, government ministers, and others who engage with youth around the UAE. Happiness is a top priority for the UAE, and this is evident through the appointment of Her Excellency Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi, Minister for Happiness and the recent opportunities that think tanks such as TRENDS are organising events to give youth a chance to voice their views.

As youth represent a large percentage of society in the UAE, they are naturally key stakeholders in discussing happiness. Of the UAE’s total population, citizens who are between the age of 0-14 represent 20.94% of the population, and those between 14-24% make up 13.53% of the population; together it means that 34.47% of the UAE’s demographic is young people. Perhaps youth are even more important than other stakeholder groups as they are the group representing the future actors and leadership, as well as the ones who will perpetuate Emirati culture and heritage, including language and traditions.  TRENDS reached out to these stakeholders and explained what the event was seeking to do, how it was designed to be an online event that would be more attractive to youth and the benefit of youth engagement on this issue. TENDS received broad support and considerable applause for the unique initiative as a private sector firm reaching out to UAE youth and supporting governmental priorities, and I was delighted to be part of this.

The Jam focussed on three particular questions:

  • Question 1 The Ministry of Happiness is conducting a survey to get acquainted with the needs of UAE residents to make their lives more positive. The aim is to find out what can be done to create a “sustainable happiness”. What do you think “sustainable happiness” means? Do you think happiness can be measured using scientific tools?
  • Question 2 What sorts of activities do you think will bring real happiness to UAE youth? In the future, what can be done to support or promote happiness at work or school? Among these things that could be done, do you see them happening now and are they successful?
  • Question 3 How will the promotion of happiness reduce challenges facing UAE society? Such issues may include, but are not limited to, increasing heath challenging, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc.), promoting social inclusion and engagement, countering Islamic extremism, addressing youth issues, for example.

The rationale behind these questions was to explore both the concept and idea of happiness, give the participants the opportunity to reflect on what happiness means to them personally, as well as for wider society, and to explore practical measures that can be pursued by government, society, and individuals.  As a participant in the Jam, I found it to be an enjoyable and thought-provoking two-day event. I believe it offered an engaging online discussion about happiness and has provided information regarding the experiences and understandings of what makes people happy. Comments included ways in which individuals believe makes them happy and how many people prioritise the happiness of others.

Engaging with young people not only allows governments to understand what they are experiencing real and worrying problems within the societies they live in but also what circumstances are influencing their experiences of education, recreation activities and communities.  They are a vital source of information, and by giving young people, a voice governments can find out about things that matter to them such as bullying, health and the environment.

The first question posed two key issues in any discussion on happiness – can we measure it, and how do understand happiness over the longer term?  It is clear that happiness can be measured.  There have been substantial developments in this area in recent times.  The World Happiness Report has emerged as the primary global comparative study in this field.  In the 2015 World Happiness Report, the UAE ranked 20 out of 158 countries measured.  The measurement of happiness is a combination of objective and subjective measures.  Professor Mieke Bertels, one of the invited experts and a leading figure in this area, remarked that the recent developments in measuring happiness demonstrate that it can be done with effective results.  Even though the questions asked can often be personal, such as “How satisfied are you with your life today?” questionnaires and methodologies for assessing these questionnaires are evolving significantly to give us a good picture of the state of happiness in any given society. In looking at how we measure happiness, we immediately begin to explore what we are measuring. Happiness is a combination of things around us, how we fill our lives generally and on specific issues. How fulfilled we are in our family life, work life, school life, as well as levels of subjective well-being dependent upon a range of internal and external factors.

The issue of sustainable happiness is becoming a major issue for government policy.  As states, such as the UAE appoint a specific government Minister for Happiness they are demonstrating not only an understanding of the importance of happiness in social development but also the need to plan for sustainable happiness.  As happiness takes on greater importance for understanding governance, development, economic policy, climate change, the pursuit of happiness is not just about a snapshot of society at a particular moment.  Rather happiness is becoming part of longer term policy considerations for governments as they develop national plans for social and economic development.

The key to any nation’s development over the long term is youth.  The TRENDS Jam asked in its second question what sort of activities do you feel will bring real happiness?  Participants were asked to reflect on what things are going on around them today and what might be done for the future.  Of course, this question raises plenty of discussion for as was discussed, everyone is different, activities in support of happiness will have a different impact on individuals.  The discussion covered a broad range of issues, from personal things, such as being with friends, to matters related to the state such as employment and security.  It appears that when considering what suggestions to make to governments on how to support happiness we can begin with the basics, such as providing secure societies where individuals are able to pursue activities that make them happy.  The key matter for the government is ensuring there is the safe space for this to happen.  Professor Mieke Bartels made an essential point that governments truly need to consider “A good starting point [for determining how to support happiness] would be first to investigate and quantify the needs of the children (e.g. by asking the children themselves what would increase the level of happiness).”

Happiness means different things to different people as I have discovered through my research of working with young people. I have collated a range of observations from my research into this topic. These are the top things that people say make them happy: having friends; being with family; laughter; listening to music; physical activities such a cycling and dancing; and certain foods such as chocolate. When provided with an opportunity to reflect on their lived experiences, children, and young people can offer insights that make them happy. Often these are examples that adults did not consider. Of course, adults were young people once, but societies have changed, and the UAE has had significant changes over the last few decades. Only by listening to the current UAE children and young people can these contemporary insights be captured.

Other participants spoke of how money, good jobs, and family all contribute to happiness.  These factors are realised through social and government action and the UAE is making great strides in these areas.  What I found to be of interest was participants talking about how volunteering, assisting or supporting others, is an activity that helps foster happiness.  There is unlikely to be any definitive plan on what policies and actions will contribute to happiness.  The participants made clear that they essentially want to be able to pursue their education, employment, associate with friend and family, and engage with society.

The final question in the Jam asked: “How will the promotion of happiness reduce challenges facing UAE society?” Participants were asked to consider challenges such as health, youth issues, extremism or other matters of concern to youth.  This is, of course, a difficult question and something we need to keep talking about.  Much of the discussion was intertwined with the previous question on activities that support happiness.  The discussion again talked about the connections between our personal situation and the society around us.  The discussion also added the importance of being self-aware, knowing what is going on around us and recognizing the impact of external factors.  The experts discussed how there is no clear or easy causation between happy people and economic success or good personal health.  At the same time, happiness is a key issue in ensuring societies have the resilience and foresight to deal with challenges, whatever they may be.

The TRENDS Jam on “The Happiness Factor” was a very successful and engaging event. An “Online Jam” is an ideal way in which to engage with youth not only in the UAE but across the world. The youth of the UAE are members of a global community and extending the event to encourage young people from across the global community would give an excellent opportunity for young people to discuss not only the concept of happiness but will provide them with a source of insight regarding the experiences and understandings of other young people.  By engaging with youth and giving a focus on the voice of youth in the UAE, we can better understand key issues, such as happiness, and work to develop and improve action and policies in areas of importance for our future development.