Nigerians are still happy, this is a problem

Travelstart Nigeria

The World Happiness Report (WHR) is out and it turns out Nigerians still seem quite happy.

The report, which ranks 155 countries by their happiness, ranked Nigerians as the 6th happiest people in Africa and the 95th happiest in the world. I guess it shouldn’t come as a big surprise as Nigeria has a long history of being happy. Or as Fela put it, ‘Suffering and Smiling.’

In 2003 the World Values Survey revealed that the world’s happiest people lived in Nigeria. The study, which was carried out over a period of three years, reported that Nigeria beat more than 65 countries to claim the top spot. In 2012, a Gallup poll revealed that Africans were the world’s most optimistic people. In Nigeria specifically, 88% of people were optimistic about their futures.

I remember hearing about these polls and being floored, ‘Nigerians are the happiest people in the world, how? 88% of Nigerians are optimists, why?’ I was living in London and I’d seen on the news and read in the papers that Nigeria was almost always on the brink of a cataclysmic disaster because of a) terrorism b) poor leadership c) corruption d) a combination of all three. My visits to Nigeria were too brief and skewed for me to have any real insight into the country, but seeing these polls intrigued me.

So much so that my friend, Neha, and I decided to investigate how happy Nigerians were by making a documentary about it. We interviewed people about their attitudes towards happiness and drew a similar conclusion to the Gallup poll: Nigerians are an optimistic bunch of people. At the time I found it heart-warming, impressive even. In the face of so many problems, Nigerians had such resilience, such boundless hope for the future. It almost seemed like a superpower, whatever was thrown at Nigerians, they could take it. I felt proud. Those reports about Nigeria being on brink almost didn’t matter, maybe outsiders didn’t have much faith in the country, but the country had faith it itself.

The Gallup poll didn’t see it that way and had its own conclusion about why optimism was so rife in Africa: “Optimism may be widespread in these countries simply because people cannot imagine that their lives could get any worse.” After living in Lagos for a while now, I have to wonder if the Gallup researchers were right. Are Nigerians really ‘happy’ or are they just saying they’re happy the same way some people say ‘I’m strong’ when they actually mean ‘I’m sick?’

The WHR report outlines areas that are key to increasing the happiness of citizens: “care, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.” If we take just a brief look at Nigeria according to those variables, things don’t look good.
According to the World Health Organization, as of 2015, life expectancy in Nigeria was, 53 for men and 56 for women, respectively – one of the lowest in the world. Nigeria has an ‘alarmingly high’ maternal mortality rate and according to The Paediatrics Association Nigeria, as of 2017, one million children die annually from preventable diseases.

Despite the current administration’s ‘war on corruption,’ Transparency International ranks Nigeria as 136th out of 178 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index with a score of 28 out of 100. Poverty is rife as is inequality. Despite a growing youth population, the first ever Global Youth Wellbeing Index in 2014 ranked Nigeria bottom, making it the worst country, of those ranked, to be a young person. I could go on and on.

So the question remains: are Nigerians happy and if so why? Because it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to be happy about. Deep down I know what it is, we all do. The tired trope that ‘one day, Nigeria go better.’ The fervent belief that some day, in the hazy future, things will miraculously ‘get better,’ (‘better’ never has a tangible or concrete meaning, rather just sweeping general statements), despite little evidence that this will ever be the case.

How many Nigerians have spent their lives earnestly believing this only to end up disappointed? Yet they cling on to this mantra with all their might and pass it on to their children and their grandchildren, taking pride in the fact that Nigerians are resilient. But at what point does resilience and adaptability stop being a strength? When does optimism stop being a good thing and become irrational? And isn’t Nigeria there yet? For all the country’s optimism, what is there to show for it?

In Nigeria the idea of happiness seems more like a future aspiration that may never be realized, than a present concern. Maybe it’s easier and more comforting to believe in a better future than concern yourself with an unhappy present. Or maybe the Gallup researchers are right, and optimism wins because for some people, things just can’t get any worse.

The chapter in the report focused on Africa is titled, ‘Waiting for Happiness,’ which seems fitting. So perhaps the real question isn’t how happy Nigerians are, but how long are they willing to wait?

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