Thursday, 7 February 2013

Could human warmth and interaction be worth more than gold?

Recently the results of a gallup poll listed Trinidad and Tobago as the fifth happiest nation in the world based on feelings of well-being. In the poll people were asked questions such as if they smiled a lot yesterday, if they felt respected and well-rested and if they had learned or accomplished something interesting that day. Our Latin American neighbours Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador and Venezuela were in the top four. These results are opposed to some previous studies which measured happiness based mostly on one's standard of living. In that poll relatively wealthy Scandinavian nations like Denmark and Norway, and other "first world" countries like Switzerland, Netherlands and Austria were in the top five. Finland, where I live was number nine on this list.

It makes you wonder. Could it be possible that people from so-called "third world" countries are actually happier than those from "first world" countries? If so why? Well some friends and I were discussing this new gallup poll on Facebook. And we all agreed that regardless of Trinidad and Tobago's economic and social problems such as crime, faltering education and health systems and a large class divide, Trinbagonians are still very happy people.  We noted that despite the hardships people are more friendly with each other than in many other countries in the north. People can count on their neighbour, family or friends to help them out and are more optimistic. In addition, your dollar or euro can stretch further in many ways in Trinidad and Tobago than in Finland for instance. With our gas and oil subsidies and incredibly low property taxes, and cheaper labour the cost of living is not as high as in many developed nations. For instance my old school friends in Trinidad who have comparable levels of education and professions can afford household help because labour is cheaper. That might not seem like a big deal but consider how hiring a housekeeper can prevent bickering over who's turn it is to vacuum or prevent resentment towards your spouse for doing less housework. Or how being able to hire a nanny means that mummy can have a nap during the day if the baby has kept her up all night and still have time to exercise or go run errands and not feel rushed and stressed every day. Or think of how having someone cut your front lawn and trim your hedges every week means you don't have to nag your husband to do it. It definitely makes for a happier life.

On the other hand the more money you make in Finland the more tax you pay. In addition to which labour is very expensive so to hire a nanny or housekeeper would mean paying a salary of at least 1400 euros a month. The strong Finnish work ethic means that people work hard trying to show that they are independent and industrious and it is almost a sign of weakness to ask for help. Add to that the cold interpersonal relations and you can see that this society can be harsh.  People tend to internalize their stresses and problems rather than talk about them. Hence, depression and suicide is much higher than in Latin America and the Caribbean for instance. Sure my life here is easier in many ways. The health care system is much better than in Trinidad, though still not perfect. Everything runs well and on time so it is not much of a hassle to go to the authorities to deal with things like social security or passport renewal etc. If I am laid off tomorrow and in dire financial straights there is a wide array of financial support I can access from the state. There is very little crime and even the supposed bad (low income) areas are very safe. And of course Finland is economically more prosperous than Trinidad and Tobago. But the quality of everyday life is sometimes a struggle. Being a stay at home mom I realize now how very little human warmth and interaction there is here in Finland. If you don't see any friends and family you will not get it from strangers. Most people walk around looking miserable even when they are supposedly having fun. For instance my husband complains about the middle aged Finnish women who, in the summer time, love to dress in their bright summer dresses and go to the market square with their shopping basket, the whole while with a big frown on their faces. No one talks to or even looks at or smiles at strangers. For people living alone it can be a life saver just to get out of the house and have someone smile at them and have a mini chat. In Trinidad and Tobago you can't take public transport or go to the store without someone starting a conversation. And many times those are the funniest and most interesting conversations you will ever have. People smile a lot more and there is a more relaxed and happy atmosphere which in and of itself can lift your spirits. Of course the lovely sunny weather year round helps a lot too.

A former colleague at the University of Helsinki has echoed similar sentiments many times on his Facebook page. He has noticed that there are a lot of colleagues who complain of burn out at work and a lot of depression in Finland. He says that the Finnish society can be easy but the interpersonal relations are cold. He believes that if more Finns would start being more friendly and warm to each other they would probably feel better and have less burn out at their jobs and less depression in their lives. This phenomenon of depression and suicide seems to be a common thing in cultures which stress hard work, achievement and independence above all. Japan and Singapore for instance have many stressed people and high suicide rates. Singapore also has wonderful tropical weather like Trinidad but people reported being unhappy in the gallup poll. Singapore was 46 on the list. But the Japanese and Singaporeans work too much and don't play hard enough and so are much more stressed than Trinis who probably play harder than they work. See the eighth paragraph in the following link.

Many people from developed nations would wonder how could anyone from a "third world " country be happy? People like the Finnish politician who's statement has become Finnish lexicon "To be born in Finland is like winning the lottery". Or people like my in-laws who cannot understand the dream to one day go back to the Caribbean. "Your life is much better here of course" or "Who would want to move to Trinidad?" are just a couple of statements they have uttered. First it shows that many "first worlders" do not understand that many so called "third world" countries like Trinidad are actually thriving economies in their own right and are not all squalid slums of poverty. According to the OECD Trinidad and Tobago actually achieved developed nation status in October 2011.
Secondly it shows that many people forget that there is more to life and happiness than just economic well being. They do not understand that human beings, being social animals, are happiest when they can have human warmth, support and interaction regardless of their wealth or lack thereof.