The Unhappiest Place on Earth

Tuesday's UPI column

So There I was...

Deep in the heart of the unhappiest place on Earth; Burundi, Central Africa. Of course I didn’t know it had attained that lowly place when I spent three months there in 2003. I just discovered this fact this last week when I read a report on a meta study of 100 studies of 80,000 people worldwide. This study related self-reported personal satisfaction (happiness) to access to health care, personal income, and access to education. A huge study like this is considered to be pretty reliable. And it turns out that “healthy, wealthy and wise” is positively correlated to happy. 178 nations were then ranked according to happiness, countries presently at war, like Iraq were left out.

It turns out that Disneyland is not the happiest place on Earth, Denmark is. But it is interesting that Copenhagen has that “Little Mermaid” statue in their harbor. Hmmm. It might make an interesting study to correlate good storytelling with happiness.

The US came in at 23 – not the top, but near. I bet they didn’t do this survey in New Orleans - or St. Louis last week.

What surprised me was that tiny Burundi was 178 – the unhappiest country on Earth by report of its own citizens. She slipped in under Zimbabwe (177) – which surprised me because Burundi has a self-determined, not terribly corrupt government. Zimbabwe has dangerous crazy omnipotent guy Robert Mugabe. Unbelievably, Zimbabwe was beat out by the Democratic Republic of Congo (176) where FOUR MILLION people have died in the last ten years from war and war-related disease and malnutrition.. OK – so Burundi has had three waves of genocide in the last 40 years. 300,000 died in 1993/94 alone. But the Congolese are fleeing into Burundi, not the other way around. As for health wealth and education, well, there is not enough of these to go around, anywhere in that part of the world.

But I had those three months in 2003 and I will go back this next winter. I now have many friends and loved ones in Burundi. And some of them are some of the happiest people I know.

I am a mental health worker with a specialty in trauma healing. It was hard for me to find an adult in Burundi who did not have some level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There were mortar rounds falling on the city I was living in and I was working on my own case. But what amazed me was the lack of clinical depression. It was hard to find a case, except in the expats stationed there in consulates and embassies.

Burundians seem to have irrepressible hope. They are masters of deeply enjoying a good moment sandwiched between difficulty and horror. There is not much to laugh about, but when they laugh, they really laugh.

So I am not going to tell my friends there that they live in the unhappiest place on Earth.

I am not going to tell the old woman who pulled the baby out of the trash heap. The baby’s mother had died of AIDS, the baby may not have had long, but the old woman took the child to her own old dried breasts and nursed him until milk flowed. I was shocked and incredulous at the story and so the woman pulled out a breast and squirted me with milk just to make the other women laugh. We all laughed, including the baby.

I am not going to tell Yoyo James, age 12, who was indignant when I showed him a world map and he saw how tiny Burundi is – the same size as the state of Maryland. He accused the mapmakers of bias and fraud. After all, his country was HUGE – it takes a full day to drive the width of it, that on a good day. Yoyo told me that there was no place in the world that he would rather live.

I am not going to tell the kindergarten students at Kwibuka, who do not know that there play yard is the site of a massacre. They are too little to read the names on the stone. They ran out to greet me, and when I sat down in the dirt to with them they ran their tiny filthy hands through my hair and pockets, curious and larcenous without shame. Let them play.

Things are looking up in Burundi, you see. Up is really the only direction to look. The war is over – mostly – one last rebel group to come in. They have a freely elected president who seems to be sane, good, and not corrupt. May he live to see his freely elected replacement. They do not have a deep bench of living ex-presidents over there. They have recently benefited from Debt relief – Thank-you Mr. Bono and the G8 crew.
Most Burundians don’t know it, but Bill and Melinda and Warren are stalking Malaria, and Malaria had better watch out. The Burundian government recently declared that every child should get a free education. This has made a student/teacher ratio of 200/1, and this without benefit of desks or books or paper or pencils, but it is a start, and fingers in the dust can write their ABC’s.

I have great hopes for the unhappiest place on earth. I can’t wait to get there. I would trade a hundred days at Disneyland, or Copenhagen, for one day in Bujumbura.

Do you have a link to this rating? It seems like a bit of a silly exercise, but I'd still like to see it.

The Burundians may have misunderstood the question. As I recall from my "abroad" years, people in poorer countries seemed so much happier than those in wealthier countries.
In the comment box below is the link and the article in its entirety.

I think the Burundians understood the questions. I foung them to be capable of great joy. But the adults knew exactly what a bad spot they were in.

I sent this article to my good friend David Miyonzima, director of THARS (THARS.ORG) and previous superintendent of Burundi Yearly Meeting and he said that he was not surprised at all. I think of David as one of the greatest optimists I know. Hopeful but in no way naieve.

University of Leicester produces the first-ever 'world map of happiness'

Happiness is ... being healthy, wealthy and wise

Adrian White, Analytic Social Psychologist at the University of Leicester produces first ever global projection of international differences in subjective well-being; the first ever World Map of Happiness. UK 41st out of 178 countries for happiness.

Happiness is found to be most closely associated with health, followed by wealth and then education.

A University of Leicester psychologist has produced the first ever 'world map of happiness.'

Adrian White, an analytic social psychologist at the University's School of Psychology, analysed data published by UNESCO, the CIA, the New Economics Foundation, the WHO, the Veenhoven Database, the Latinbarometer, the Afrobarometer, and the UNHDR, to create a global projection of subjective well-being: the first world map of happiness.

The projection, which is to be published in a psychology journal this September, will be presented at a conference later in the year. Participants in the various studies were asked questions related to happiness and satisfaction with life. The meta-analysis is based on the findings of over 100 different studies around the world, which questioned 80,000 people worldwide. For this study data has also been analysed in relation to health, wealth and access to education.

Whilst collecting data on subjective well-being is not an exact science, the measures used are very reliable in predicting health and welfare outcomes. It can be argued that whilst these measures are not perfect they are the best we have so far, and these are the measures that politicians are talking of using to measure the relative performance of each country.

The researchers have argued that regular testing as a collaboration between academics in different countries would enable us to track changes in happiness, and what events may cause that. For example what effect would a war, or famine, or national success have on a country's members' happiness. .

Adrian White said: "The concept of happiness, or satisfaction with life, is currently a major area of research in economics and psychology, most closely associated with new developments in positive psychology. It has also become a feature in the current political discourse in the UK.

"There is increasing political interest in using measures of happiness as a national indicator in conjunction with measures of wealth. A recent BBC survey found that 81% of the population think the Government should focus on making us happier rather than wealthier.

"It is worth remembering that the UK is doing relatively well in this area, coming 41st out of 178 nations.

"Further analysis showed that a nation's level of happiness was most closely associated with health levels (correlation of .62), followed by wealth (.52), and then provision of education (.51).

"The three predictor variables of health, wealth and education were also very closely associated with each other, illustrating the interdependence of these factors.

"There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people. However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher GDP per captia, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy.

"We were surprised to see countries in Asia scoring so low, with China 82nd, Japan 90th and India 125th. These are countries that are thought as having a strong sense of collective identity which other researchers have associated with well-being.

"It is also notable that many of the largest countries in terms of population do quite badly. With China 82nd, India 125th and Russia 167th it is interesting to note that larger populations are not associated with happy countries."

"The frustrations of modern life, and the anxieties of the age, seem to be much less significant compared to the health, financial and educational needs in other parts of the World. The current concern with happiness levels in the UK may well be a case of the 'worried well'."

The 20 happiest nations in the World are:

1. Denmark
2. Switzerland
3. Austria
4. Iceland
5. The Bahamas
6. Finland
7. Sweden
8. Bhutan
9. Brunei
10. Canada
11. Ireland
12. Luxembourg
13. Costa Rica
14. Malta
15. The Netherlands
16. Antigua and Barbuda
17. Malaysia
18. New Zealand
19. Norway
20. The Seychelles

Other notable results include:

23. USA
35. Germany
41. UK
62. France
82. China
90. Japan
125. India
167. Russia The three least happy countries were:

176. Democratic Republic of the Congo
177. Zimbabwe
178. Burundi
Hm... I lived in Costa Rica. They're very, very happy people. Happier than us Canucks by a long shot.

I think Canada and Costa Rica should trade places.
Hi - I found your piece very interesting and moving - but I have to disagree with you on the issue of corruption in Burundi. Sadly, things appear to be moving from bad to worse right now with the government mired in a series of financial scandals and threatening "fatal consequences" for journalists who break the increasingly harsh media restrictions they are bringing in. The ruling CNDD-FDD party is starting to look more and more like Zanu-PF...
rw - from the site meter I see that you are in the uk. I am sure that you have your sources, and I have no doubt that there is corruption in Burundi. But my friends there tell me that it is better. I guess that the lack of mortor rounds falling on your head is better. I am going again in December so I wil form my own opinion then.
thanks for stopping in.
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