Monday, August 29, 2005

Archive: Happiness As Survival Mechanism

By Molara Wood

We awoke recently to news that we are the happiest nation of people on earth and were incredulous. If by some miracle we were the happiest, what was there to be happy about? Looking around, all we see is a nation languishing in chains. For the common man, daily existence has become a choking nightmare. So how in the midst of intolerable hardship could we be happy? Or are we - like the foolish Galatians - just an unthinking nation of alainironus?

But the New Scientist magazine says we are happy. We came tops in a survey of 65 countries carried out by respected scientists. The magazine is not a Nigerian publication so we cannot cry foul and shout "419!" No election rigging took place, no bribery, no corruption. It all appears legitimate. This should be reason in itself to be happy - that our country is numero uno with regard to something good. It is hard to remember when last we led the field in a positive way. Agbani Darego did her best to reverse the trend but look what rotten egg the whole Miss World fiasco left on our faces in the end.

The New Scientist seems to have revealed onto us a quality we never knew we had. There has been much inward looking since to check whether we really do have the secret of happiness. And we check, half expecting the New Scientist to be proved wrong. The publication and its scientists have validated us massively as a nation and yet we remain curiously unconvinced. But how far-fetched is this notion of happiness?

I have always thought that the average Nigerian must have certain reserves of joy to withstand the ever worsening conditions in the country. One sees everyday scenes of life's little joys in spite of the suffering, plenty of unintended humour to make one laugh out loud. The need to laugh no matter what may even be rooted in our psyche. The Yorubas for instance have the saying: “Oro buruku toun terin” - meaning that the matter at hand is so bad, it has to be tempered with laughter.

Looking at the many western societies where Nigerians are queuing in their thousands to emigrate to, it is not difficult to see how they would fare badly in the New Scientist survey. These are countries with accountable governments, economies that work, and all the material things. Yet the happiness that the New Scientist seems to be talking about (which cannot be bought with money, remember) seems to have eluded a significant number of the citizens of these countries, who should ordinarily be a lot happier than we are.

On a London Underground tube train in the morning, to cast a glance at fellow passengers can be like gazing upon the many faces of misery. A cross-section of commuters in the London rush hour can be representative of people with averted eyes walking unseeing past others as they hurry through identical days of monotonous lives. A smile in England hardly ever reaches the eyes; it appears as if by remote control and disappears just as mysteriously, and fast. It has more to do with an exertion of will than the emotion, and does little to edify the soul. Any wonder Britain would not fare well in a happiness survey?

Then there is America, the land of the free where the constitution guarantees every citizen the pursuit of happiness. Didn't stop America becoming what in the nineties was known as Prozac Nation. I am sure several other happiness drugs have long superseded Prozac. It is just as well the New Scientist says we are happy since the average Nigerian cannot even afford fake Prozac. To watch US television talk shows is to see the truth of another Yoruba adage: Ayo lo n pani, ise kii pani, which roughly translated might mean it is too much joy that kills, poverty doesn't. In the Nigeria of today of course poverty kills, but that was not the case in the days gone by when the saying truly had meaning.

In America too much joy - even if it doesn't kill you - certainly messes you up pretty bad. Here is a nation of people for whom things are so honky-dory that they invent problems for themselves. My dad never hugged me and that's why I became a serial killer. If I had N100 each for the number of times I have heard Americans utter similar and shouted at the TV screen: Come to Africa and see what real problem is! More Americans are in therapy than perhaps anywhere else in the world; psycho-babble is the new American gospel and its Chief Apostle is Dr Phil. How highly would they rate on a happiness scale? If asked in a survey, most of them would readily verbalise their unhappiness, define it and contextualise it.

Then take popular entertainment. When was the last time you cried to a piece of Nigerian music? But in popular (western) music, for every song that tells you to "Jump Around" or "Get Ur Freak On", there are twenty that ask you to weep in time to the music for some imaginary lost love. And how we weep - those with over-active tear glands among us anyway. One British band from the late eighties, Enigma, even went as far as to call their most famous single "Sadness Part 1”. Kurt Cobain with his group Nirvana sang the angst-ridden anthem of troubled youth: "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The millionaire icon promptly crowned his disaffection with life by committing suicide, and is revered in death by millions of equally disaffected western youth for his tortured genius.

Now that's a phenomenon alien to our music. However weary you are, put on your favourite Nigerian musician and next thing you know, you're dancing round your house like a merry fool. Our music induces joy; it is sunshine on compact disc; Prozac for the ears and the soul.

Soon after the happiness survey came another league table that firmly put us back in familiar territory. Transparency International (TI) published the annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI). It rates countries according to the level of corruption and Nigeria is at rock bottom, at number 132. Only Bangladesh is rated lower than Nigeria and methinks the Bangladeshis may have been 419ed; could they possibly be more corrupt than we are? One thing is certain, in Nigeria the stakes are higher - and therein lies our tragedy.

TI chairman Peter Eigen says of corruption: "Millions are left in misery and poverty, and that provides the breeding ground for hopelessness." It is that hopelessness that has eaten away into the lives of Nigerians. And the outright callousness of successive leaders has made it almost impossible to see a brighter day. Sometime last year, I saw a piece on the BBC website about Nigeria entitled: "The Land of No Tomorrow." My spirit rose like a vanguard against this writing off of my country as a lost cause. I was going to fire off an email lambasting them but defeat set in and weighed heavily down. What arguments could I readily advance to convince the BBC they were wrong? I regret to report that I couldn't think of many.

But to dismiss the findings of the New Scientist survey is to deny outright the notion of happiness as survival mechanism. An oppressed people can find the strength to carry on by tapping into the well of happiness that defies the logic of their daily existence. The Israelites of the Old Testament were greatly troubled and yet possessed this peculiar happiness. During slavery, blacks toiling their lives away on the plantations of America's deep south were not completely devoid of it either. Listening to old negro spirituals, one hears the slaves singing of their painful burden through which emanates a certain joy of living. Those spirituals evolved into modern soul music which straddles the realms of joy and pain, belonging fully to neither.

Here in Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo Kuti wrote the soundtrack to our lives - and the problems he sang about a generation ago have not gone away, they’re worse. Adams Oshiomhole was to have led the people into "the final battle", now called off - deferred to another day. He spoke recently about the continuing relevance of Fela's music and mentioned in particular the song Suffering and Shmiling, which Comrade Adams believes conveys a truth about the Nigerian spirit. "When you travel around Nigerian cities, you really see people who are suffering and spare a minute, you might see them smiling. It is not a reflection of their state of being, but a reflection of their fighting spirit, a determined people."

Could there be a more fitting tribute to the common man in Nigeria than these words of the labour leader? Ordinary Nigerians are, in the words of another song, "people who smile when they are low"; who have nothing and yet manage to give. Perhaps this is the happiness that the New Scientist celebrates: happiness as a reflection of the fighting spirit; a signifier of indomitable humanity. To lose this spirit is to throw in the towel, to concede defeat. The day will eventually come when the call will sound for "the final battle" against oppression, and where would we be without our fighting spirit?

  • Published on Nigeria2Day Online, October 13, 2003

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