Bangladesh has this year climbed six more notches in the World Happiness Index ranking 101st among 149 countries. Certainly it is good news – and that is too at a time when Bangladesh turns 50 – but there is no room for being complacent with it as Bangladesh’s ranking is still in the lower middle rung of the happiness index.
If we try, we may improve on the index consecutively, but it may not be possible to become one of the happiest countries in the world any time soon. So, we may set a long term goal: becoming one of the happiest country in the world by 2071, when Bangladesh will turn 100. In meeting the target, we need to identify what may get in the way of attaining national happiness in the 21st century and to discuss some factors that lead to national unhappiness.
Anxiety of choice: The good life vs the goods’ life
Bangladesh is no stranger to consumer culture. Everyday people in this country receive an influx of consumer goods which has a role in creating what positive psychologists call ‘Anxiety of choice,’ and Bangladeshis, especially the younger generation, are highly susceptible to this phenomenon.
According to Pritom Kumar Das, a psychology graduate from Dhaka University, “Wealth and happiness correlate only to a certain extent. In America, it has been seen that people’s happiness grows unless their annual income crosses USD 70,000. And upwards of that, people become gradually dissatisfied with their financial growth and feel more anxiety of choice.”
When wealth increases indiscriminately, Pritom said, people also become dissatisfied with what they don’t have, relative to someone else’s gain. “Our desire is relative – we always compare ourselves with others about what we don’t have, rather than feeling grateful for what we have. That creates unhappiness,” he said.
In the next 50 years, lower middle-income countries like Bangladesh will also hop on the automation train. How we handle the loss of jobs and subsequent unrest in people will also determine how happy the future generations will be. In that case, universal basic income can be a viable solution towards correcting the increasing wealth gap.
Information overload: The cost and benefits of knowing too much
In the current global pandemic, we have learned in many ways how an influx of information can create panic, stress, depression, hopelessness and dissatisfaction in people. Information about complex, nuanced topics now comes in bite sized chunks that are easy to swallow but hard to digest. This results in ‘conclusion bias.’
For example, statistically speaking, criminal activities have dropped by a significant margin in the last decade. Still considering how many reports come to light nowadays compared to the past, people usually conclude that crimes are rising. This creates fear, stress and pessimism in citizens.
Although the government of Bangladesh has taken strict steps to curb the flow of misinformation, it is not enough at all, and in most cases, counterproductive too. What we need is to make the younger generation digitally more literate and teach them how to critically evaluate information.
Fact checking, behavioural change campaigns, creating an environment of free and open discussion on the internet albeit regulating the vitriol, and teaching the ability to assess digital information critically are some of the issues that Bangladesh government should see to seriously.
We can start it by introducing comprehensive cyber laws and computer ethics at the policy level, ensuring that the internet is a stress-free safe space, with proper flow of critical and examined information.
People knowing the truth is never the problem: the problem is people not having the tools to validate the truth. If we can ensure a 100 per cent digitally literate generation by 2071, we will have in our hands not only a populace capable of grand innovations, but also a happier and more inclusive society that will use the internet as it is meant to be done.
Social outcasts: lower levels of trust and social bonds
Happiness is correlated to social bonds and trust, which is now at an all-time low because if someone wants to know about someone they can easily do it by looking at their social media profiles. This has created a social disconnectivity in a country that has historically preferred to form cohesive regional communities with strong social bonds. The social media networks have enabled us to know about somebody without even physically meeting them. Due to lack of social connectivity physically, anxiety in people is rampant. They suffer loneliness more than ever. And in the last decade, the number of people’s close friends has dropped to one from three on average.
Stronger community spirit and social trust can be built by rethinking our urban planning. Community-based social centres, incentives to send children to local schools, more parks and recreational places in the locality, etc. should be implemented in the next 50 years, creating the path for more engaged and connected small communities.
Incentives to form bonds lie in social support. Availability of people or networks of people one can rely on in terms of need has strong linkage to happiness. When people trust each other, it increases their sense of wellbeing.
Lack of freedom and justice
People are more satisfied when they have the freedom to choose. Happiness is strongly correlated to freedom of press, of giving opinions and of choosing affiliations.
Sadly, Bangladesh is still lacking in this regard, and this is a prime reason for dissatisfaction and unrest that currently plagues citizens. It is not easy to be optimistic about the future, when you cannot criticise the present.
Optimism is one of the core concepts behind happiness, positive psychology says. Individual optimism increases when people perceive the judiciary as just, and the policymaking environment as unbiased.
Thus, it is important that we increase people’s freedom and reform the judiciary with complete transparency by 2071 if we really want a happier future.
Food and healthcare
“Food will become one of the next big challenges. Studies suggest that even suicidal ideation is changeable through food habits. In the coming decades, institutions securing proper food sources and nutrition along with strong quality control will play a big role in determining happiness,” opined psychology graduate Pritom.
The UN World Happiness Report shows that countries with strong public health and healthcare systems and proper hygiene behaviour show increased levels of satisfaction and happiness.
Bangladesh has been one of the world leaders in health behaviour changing campaigns. But our healthcare system still needs to be reformed a lot. By 2071, we need to make sure every citizen gets proper food and nutrition and a clean and green city to live in, and a properly functioning and affordable healthcare system. We should keep it in mind that future generations would expect a long healthy life.
Positive organisational practice
Corporate malpractice and mistreatment of the workforce is a glaring problem in our country. Underpaying, paying late, not approving holidays, using employees for personal favours, mistreatment, and not giving due credit are present in almost all sectors of work. By 2071, the structure and organogram of corporations will need to change to accommodate workers better, if we want a stress-free workforce, by offering them better benefits and allowing them for better work-life balance and a better top-down communication.
Empathy and mental health care
Development has largely stripped us of our time and will to see ourselves in someone else’s shoes. For people to be kinder and more empathetic to others –which is one of the basest efforts we have to give towards fetching happiness – the next generation needs to be trained in mental health issues, inclusivity and empathy. The government is taking steps to include mental health education in the primary education curriculum, but the approach needs to be more holistic and scientific in nature.
We also need more mental health professionals than ever. The mental health sector will need special government attention in the coming decades, as we have been realising its necessity more and more. Taking counselling and going to mental health professionals should be normalised through behaviour change programmes and long-term plans.
The ideas of happiness in the future will no doubt be changed highly with the technological and industrial progress. That’s why the usage of information and communication technology or ICT in the mental health and wellness sector should be prioritised early on in the policymaking arena. One emerging idea that we can bank on is e-mental health care through human-computer interaction or HCI.
With the exponential growth in computer technology, HCI will soon be identical to human-to-human communication. Bangladesh can be one of the leaders in developing user-centered designs for e-mental health interventions in the coming decades and provide remote counselling and mental healthcare services. This will be cost effective, faster and more efficient.
Another technological idea that we should talk about is ‘quantified self.’ The ‘quantified self’ is the idea that a data-driven life can enhance one’s health status. The usage of apps and accessories to track health data such as heart rate, daily step count, sleep tracking are becoming more and more common.
This process will soon become significantly more automated in the near future, and studies show that quantifying your health status can improve personal satisfaction, drive to live healthy and overall positive attitude towards life.
There are incentivised quantified-self programmes in different countries being undertaken by both government and private organisations. Our country can take inspiration from them, and work towards a healthier and more self-conscious society.
We can’t perfectly forecast what the future holds for us as a country. So far, the statistics yields positive results, but we can definitely do better as a country, as a society.
Finally, it is upon us to make sure our people find themselves among the happiest in the world. And in doing so by 2071, when Bangladesh turns 100, we can contribute through our effort and creativity both individually and collectively. Right away, let’s take the oath in fullfilling that desired goal.
Arefin Mizan is a researcher at Centre for Genocide Studies.
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