Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to shop
Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to shop

In search of happiness

The words “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to shop”, attributed to American novelist and poet Gertrude Stein, is on a plaque prominently displayed in my home.


 I have been on a lifelong quest for happiness, which sometimes feels like a distant and elusive goal. I regularly evaluate my state of happiness and my progress towards my desired place of perpetual happiness here on earth. I’ve had more ‘money vs happiness’ conversations than I’ve been to church or to the gym.  

Senegalese novelist, Marima Ba, elegantly sums up this challenge when in ‘So long a letter’, her “diary, a prop in [her] distress’ she writes, “I have not given up wanting to refashion my life. Despite everything – disappointments and humiliation – hope still lives in me. It is from the dirty and nauseating humus that the green plant sprouts to life…. The word ‘happiness’ does indeed have a meaning, doesn’t it? I shall go in search of it”.

World Happiness Report

I’m gratified to learn that the world’s apex body – the United Nations – is also in search of the meaning of happiness, a search that culminates in the UN-backed World Happiness Report, released on March 20, International Day of Happiness.

As Honorary Consul of Finland in Ghana, I’m pleased that, for the seventh consecutive year, Finland has been ranked the happiest county in the world. As a proud Ghanaian, I hold my head in shame that Ghana languishes at number 120, behind Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and even war-torn Ukraine. 

It’s easy to shoot holes in the methodology of any ranking of this kind – and we should, I think, scrutinise carefully what exactly is being measured. When you look at the study though, the results begin to make sense. It’s the word happiness, perhaps, that misleads us – what we have here is not so much about joy and excitement, exhilaration, but about feeling contented, safe and secure in your daily life, about the freedom to lead the kind of life that you want to lead. And about a social system, social structures, that enable individuals to do just that. 

What makes someone happy?

Can we get happier through study and effort? Harvard University’s ‘Managing Happiness Course’ promises to help answer these questions and to show how to use the answers to build a happier life.  As well as introducing students to the modern science of human well-being, the course aims to show to practise it and to demonstrate how to share ideas with others, thus bringing more happiness and love to the world. Using the insights of everyday Finish life, Visit Finland [Finland’s official tourism organisation], has also developed a master class on happiness to teach foreigners how to ‘discover their inner Finn’ - to be happy like Finns. 

For Finns, happiness is not just about individual emotional make-up – it’s about society’s make-up.  It’s about things such as access to education and health, equal opportunities, fair income division, social safety nets, participatory, transparent governance, freedom, tolerance, trust, non-discrimination. It’s what Finns call the infrastructure of happiness.

So, not entirely a touchy-feely “soft” issue at all, but hard-core politics, conscious social and economic policy decisions that governments make. In this context, I am not surprised that UAE has a cabinet-level minister of happiness who oversees UAE’s plans, programmes and policies to achieve a happier society.

For 80 years, Harvard’s Happiness Study, which tracks happiness, has found that true happiness comes from close relationships and social connections, both of which are crucial for our well-being as we age. Having supportive and nurturing relationships has been proven to be a buffer against life's stresses and protects overall health.

Ghanaian perception of happiness

Many Ghanaians live lives intrinsically connected to that of their typically large, extended families. Our national hobby is to talk about others and to meddle in affairs of others (often, though, from a good place). It is common to see several generations of one or more families living in the same home or compound. 

We are warm and hospitable and draw energy from a wide variety of relationships we develop and nurture. Given these antecedents, one might be tempted to dismiss Ghana’s position close to the bottom of the World Happiness Report.

Careful analysis of Ghana’s happiness infrastructure, though, shows we’ve rightly earned our embarrassing place. Creating a happier Ghanaian society, would require a multi-pronged approach. Collectively, we must develop a culture that genuinely protects and empowers each Ghanaian to be able to live their best authentic selves. 

Happiness is within our control. We must use that power to change the narrative to create a happier, better and more equitable Ghana.

History may not be kind to us otherwise.

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