Happiness, harmony and Central Africa


Melbourne harmony singers Co-Cheol

A musician friend alerted me on Monday that not only was it his birthday, it was also International Day of Happiness. Once I’d finished doing cartwheels around the room in response to this spiffing news, I wished the dear boy a very happy birthday. As if that was not enough to get the cockles of the heart percolating, the next day She Who’ll Sing at the Drop of a Hat went down town to celebrate World Harmony Day.

what is Happiness Day and why do we feel the need to add yet another day (and another report) to measuring contentment (e.g. the Better Living Index or Most Liveable City Index)?

The World Happiness Report first emerged in 2012, with 155 countries ranked on key factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and, perhaps most importantly, good governance.

In 2016, Norway jumped from 4th place to the Number 1 spot, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. Finland came in at 5th followed by the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand, with Australia and Sweden in 9th and 10th position respectively.

All of the countries in the top 10 had high values in the key variables. Of these, (sufficient) income, healthy life expectancy and having someone to count on in times of troubles were ranked highly. Generosity, freedom and trust were also vital, the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government. There’s more, but you’ll have to download and read the 188-page report.

Not surprisingly, the 10 countries occupying positions 146 to 155 are there because of high unemployment, poor health care, a lack of vital infrastructure, dire poverty, civil unrest, risk of famine and gross levels of corruption. They include Yemen, South Sudan, Liberia, Rwanda, Syria, Burundi and (155th) the Central African Republic.

The country which arguably could do the most to alleviate misery at home and abroad, the USA, slipped to 19th place (from 3rd in 2007). The reasons given are declining social support and increased corruption. Author Jeffrey Sachs said the paradox in the US is that income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen.

Sachs says political discourse in the US is aimed at promoting economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream ‘and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it’.

Public trust in government has plummeted to the lowest level in modern history, Sachs wrote. Generalised trust among Americans has been falling for decades and income inequality has seen the top 1% of households taking home most of the gains in economic growth.

Sachs says the data shows conclusively that chasing economic growth is the wrong approach.

“The US can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis – rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust – rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth.”

As an aside, I’d venture that the ‘Tyranny of GDP’ is unlikely to be replaced by a president whose sworn goal is to ‘Make America great again’.

Although the report was launched at the United Nations on March 20, the authors state they are a group of independent experts acting in their personal capacities. “Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization, agency or programme of the United Nations.”

The report runs to 188 pages; petite compared with the Kingdom of Bhutan’s 360-page Gross National Happiness (GNH) Survey.  Bhutan has been keeping tabs on its citizens for a good few years now, measuring their well-being not by the western standard of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but by promoting “A Compass Towards a Just and Harmonious Society.”

Harmony and how to keep everyone in tune

As for Harmony Day, one could be forgiven for scoffing when learning this is an Australian Government initiative to ‘celebrate our cultural diversity’.

Alanis Morrisette’s song Ironic came to mind that very day, as our peerless leaders were talking about watering down Section 18 of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Section 18C was added to the Act in 1995 and makes it illegal to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of a person’s race. The Coalition has backed changes to retain the offence of “intimidate” on the basis of race, but replace the words “insult”, “offend” and “humiliate” with “harass”.

Lawyer Peter Wertheim wrote in The Guardian that the government’s proposals on section 18C, if passed, will weaken and perhaps emasculate existing legal protections against racist hate speech.

Amid this somewhat ugly debate, Harmony Day celebrations nevertheless went ahead. All three Maleny district schools joined together in a park to sing five songs, including the Torres Strait song, Innanay, then repeated the performance in a space adjoining the main street.

It is worth observing how March 21, previously International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, became Harmony Day. The name change was made by the Howard Government in 1999. Read about it here.

When anyone uses the word ‘harmony’ our immediate reaction is to break into song, which we did on Wednesday night when the power went out for an hour or so. Under candlelight our fiddle-playing, harmony-singing friend started playing that stirring Irish ballad, The Foggy Dew, which I’d heard played at the Blue Mountains Music Festival as a slow march. The Seamus Begley trio slowed the song down so you could digest the words and what they mean (how Irishmen were encouraged to join the Easter Uprising of 1916 rather than support the British in World War I).

Then we moved on to Moreton Bay, an Australian folk song about the tyranny of Captain Logan and how convicts were freed from floggings.

This is the joy of going to music festivals – you become steeped in a warm bath of melody, rhythm and lyrics and then bring it home with you.

A highlight of the Katoomba festival (apart from Sunday afternoon when the sun came out), was Melbourne acapella group Co-cheòl. These four gifted musicians held a harmony workshop on Saturday morning. Enthused, we came back to the same venue for their afternoon performance. Co-cheòl use Celtic harp, accordion and flute in their sets but they are at their best when singing four-part harmonies. No surprise to hear they were crowned Victorian State Champions and 2nd in the 2014 Aussie Acapella National Competition. Their Sunday gig was rained out, but band member Ginger Hansen told FOMM they commandeered the side room at the Clarendon Hotel and sang to anyone who happened to be there.

Earlier on Saturday, Co-cheòl had workshop participants split into four groups to learn harmony parts and spontaneously arrange the song Molly Malone (Cockles and Mussels). I was surprised that so few workshop participants seemed keen to try harmonies – a simple third, a more adventurous fifth or even a parallel fourth. I sing harmonies naturally and it was only in recent years I discovered that those vocal parts have names and a formal structure.

When organisations or governments start theorising about happiness and harmony, I tend to use music as an emotional fall-back. In my humble experience, a good dose of harmony singing, interspersed with laughter, will warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.


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James Cooke
James Cooke
March 24, 2017 12:55 pm

Amen..Your counsel and Celtic acapella group Co-cheòl is good medicine for those of us here in the USA.

James Cooke
James Cooke
March 24, 2017 2:32 pm

My sense of current events here is that we who value happiness will offer an hand up to those beside us as we mount the ramparts.