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Life lessons: Taking the first step of a happiness journey

When Thomas Jefferson drafted the American Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness” was an inalienable right in his first article. Whenever I hear politicians or business leaders talk about happiness, I always wonder how they define it so easily.

If the billions of people around the world are all different, then different things should make us happy. There will be common denominators, including health, family, meaningful work, fame or financial success, but what order they come in, if they are drivers of our happiness, could vary greatly.

The Emirates, which has more than 200 nationalities and cultures from around the world, last year appointed the world’s first Minister of Happiness.

This past weekend, I co-hosted the UAE’s first Happiness Journey, which was held in Dubai to mark International Happiness Day. It included activities and lectures from experts on the topic of happiness. The event was free, open to the public and ran for 12 hours. I have sunburned cheeks to prove it.

So what did I learn about happiness and the UAE’s approach to it? Firstly, it’s an all-inclusive effort: everyone who calls the UAE home is part of the plan. This was clear when Ohood Al Roumi, UAE’s Minister of State for Happiness, finished delivering her opening address, in Arabic.

I thought she would quietly leave the stage afterwards, but she didn’t. Instead, she repeated the speech in English. It’s pretty rare for a public official to deliver an opening address in two languages. Usually they’re just in Arabic, with translation provided.

Speaking in English was a huge statement to the inclusiveness of her strategy for the UAE. When she started speaking in English, she even said “I can’t hear you” to pump up the crowd.

For me, as a journalist who has covered government events across the UAE, it was incredible to see this, and a moment I will remember for a long time.

The final speaker, Dr Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study for Adult Development, spoke about the results of a 75-year study on human happiness. This comprehensive study of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard College sophomores from the classes of 1939 to 1944 revealed that what triggered the most happiness was a person’s relationships; not the work they did, the money they made or their belongings, but the relationships they built. One big factor was an individual’s sense of community – how engaged they felt about the people in the environment around them.

In a country as diverse as the UAE, it’s almost impossible to have one strategy that can make everyone happy. But that doesn’t mean everyone can’t come together and build strategies from the ground up, and in those 12 hours we spent together, it felt like we were.

There was a point when a couple of attendees started performing laughter yoga, and everyone started laughing. Most people, including myself, didn’t know what was going on – but laughed anyway.

I guess that’s one of the beauties of happiness: it doesn’t need to make sense, it just needs to feel right.

The concept of giving is also important for happiness. It’s scientifically proven that giving makes us happier people, and the Happiness Journey was all about people coming together and giving something back to the world; something that they were grateful for – something that they thought would make the world a better place.

Every journey begins with a single step. The Happiness Journey was the first step in bringing together an entire country in the pursuit and development of happiness in our culture. It was a first step that made a difference, because we took it together – all of the races, cultures and religions that make the UAE special.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

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