Governments cannot change people’s characters – some people will be either grumpy or elated whatever comes their way. Yet policies could give us cleaner cities, better health, and stronger communities, economist Dr Marie Briguglio has observed. Having written numerous academic publications about measuring life satisfaction, she has co-authored, among them, a research article titled “The Effect of the Maltese Festa on Well-Being.” The expert on life satisfaction wowed her audience at the recent Valletta 2018 conference by suggesting that that the science of Economics is ultimately about enhancing (and measuring) wellbeing, where finance, GDP and inflation are only measurable proxies.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Zarb Adami

Researchers around the world are busy building indices to measure quality of life and compare countries accordingly. One way is to add various scores in different areas, such as health and the environment. Another is to ask people how satisfied with their lives they are at the moment. Researchers then compare happy and unhappy people in search for patterns. “Some of it comes down to personalities,” the researcher says. “Governments cannot influence people’s personalities much, though they can be sensitive to the diverse effects of policy on different people.”

However, not everything is determined by whether we are generally happy-go-lucky or prone to complaining. Speaking with Eve, Dr. Bruguglio points out what tends to figure in the equation of happiness.

1. Health. The Maltese enjoy long life expectancy, but they tend to suffer from respiratory diseases and obesity. “Both of these are related to the environment,” Briguglio points out, stating that we live in an environment that encourages obesity (read about Malta-specific negative factors: traffic, fireworks, pastizzi). What could be do to change that? “In the run up to the Capital of Culture year, why not have walking and cycling routes to Valletta, for example,” asks the keen cyclist, who commutes to the university and elsewhere from Gharghur.

2. Income. That’s a no-brainer, right? Yet income makes people happier only until a certain point. Above that level, income actually becomes costly and makes people concerned with the safety of their money. Yet unemployment is known to hurt wellbeing, and happier low-income earners would make the society happier as a whole. How to achieve that? “Redistribute income, create employment opportunities for people to find jobs where they live. Space encroachment should come at a charge, which should be used to fund more public spaces, or to create community spaces within hotels, restaurants and other establishments,” says the economist.

3. Environment. Cleaner cities, more police, cleaner air to breathe would solve many problems for the Maltese population (read: how can you personally reduce the damage to the environment).

4. Participation and feeling connected. Communities where people volunteer for various causes, trust their government, and participate in the arts record more happiness. Having studied the effects of Malta’s plethora of festas, the researcher notes that mainly active participation increases life satisfaction. “Those who are passive tend to experience noise, pollution and congestion,” she adds. Being involved in the community and volunteering is known to brighten people’s lives, but they need to be convinced to dedicate their time – this should be made easier.

Although researchers warn that being a European Capital of Culture exhausts residents and does not add much to their happiness, the right efforts to improve public space, redistribute income, clean up the environment, promote volunteering and participation could list Malta among the exceptions.