Happiness in SA – a case of cheerful discontent?

Annette Willemse -- Tue, 12/01/2015 - 15:29

Happiness in SA – a case of cheerful discontent?

How happy are South Africans really? How does their happiness compare to other countries? Is the level of happiness in South Africa going up or down? These are the question asked and investigated by the Optentia Research Focus Area on the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University (NWU Vaal). 

Prof Ian Rothmann Prof Ruut Veenhoven


Heading-up the study was Prof Ian Rothmann, Optentia Research Leader and Prof Ruut Veenhoven, an Extraordinary Professor within Optentia. Together they recently analysed the available research findings gathered in the World Database of Happiness, and in particular, those in the section on South Africa in the mentioned findings archive. The first representative survey study that involved questions concerning happiness in South Africa was held in 1991 and the most recent study in 2014.

Life satisfaction

Happiness is the subjective enjoyment of one’s life as a whole; in other words, how much you like the life you lead. This is also known as “life satisfaction”.  Satisfaction with your own life is not the same as satisfaction with living conditions in your country, explain the researchers.  You can enjoy your own life and still think that living conditions in the country are poor. It is also possible for you to think that you live in the best possible country, but still be depressed.

Studies in developed nations have shown that citizens are typically positive about their personal lives, but negative about the society they live in. This difference has several reasons:

  • Individuals are better informed about their own lives than about the life of the average citizen.
  • Another reason lies in the natural inclination to pay more attention to what is wrong than what is right and the amplification of that perceptual bias by the media, for which good news is no news.
  • The dominance of the discontent with society in the media.

Are South Africans happy?

Professors Rothmann and Veenhoven found that South Africans tend to score relatively high on the affective component of happiness and average on the cognitive component. This reflects a more general pattern of cheerful discontent in broader Africa.

The findings of the study beg the question of what is most indicative of a good life: cheerful discontent or depressed contentment. When comparing the South African results to that other nations such as Costa Rica – which is at the top of the ranking list with an average of 8.5, and Togo – with the lowest ranking of an average of 2.6, South Africa with its average of 5.8 finds itself in the middle. The latter places South Africa in position 78 of the list of 149 nations.

Did South Africans become happier?

In order to assess whether South Africans became more or less happy over time, the researchers must rely on surveys that used the same questions in the same context at different points in time. The best available series comes from the World Values Survey, which was held in 1981, 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2011.

Over these years the average for South Africa was around 6, with a slight dip in the 1990s and a slight rise since 2007. So it seems that South African happiness has gone up a bit over the last 10 years. To read more about this study click here.