For Egyptians, happiness is a warm gun

Ekram Ibrahim , Monday 25 Apr 2011

The pursuit of happiness is made all the harder in Egypt by pressures and attitudes intertwined with the country's recent and ancient history

Sham El-Nasim
(Photo: Ahram)

In addressing the purpose of life, Sigmund Freud said: “Work and love, love and work – that’s all there is.” Living in a third world country afflicted with work related problems while at the same time adapting to an emerging individualistic, consumerist society has left many Egyptians struggling to achieve Freud’s equation. (Work here does not mean employment, but rather work that has a purpose or is pursued with passion.)

“Egyptians had a beefy unused energy because of the corruption and routine work environment, so they revolted to let their energy out,” says Hani Henry, assistant professor of Psychology at The American University in Cairo (AUC).

Also Egyptians, who tend to experience their happiness through earning money and going to a shopping mall, have become consumerist by nature. “Buying things to impress people you might not even like is very common yet not fulfilling at all,” explains Henry. This shift to an individualistic society is changing the way Egyptians perceive and seek love. Romantic movies are full of action and drama and are in direct contrast to the classics, which led many to aspire to love. Today’s neglect of love means, says Henry, that “many Egyptians are thirsty for love now, leading to a colder life.”

Interestingly, Freud’s equation explains the results of the study on Determinants of Happiness and Life Satisfaction in Egypt, an Empirical Study using the World Values Survey, conducted by the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information Decision Support Center (IDSC). “Unhappiness is prevalent among old people, the unemployed and males,” the study finds.

Various Egyptians stay silent when asked for a definition for happiness. The most common response after a long silence is “satisfaction.” “While satisfaction can be good, it backfires,” says Henry. For many Egyptians, the natural response to any situation is to be passive. But suppressing anger just leads to more aggression.

This could be explained by the fact that many Egyptians do not meet with American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “first level” in his hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s psychological theory of human motivation describes five stages of human growth, noting that people cannot move from one level to the next before fulfilling that level’s criteria. The primary level is that of physiological needs such as breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, shelter and excretion. With more than 40 per cent of the Egyptians living under the poverty line, these basic needs are not easy to meet.

Added to this is the fact that Egyptians are religious meaning that “they tend go along with a bad situation, not bearing responsibility for their situation,” says Henry. “But to a great extent humans are responsible for their happiness, the key is in transcendence,” Henry told Ahram Online.

On the other side, Egyptians are also known for their creatively sarcastic jokes. These jokes have become more political since the January 25 Revolution. This character stems from the less pleasant aspects of daily life as, according to Henry, “telling jokes is a coping mechanism and to some it reflects a narcissistic character.” When jokes are based on current situations, it is a way of coping. However, when the joke is on someone else who happens to be in a better situation, it is borne out of narcissism.

It is always said that Egyptians fear happiness. When they laugh a lot, they hope God brings about the best while viewing lots of laughter as ominous. As a psychologist, Henry explains this as being rooted in the drama of Egypt’s history. The descent from being a leading civilization to a third world country has left many Egyptians with an inferiority complex. This is compounded further by struggles with wars and imperialism, which all add up to make Egyptians dramatic, paranoid and prone to a conspiratorial attitudes.

Moving from psychology to philosophy, Aristotle described happiness as “the state of being satisfied with life as a whole. For writer Dina Samir, “happiness is being at peace with oneself and being in harmony with your belief system.” The probability of whether this school of thought could be applied to Egyptians who are not able yet to meet Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is still not clear. Back to the psychology, and for Henry “happiness is subjective and it all depends on how you perceive and deal your current situation.”

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