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Above: Happiness and tolerance were the dominant themes at a school function in Dubai this February. The programme was organised under the UNESCO Associated Schools Project in the UAE/Photo: Twitter

The UAE is the first country in the world to seriously pursue happiness and has even appointed a minister for it. It keeps track of the impact through a Happiness Meter and has taken tangible steps for a better life

 By Bikram Vohra

Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without spilling a few drops on yourself.

In the editorial offices of the Khaleej Times, UAE’s oldest daily, there is a young lady called Saman whose job is to produce stories steeped in happiness. For that reason, her official designation is Happiness Editor.

It is a small patchwork in the quilt that covers the UAE, one in which putting a smile on folks’ faces and addressing their stress factors and problems, not with words but with solutions, is the thrust.

As a sincere staffer, she is a bridge over troubled waters and trawls for these stories every waking hour. Her remit includes labour camps, schools, hospitals, even jails, and wherever she gets a whiff of an emotional human interest situation, she homes in.

It is not a good news column but a deliberate helping hand effort that is now over three years old and nationwide in the UAE. The key points are hope and happiness and the dispensation of inspiration to those who need a helping hand.

In short, he ain’t heavy, he is my brother, is the operative sentiment.

The cynical might have reservations about its efficacy, but when it becomes a national priority and everyone gets aboard this train, it turns into policy and a natural habit.

On February 10, 2016, UAE Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced, through his Twitter account, the appointment of Ohoud Al Roumi (full name is Ohoud bint Khalifa Al Roumi) as the country’s first minister of state for happiness. Her task has been to grab a little starlight and the rays of the sun and mix them with a little consideration and kindness and create this magical recipe for a better life.

How does it work? Predicated to five basic pillars, it begins to make sense. These are:

  • Providing a positive and flexible work environment
  • Encouraging employee suggestions, exchange of ideas and collaboration between teams
  • Enhancing transparency
  • Providing performance evaluations and feedback
  • Promoting the importance of building strong relationships at work.

To keep track of how effective these efforts are there is an actual active Happiness Meter. It is one of Dubai’s first strategic “smart city” initiatives. As the world’s first, city-wide, live “sentiment capturing” engine, the meter represents a measurement gauge for the upbeat mood. Those availing of public services are encouraged to give their opinion through emoticons and comments.

The Happiness Council issues annual Global Happiness Policy Reports during UAE’s World Government Summit. It meets twice yearly, once at this Summit, and then again at the United Nations General Assembly. The Council receives administrative support from the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

The reason why it is not an abstract concept is because everyone is apprised of a role. At least two hours per month is the diktat given to every federal government entity to dedicate entirely to happiness and positivity activities. This, by its very energy and incentive, will create a more positive-minded workforce, thereby transferring happiness to customers when they use government services.

It is no wonder then that the UAE has been ranked one of the happiest countries in the world, according to a new report issued from top consultancy firm BCG which released the study in collaboration with the 2019 World Government Summit. It ranked UAE above other markets, including the US, Canada, Belgium and France after assessing “income and happiness dynamics”. The data from the report shows that the UAE has increased happiness through a range of initiatives. Tangible steps have already been made such as adopting globally unique, science-based programmes to analyse happiness levels, asking people to rate public services with emoji-style reviews, assessing the impact of change and rewarding good behaviour as an alternative instead of punishing bad. The whole idea springs from making the workplace attractive and bright so that anyone seeking a service is made to feel important.

Over nearly four years, the residents of UAE have got used to it. Like with Saman, there are pivotal jobs across the board where happiness is used to make public service more efficient and address individual problems. So non-profit organisations discover how to foster the conditions necessary for employees to thrive and flourish at work in terms of productivity and engagement. The employee’s happiness at the workplace is critical be­cause it is often directly reflected in the quality and volume of services an institution offers to its customers.

The government initiative has now become an integral part of UAE life. To quote: “An emphasis on happiness and well-being raises morale across an organisation, boosts engagement at work and builds trust and loyalty among colleagues and between the employees and the institution itself.” The private sector has also picked up the baton and factored it into the work ethic in order to echo the national official policy of making service per se a pleasure.

The next logical step would be to consecrate happiness as a subject and create a college course on it and its adjuncts. This development would make the UAE the first country in the world to offer such an educational option and make it a prerequisite for a career in either the public or private sector.

A major boost to the programme which has moved swiftly from the “will it work” to the “it has worked and worked splendidly” category occurred when Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan was appointed cabinet member and minister of tolerance in the UAE. Hugely popular and a champion of sport and health with a global vision, he went about his assignment with a determination to prove that tolerance was a strength, not a weakness. The UAE has truly turned tolerance into its soft power and emerged as a global model for a prosperous and peaceful country.

Sheikh Nahyan speaks openly about the meaning of this oft-misused word. “Although the UAE is a young country, it has an impressive history of tolerance. Tolerance is part of the soft power of our country,” he said while opening the inaugural Tolerance Talks series in Abu Dhabi on August 26. He said the ministry of tolerance itself is an innovation by the government. “It is the first and currently only such ministry anywhere in the world.” Incidentally, the UAE is home to a major Hindu temple, a grand gurdwara and churches for several denominations.

The Sheikh pointedly brought up the question for which most people sought an answer. “Why, everyone seems to want to know, did we establish a Ministry of Happiness, Tolerance, and the Future, and why did we appoint a 22-year-old Minister of Youth?”

His answer was and still is relevant. “When governments spurn their youth and block their path to a better life, they slam the door in the face of the entire society. We do not forget that the genesis of the tension in our region, the events dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ were squarely rooted in the lack of opportunities for young people to achieve their dreams and ambitions.

“We are proud that the UAE is a young country. And we are proud of our youth. We invest in them and empower them precisely because they are our future. We believe that they are faster than us in acquiring and processing knowledge, because they have grown up with tools and techniques that we lacked at their age.

“We have also learned from hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of ref­ugees in our region that sectarian, ideological, cultural and religious bigotry only fuel the fires of rage. We cannot and will not allow this in our country. We need to study, teach, and practise tolerance—and to instil it in our children, both through education and our own example.

“That is why we have appointed a minister of state for tolerance. We believe that a legal framework should formalise the tolerance our society already displays, and that our policies and initiatives will provide an outstanding example to our neighbours.”

The UAE’s minister has turned back the pages of history.

“When the Arab world was tolerant and accepting of others, it led the world: From Baghdad to Damascus to Andalusia and farther afield, it provided beacons of science, knowledge and civilisation, because humane values were the basis of our relationships with all civilisations, cultures and religions. Even when our ancestors left Andalusia, people of other faiths went with them,” said Sheikh Nahyan.

It is time to bring back those days.

—The writer is the editor of Khaleej Times

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