What’s happiness and success? Ask the Mauritians

Green hills and the vast expanses of water have a calming influence on the mind in Mauritius. Photo/LINLEY BIGNOUX

What is happiness? While what ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle called eudemonia means many fuzzy things to many people, the United Nations had no such qualms, recently crowning the island republic of Mauritius as the happiest country in Africa.

Mauritius’s glowing scorecard on the UN Happiness Report 2012, conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute in the USA, was based on citizen perceptions of overall service delivery in the country and surveyed over a year using seven key objectives.

Employment, equality, education, health, anti-corruption, environment, and culture were all polled, and the miniscule island topped them all.

Nevertheless, for many Mauritians, it seems that happiness comes naturally, as presented on the report’s tally.

If Mauritians are so happy, how can happiness be evidently measured? Moreover, if so, what is the source of this happiness in the country?

Since the advent of scientific progress emerging from the Industrial Revolution, psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers have tried to define and shape the very meaning of happiness, using data from many nations around the world to show that happiness has a subjective explanation, with many forms of happiness being either a mental or emotional state of comfort.

Mauritius island, often referred to as “The Star and Key” of the Indian Ocean, is the quintessential paradise island, with thousands of travellers arriving each year in search of a sun-soaked odyssey.

A pleasure box of white powder beaches and stunning oceanic scenery best sampled from some of the world’s most prestigious hotels, the travel brochures proclaim that in Africa, happiness is to be found here.

But do the citizens themselves think so?

“I must agree that Mauritius has rightly earned its title of being the happiest country in Africa. For instance, Mauritius has better infrastructure and purchasing power, if we are to compare it to most African countries,” Karuna Rana, 24, and a former youth adviser for Africa to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), says.

“But we have to consider some things too; money is not a true measure of happiness, it depends on individuals, but again we do live in a beautiful place, we are chilled out, we go to the beach a lot, and we finish work earlier than other countries around the world too,” she says.

But Karuna points out that to her, the definition of happiness is elusive if not intangible, and even harder to measure.

She says that part of Mauritius’ big economic success is contributed by the state of the people’s mind in general, but it is not the only thing that makes inhabitants joyful.

“To me, it makes sense wherever you are in the world; when you feel happy and not stressed you are definitely more productive and this may translate into people liking going to work and stuff. Another thing is that the political stability in our country is one of the best as compared to other African countries,” she adds.

“Education has a good deal to do with it because access to it is free, including free transport for students. The crime rate is a bit high I believe, but people have security and safety and this accounts to a happy population,” she said.

Christophe Malherbe, a 50-year-old street snack vendor in the central town of Rose Hill says: “Look, it depends on what you want to call happiness. I mean 20 years ago I was happy, and today I’m happy; I’m happy in what I do as job.”

Christophe thinks it is the island’s family relationships that make people happy, not money or status, as is widely believed, and reiterates that people come to Mauritius because of its laid-back lifestyle, further making Mauritians happier.

“In Mauritius you will find that the bonds with family are quite strong, we are a multicultural society you know and we all get along. Yeah we had trouble in the past, but that happens everywhere you go, but our family is important. We are happy because we have nice beaches and good rum and good food, I think,” he says.

“Look at all the tourists who come here. They love it. It’s our lifestyle. We don’t need a lot of money, but I’m not sure if we can say we are the happiest, as I’m happy because of different reasons.
“We don’t have the we-can-do-it attitude that other countries have; we have the No-Problem attitude. Maybe that’s it,” Christophe says.

Retiree Axel Roussety, a former marketing director, differs.

“I think it’s the contrary, I don’t think it is true that we are the happiest. It depends how they are measuring these things, so many of these statistics are just comparisons with other countries, like going to the beach and buying things; it is not happiness,” he says.

“I believe that we were happier 20 years ago, but this all depends on people’s perception. How can you define it?

“With the rise of materialism, I think we as a country are not happier as well, materialism is not happiness,” he adds.

Architect Rajat Tirkey, an Indian national who has lived in Mauritius for the past 11 years, says Mauritius is an attractive place to live and that you do not need a course in beauty to appreciate that the beautiful scenery of green hills and the vast expanses of water have a calming influence on the mind.

“A healthy mind means a happy mind. For most Mauritians, their personal lives revolve around their primary as well as secondary families. This attributes greatly affect a person’s mental health and happiness. To be able to call upon someone in your family, whether old or young, is still not considered a taboo here as seen in some societies.

“A comparatively low level of crime and corruption in public life is also a big contributor to the quality of life. Although petty crime does exist, it does not pose any substantial threat to the average Mauritian family. Also, institutionalised corruption is practically non-existent as compared to some developing economies.

“From the point of view of an expat, all these factors bring that much added value to life over and above contractual relationships with employers. I believe right now Mauritius is at a crossroads, but there is hope of a very bright future. And hope, more often than not, is a contributor to happiness,” Axel says.

He adds: “Geographically, Mauritius is part of Africa, but still outside it enough to be unaffected by its social and political ills. Mauritius is in a position to gain the benefits of the future growth of Africa. It is also connected demographically with the fast developing centres of Asia — India and China.”

Notable novelists in Mauritius have frequently described happiness in terms of living a virtuous life rather than merely as an emotion, a concept the Greeks called eudaimonia.

So happiness in this sense may make the island just happier than most other countries in the region.

However, this is not the first time Mauritius has been placed among the happiest countries.

In 2006, the Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation ranked Mauritius 56th place worldwide and 5th in Africa, a region topped by Tunisia.

Recently, the Mauritian media, and more distinctly columnists and opinion writers, have argued that measures of public happiness should be expended to supplement more traditional economic measurement tools like gross domestic product and purchasing power parity.

Conversely, political commentators have suggested that evaluating happiness has to include public policy on the island, more notably on environmental affairs that include sustainable development, clean air, and water for Mauritians simultaneously, that this would be more of an accurate standard to gauge happiness.

Economists and scientists have argued that money coupled with positive or pleasant emotions oscillating from satisfaction to extreme joy is happiness.

With a variety of biological, psychological, religious, philosophical, and financial methodologies, they have for centuries endeavoured to define the word happiness and ultimately classify its sources.

While the definition of happiness is not often clear, the distinction of what it means can be measured rather instinctively.

In the past 15 years or so, Mauritius has experienced robust economic and social growth — typical of a transient economy — leading to the average Mauritian citizen earning, and spending, more.

Together with better public infrastructure, low crime, a natural environment that is fiercely protected, and a sense of family belonging, Mauritians based on this declare themselves collectively happy, even if happiness remains a subjective concept for most.