March 26, 2006

Bangladesh: The land of happiness

Lesson in happiness from the poor of Bangladesh - Sarah Freeman

Money may make the world go round but, according to new research, a richman's world is not a fun place to be. Sarah Freeman reports.

It's the kind of research designed to make even the most altruistic of us feel uncomfortable. While here in Britain we have been channelling our energy into votingthe likes of Sharon Osbourne, Jordan and Kate Moss into the top 10 ofcelebrity mums, speculating on who's next likely to be voted off The Apprentice and wondering whether we'll ever have enough time in the day to transfer our CD collections on to an iPod, the materialistic world we live in has suddenly been given a nasty shock. The people apparently so bent on bursting our bubble of comfortable existence are researchers from the University of Bath, who after months of studies, revealed that while the Western world has spent decades and incalculable amounts of time and energy developing the latest gadgets, building the very best in luxury spas and aspiring to fame, fortune and world domination, the secret to real happiness is actually being kept alive in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Apparently, eight out of 10 people in Bangladesh - a country where almost half the population lives on less than $1 a day - describe themselves as happy, 79 per cent of all social and economic groups there claim they are content with their lives, and a further 38 per cent went all out by describing themselves as "very happy".

Of course, having all the choices of Western consumer society inevitably brings deliberation and worry, and if you have no reason to spend hours debating whether a laptop is better than a PC, or defending subscribing to Sky TV as a necessity rather than a luxury, it's perhaps no surprise that the path to happiness is an easier route to navigate. But what the people of Bangladesh seem to have clung on to is that while you can aspire to pretty much anything, the reality is that if your family set-up is troubled, no amount of money or material possessions can compensate. The love of a good man or woman is not, it seems, only priceless, but it is also recompense for even the most apparently arduous of situations. "Some of the older people we spoke to strongly valued close and harmonious relationships with family members, to the extent that they even enabled them to ignore physical hardship," says Dr Allister McGregor, director of the research project. "Even though at times they don't get enough food to eat, these people were still happy because they have good relationships with the rest of their family. "What it showed is that we need a view of poverty that is more than just about income. Income is important but other aspects are also importantin producing a good quality of life. People are not happy just because they have a good income, they are trying to achieve something more than just material wealth. "Researchers from the University's Wellbeing in Developing Countries(WeD) project questioned 1,000 households in four rural areas and afurther 500 in two urban areas. And on finding higher levels of happiness in Bangladesh than those found in many developed countries, with considerably larger average incomes, the accepted equation that money equals a better standard of lifestyle and therefore greater contentment with the world may have to go back tothe drawing board. The vast majority of the Bangladeshis who took part in the questionnaire cited family and community life as a key factor in determining theirsense of happiness, and older women valued being treated affectionately by their sons and daughter-in-laws as much as receiving financial support, while older men gained satisfaction from participating in and influencing community affairs. Clearly there is a cultural divide. In Britain, there has been much talk of the long-term effects of amilynest, holding on with both hands to the years when mum will do the washing and have a hot meal ready for them at the end of the day. However, the family unit appears to have greater longevity in Bangladesh, with young men admitting living with their family "made themfeel happy", and their wives citing pleasing their husbands and their mother and father-in-law as key factors in their quality of life.

The research team, who have been studying the densely-populated country as part of a five-year project, said the results demonstrated a need to rethink the traditional approaches to tackling poverty, which tend to befocused on increasing individual wealth rather than on the community asa whole. "There have been what are known as micro-finance schemes launched in Bangladesh - where money is loaned to women, who are judged as the morereliable source of repayment," adds Dr McGregor. "But while the intentions have been good, they have also led totensions, divorce and even domestic violence. "The beneficiaries of economic growth in Bangladesh and India now live in big houses, fenced-off with barbed wire and patrolled by security guards. "While no-one is advocating we give away our hard-earned possessions and swap the latest spring fashions for sack cloth and ashes, as the financial year comes to an end, the research is a timely reminder if nothing else that money can't buy you love, and it certainly can't be exchanged for happiness.

sarah.freeman@ypn.co.uk24 March 2006