Updated  
April, 06 2014 14:33:00

Viet Nam seeks the secret of happiness

Profits: Vu Thi Lan and her family earn about VND150 million (US$7,100) each year from growing cacao and coconut trees. They were recognised as one of the exemplary production households in Ben Tre Province's An Khanh Commune. — VNS Photo Duong Ngoc

Are the Vietnamese people happy?That depends on how you define happiness. However, a new index likely to be publicised in 2015 will attempt to stick a number on that subjective truth. Hong Thuy reports.

Kindergarten teacher Tong Thi Minh felt like she was walking on air.

She had come to know that her video clips showing teachers and students getting into a nylon bag one at a time and being individually pulled across a swollen stream by a strong swimmer had resulted in a new suspension bridge being promised for the Na Hy ethnic people.

"I'm so happy to know that a bridge is to be built across the Nam Po stream for the Na Hy people and my students. Words cannot describe my happiness," Minh said with a broad smile.

No doubt, it is good news not only for Minh, but also the people in Sam Lang Village in Na Hy Commune in the northern mountainous province of Dien Bien.

As every flood season brings the same problems, adults and children in the village have had no alternative but to swim or be hauled across the stream, though deep and strong water currents could sweep them away any moment.

This highly dangerous method of travelling, however, will soon come to an end as Minister of Transport Dinh La Thang has pledged to build a bridge worth VND3.5 billion, or US$166,000, in two months to prevent the people, especially children, from risking their lives.

This is the result of a simple message delivered by Minh to other teachers, inspiring them to get accustomed to the travel without fear. But the kindergarten teacher was probably unaware how her action could bring happiness to her and others.

"I had no idea about the usefulness of my video clips, otherwise I would have sent them earlier," Minh said, not trying at all to hide her happiness.

Behaviourists like B F Skinner, who was the most influential psychologist of the 20th century, would interpret Minh's happiness as a state of emotion she experiences when she does something good or positive.

This behaviourist point of view believes that it is simply human nature to behave in such a way that he or she would receive a reward.

In this sense, Skinner implied that happiness can be shaped and controlled by society. If one wants to change suffering into happiness, he or she must change the external environment.

Though Skinner's view tries to refute the beliefs of other psychologists that one must alter his or her inner self first before he or she can fully experience the change that they want, Vietnamese leaders are likely to adopt either method.

Speaking at the International Day of Happiness in Ha Noi on March 20 this year, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam stressed that happiness is complete only when the citizens in an independent country have an increasingly comfortable material life and a healthy spiritual life.

In addition to this, the Deputy Prime Minister said the people must be masters of their country and its development process. All are eligible for a well-rounded development, while striving for authenticity, honesty and integrity.

In an attempt to achieve the goals and to make the International Day of Happiness come to life, Dam called upon the people to support and share with each other to achieve happiness.

"Practice love, compassion and sharing to find moments of authentic happiness for yourself and the people around you, especially your family members," he said.

Apparently, the pursuit of happiness has become collective, though it can be experienced personally and can mean different things to different people.

Quality time: Mothers and children spend time together at a park. — VNA photo Trong Duc

What is happiness?

Associate Professor Dr Trinh Hoa Binh of the Institute of Sociology defines happiness as a state of elation that happens when one is pleased with what he or she possesses as well as finds contentment in the values or goals they have achieved. The values or goals can be material and spiritual.

Former director of the Institute of Social Sciences Information, Professor/Dr Ho Si Quy claimed that happiness exists both within and beyond man's expectations, regardless of his attitude or selfishness.

"Unfortunately, people have valid reasons to not imagine that they are happy. Likewise, happy people have enough reasons to believe that they are not fortunate," Quy said.

In most cases, happiness is synonymous with a peaceful and warm family, success at work, a wide network of friends and colleagues, good financial status and a meaningful life, according to Associate Professor Pham Thanh Nghi of the Institute of Human Studies.

Because happiness is multidimensional and not measured only by subjective wellbeing, Binh said, the happiness index is to orient the people and the nation towards common domains of happiness.

Economic growth

The Happy Index for the Vietnamese people is being put under microscope for the first time and is expected to be made public in 2015, according to deputy director of the Family Department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Tran Huong Duong.

Explaining the reason why there has been no official study about the Happiness Index in Viet Nam, Binh said the Vietnamese people are deeply influenced by the so-called rational needs of individuals.

Thus, instead of having increasingly high and diversified demands for material and spiritual needs, the Vietnamese people have learnt to constrain and satisfy themselves with bare necessities, also known as rational needs.

"Such thinking has influenced the way people perceive happiness as being 'humble'," Binh said.

Asked which of the factors - a comfortable life, equality, social progress and happiness - are the most important to build a happy family, 27-year-old Nguyen Hoang Dong said without any hesitance:

"It is obvious that a comfortable life and equality are the leading ones. Only when the family, the vital cell of society, leads a comfortable life is the society able to progress."

A survey conducted among 400 people in Ha Noi and the northern province of Hai Duong in 2008 indicated that stable economic conditions of the family play an important role in guaranteeing its happiness.

Specifically, as many as 73.3 per cent of the respondents said that living in comfortable circumstances would guarantee family happiness. Another 25.2 per cent said that happiness comes when the family's economic condition is good. The rest 1.5 per cent said wealth brings happiness to the family.

Regarding the relevance of happiness to economic development, Binh said unless economic growth is the core element, it is impossible to guarantee development, generally understood as the general welfare of the people.

"If economic growth cannot be achieved, then there's no need to talk about happiness," Binh said.

Family matters: A family goes shopping at Sai Gon Supermarket. — VNA Photo Thanh Vu

Different world view

Though there remain various concepts and understandings of happiness, Quy believes that a happiness index for the Vietnamese becomes more meaningful in the face of the current socio-economic development.

"The rich-poor gap and different understandings of success and life have become big enough to prompt the Vietnamese people to do self-assessment about the meaning of life," Quy said, adding that it is essential to assess what kinds of people or groups - rich or poor, people holding high social positions or wage earners - are happier than others.

While Viet Nam is yet to study or announce what happiness means to its people, western researchers seem very optimistic about the nation's happiness.

In 2012, the New Economics Foundation, a British think-tank that promotes social, economic and environmental justice, ranked Viet Nam as the second happiest country in the world after taking into account the three primary indicators of life expectancy, experienced well-being and the ecological footprint.

Many people may be surprised at the high Happy Planet Index (HPI) rank of Viet Nam, when they know about the worries of inflation, underemployment and sluggish economic growth which weigh heavy on the minds of many.

Explaining this, Binh said HPI is better considered a reflection of the overall level of optimism of the Vietnamese people and their belief in their ability to improve their lives rather than an expression of contentment with their current living situation.

There are crucial elements which contribute to happiness, including material life, political regime, human rights and a harmonious development between the individual and society, rather than it being a simple expression of contentment with each other, Binh added.

Celebrating family: The Viet Nam Family Festival in Ho Chi Minh City. — VNA /VNS Photo Trang Duong

Professor Quy pointed out that almost all meters that western researchers have been using to measure the happiness of the Vietnamese people seem to be inappropriate.

"I suppose that what Westerners feel happy about may not be the same as what the Vietnamese feel. Thus, when using foreign happy index meters to measure the happiness of the Vietnamese people, the outcome is a suspiciously high rank," he said.

For this reason, some Vietnamese researchers want to build a new theoretical framework and a new measurement method to assess the happiness index of the Vietnamese. The process has just begun and the first step is the hardest, Quy added.

"If a precise measurement of happiness is made available, then policy makers, managers, every community and individual will be able to verify what the meanings of labour and life are," Quy said.

The happiness index could also subvert expectations and make us question what happiness is for the Vietnamese, if such a thing exists. Finding the answer to this question will take time.

Yet, the one thing certain is that the ongoing construction of the new bridge across the Nam Po stream for the Na Hy people has brought happiness to kindergarten teacher Tong Thi Minh and the local people.

This formula of happiness needs to be expanded, as Director of the Dien Bien Department of Transport Nguyen Dinh Giang pointed out that more than 50 rivers in the province need suspension bridges and more than 125 old suspension bridges are in a state of disrepair. — VNS

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