At the Bottom of the Happiness Pile yet Again?

I find myself sitting in the very same seat I was in 12 months ago, and again 12 months before then, and 12 months before that.
What am I doing exactly? I am sitting and staring at the latest World Happiness Report country rankings, and yet again wondering “Why is Botswana languishing down in the very bottom?”
Every year I end up scratching my head over the results that do not seem to reflect the experience of the people I know who live here.
Why is this important to me? Well, for one thing, on a personal level, I struggle to take a set of data at face value and accept what the authors are concluding from it without it reflecting what appears to be my reality. Secondly, and I think most importantly, on a national level, we are being told, “Hey, you guys are miserable. You need to do something about it.” And yet, every year the backlash from people who are actually living here, is significant.
So this year I have taken my deepest dive yet into the report to really try to understand what it is telling us exactly, and whether we need to take on board the results as presented to us or whether we should be collecting our own set of data to corroborate or contradict what others are telling us about ourselves.
Taking a bit of a step back, I think it is important to introduce the message behind the World Happiness Report as the tool it was always intended to be – that “the true measure of progress is the happiness of the people”, that “happiness can be measured”, that we “know a lot about what causes happiness”, and “given this knowledge, it is now possible for policy-makers to make people’s happiness the goal of their policies”.
So far so good. World Happiness Report, it’s nice to meet you.
Catalysed by the Kingdom of Bhutan in 2010, countries around the world are increasingly looking at Happiness as a measure of importance and are making it an overarching objective of public policy. Nearly all the 38 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) member countries now measure the happiness of their people annually, and the European Union asks its member countries to put well-being at the heart of policy design.
So one could argue then, that if a country, which was otherwise stable, safe and relatively well-off, was scoring low in the Happiness ranking, then their government is failing them in some way.
So, where are we in this year’s ranking?
A shocking 142nd out of 146 countries; 5th from the bottom!
But are we really 5th from the bottom of the happiness pile of all the countries in the world? Is this us? Really?
When I ask people on a one-to-one basis, I get the sense that no, we are definitely happier than that. But then the doubts kick in, and the person will start finding reasons why people might not be very happy. “We are too passive.”
“We don’t know what it really means to suffer.” “We have never had to fight for what we have.” “There is too much corruption here.” “Poverty is too much.” “We aren’t satisfied with what we have.”
Of course, most of these people come from a very specific social strata – they live in Gaborone and they have a job – so we mustn’t assume that we would get these same responses from unemployed youth, elderly retirees, or rural dwellers. Which makes me wonder about the participants of the survey for the World Happiness Report. Who are these people who responded to the questionnaire?
We can never know, of course, but we do have a little insight. In 2020, the report included data from major cities around the world, of which Gaborone is one. So where does Gabs sit on the ranking of cities? What do you guess? Better, worse or the same as the country ranking?
Well, the picture here is a little better. Gaborone is ranked 168th out of 186 cities, thereby sitting at 19th from the bottom. Still low though, especially considering who the bottom 10 cities are – Kabul, Sanaa, Gaza, Port-au-Prince, Juba, Dar-es-Salaam, Delhi, Maseru, Bangui, and Cairo – most of which are suffering high political instability, a strained security situation, or reoccurring periodic outbreaks of armed conflict. You’d think it’d be quite easy to not score within a few points of that! So why did we?
A set of results which possibly sheds a little light on this situation is also from the 2020 report and looks at the global ranking of cities in relation to their “future life evaluation”. In other words, how good do people think their lives will be in five years’ time.
Here, Botswana scored much higher, at 124 out of 186; 63rd from the bottom. This much more believable for me. Nothing to push back against there.
But maybe it is in this significant gap between “current life evaluation” and “future life evaluation” that is the source of the problem. If we all think that our lives should be much better than they currently are, then it is very difficult to be content with life as it is now, and we will experience unhappiness. It’s similar to always looking at your more successful colleagues and feeling inadequate, or drooling over your friends’ Facebook lives and feeling you have failed at life.
Comparison can never make you happy. And just as wishing for someone else’s life in the present will make you miserable, focusing on how you think your life should be can make you miserable too.
The great Oprah Winfrey has said, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”
I’m not saying that this IS the reason that we score so low on the World Happiness Report, but I am putting it out there for you to reflect on; to consider for yourself and whether this might apply, even just a little bit.
If you think that this could be a contributing source to your own levels of well-being, and would like to increase your own levels of happiness, there are a number of scientifically studied activities and interventions that you can do.
These include keeping a gratitude journal (e.g. writing down a few things that you are grateful for at the end of the day); writing gratitude letters (you don’t even need to send them, just the activity of writing a letter to someone and thanking them for something you are grateful for will boost your levels of well-being); and the loving-kindness meditation (where you sit quietly and send out loving and kind thoughts to others).
And moving forward, I invite you to join me on a mission to raise the levels of happiness and well-being in Botswana. If this feels important to you, please reach out to me at to join the movement.
Celia Boitshepo Potgieter is a Positive Organisational Psychologist at Positive Performance.