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Reasons to be cheerful

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 3 February 2006

According to Dr Arnall, of the University of Cardiff, January 24 is the most depressing day of the year, if you live in the northern hemisphere. He supports his claim, not by speculation or anecdote, but through science, and he has an equation to prove it. His model breaks down as: (W + (D-d)) x TQ divided by M x NA, where W is weather, D debt, d monthly salary, T time since Christmas, Q time since failed quit attempt, M low motivational levels and NA the need to take action. If the science makes no sense to you, what he is saying is that, by January 24, if you live in the northern hemisphere, the fun of Christmas has worn off, credit-card bills are coming in, the days are cold and dark, and all those resolutions you made for the new year have been broken. In other words, you're sitting around feeling sorry for yourself because you're fat, broke, living in a rainy dreary climate and probably smoking too much.

Of course, if you live in the southern hemisphere, then certain parts of the equation are defunct, particularly the weather. In fact, the condition of 'seasonal affective disorder', or SAD, as it is fittingly known, a type of depression that follows the seasons, is more common the farther north you go. Of course, you can still be fat, broke and too hot in the summer in South Africa but, scientifically speaking, South Africans should be happy people with all the sunshine.

However, the World Database of Happiness (yes, it does exist) rates South Africa as 'a middle-of-range' place when it comes to happiness. South Africa scores 5,5 on the happiness scale, along with Kenya, Lebanon and South Korea. Denmark and Switzerland are allegedly happy places, scoring over 8. Ireland and the UK score in the high range, with 7,6 and 7,1 respectively. Zimbabwe and Moldova are among the unhappiest places on earth.

Having said that, the database also highlights inequality in responses between those reporting high and those reporting low levels of happiness. South Africa has a high inequality score, meaning that, although South Africans are, on average, moderately happy, some people are clearly much happier than others. This is not surprising, given the disparities in the country. That said, I am not convinced by the science of happiness and I take issue with Arnall's equation, because it is not culturally and contextually relevant. So let me help him out. If he wanted an equation for happiness in Northern Ireland, it would have to go something like this: (W + (D-d)) x TQ divided by M x NA, where W is the weather (of course), D downtime of the political institutions, d monthly salary paid to politicians for not participating in the downed political institutions, T time spent complaining that someone else has got more political concessions than you, Q time passed since blaming someone else for all your problems, M low motivational levels, owing to excessive intake of chips and Guinness and NA the time wasted watching too much reality TV. And for South Africa, happiness could be measured as (W + (D-d)) x TQ divided by M x NA, where (W) is wealth (meaning having your basic needs met, not being affluent, because we all know money cannot buy happiness), D political downtime since the last corruption scandal or the firing of a Deputy President, d monthly salary spent on replacing stolen goods, T time wasted filling in insurance forms, Q time spent braaing on the weekends, M low motivational levels, owing to losing to Australia at cricket or rugby or watching Bafana Bafana crash out of a major soccer tournament, and NA time wasted believing everything you read in newspapers and magazines.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see

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