In any given week, Ohood bint Khalfan Roumi gets the strangest requests: My parents won’t accept my marriage. Can you help convince them? I got a traffic ticket. Can you fix it?
Or sometimes it’s just a humble appeal: Please make us happy.
Why the unusual requests to this woman, an economist by training? Roumi is the minister of happiness for the United Arab Emirates, a role that was created a year ago when she was among five women appointed to the Persian Gulf nation's 29-member Cabinet (bringing the number of female ministers to eight).
Resolving domestic spats and tackling consumer complaints is not really Roumi’s job. Her position, the brainchild of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, is to promote happiness and a positive attitude in government, and life.
Roumi says it’s no laughing matter.
“This is serious business for the government,” she said during a recent interview in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. “What is the purpose of government if it does not work toward the happiness of the people? It’s the duty and role of the government to create the right conditions for people to choose to be happy.”
Those conditions include creating an environment in which people feel empowered, and providing sound infrastructure, opportunities for a good education, jobs and healthcare, and ensuring that people feel safe and secure, Roumi said.
“We have no intention as a government to impose happiness, or mandate it, or force it,” she added. “We’re just doing the right thing for our people ... so they can have a better life.”
Happiness is trending
It might not seem a novel concept. After all, the United States enshrined the pursuit of happiness in its Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago.
But the idea of making society’s happiness a governmental responsibility is far from universal. It does appear to be gaining momentum, however.
The tiny Himalayas kingdom of Bhutan has led the way since the early 1970s, when it instituted a Gross National Happiness Index, which measures happiness based on psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance. In 2013, Venezuela created a vice ministry of Supreme Social Happiness and Ecuador named a state secretary of "buen vivir,” or good living.
In recent years, Thailand and the United Kingdom have launched surveys to measure well-being, while other governments have commissioned reports to explore the benefits of happiness in a country’s overall development.
The United Nations has called on member states to place more emphasis on happiness as a measurement for social and economic development. The organization now publishes a World Happiness Report and recently published its fourth edition, which ranks 157 countries from happiest (Denmark) to least happy (Burundi).
The UAE, an oil-rich nation of 9 million, ranks 28th on that list; the United States is No.13.
“Happiness is of interest right now, because there is better and better evidence that it can be meaningfully measured and meaningfully affected,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the center for sustainable development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a coauthor of the happiness report.
Roumi is believed to the first minister of happiness in the world, and certainly in the Middle East, a region racked by violence and often more associated with anguish than joy.
“Some people may laugh at [the idea of nurturing] happiness, thinking it is silly and fluffy,” she said. “I assure you, it’s a science. It touches on medicine, health, social sciences. We’re trying to bring it from a broad framework into a daily practice in our society [and] in our government.”
Spreading the message
During the last year, Roumi said at least 70 people contacted her via the mobile messaging app WhatsApp or calls to her office.
“Most of them are complaints about government services,” Roumi said. “Sometimes they think I am the complaints officer for the government, which is not my role. But I help.”
Where possible, her office puts people in touch with the appropriate government entity. Other times, Roumi picks up the phone and handles the query herself.
She called the woman who wanted help in getting her parents to accept her husband.
“I told her, ‘You need to convince them,’” Roumi said. “This is your life. I’m sorry, I would love to help, but this is not part of my scope.”
Then there was the case of fishermen who were upset after the government banned them from fishing from four months to allow fingerlings to mature. They said the decision was ruining their happiness.
“Is this the happiness we want?” Roumi asked. “We want sustainable happiness, because they will be happy fishing but then they will cry because they will lose their income because there will be no fish.”
“When we talk about happiness, I don’t refer to pleasures or momentary feelings,” she said. “It’s the authentic, long-term happiness.”
Several Dubai residents, randomly questioned, said they liked having a minister of happiness.
“I think it’s a good idea because people are caught up in their work and their lives and their routine,” said Halah Hussein, 27. The ministry “will help them focus on other things than just going to work. It will also help them to be more creative and more willing to give back to the country.”
“When you think that someone is worried about your happiness, you will feel like you want to be happy too,” said her sister Sara, 23.
The road to joy
A self-described fashionista whose voice assumes an infectious energy as she expounds on her role, Roumi seems to be — well, happy.
The fact is, she initially swore off government work.
Roumi is the second of seven siblings, six of them girls. Her father, Khalfan Mohammed Roumi, served in government for two decades in various roles, including three Cabinet positions. Roumi recalled how he spent most of his time in Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital, and visited his family in their hometown of Sharjah only on weekends.
“I saw his life. I saw how tough it was,” Roumi said. “So I made the decision that I would never, ever join government.”
With a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in public administration, she joined the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Although Roumi won’t say how old she is, in 2012 she made the list of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders under 40.
Ultimately, she couldn’t stay out of government.
She was chosen to join a program that trains future government leaders. She landed a job as head of economic policy in the prime minister’s executive office, then was told in February 2016 that she was being appointed to the Cabinet.
Content to serve in any capacity, she didn’t ask which role she was to assume. When she learned it was happiness minister, Roumi admitted to being a little befuddled.
“What am I supposed to do?” she remembered thinking.
Happiness patrols, positivity officers and days of optimism
She set off across the globe in pursuit of clues, visiting Bhutan and Denmark, among other countries.
Armed with tips from other nations, Roumi spearheaded several initiatives during her first year in office.
She launched a survey to measure how employees feel about their work environment. She introduced online “happiness meters” in city offices, where people can record their satisfaction by clicking on emojis, including a smiley face, a neutral expression and a downturned mouth. She conducted a national happiness survey, the results of which are still being reviewed and compiled.
She introduced a “100 days of positivity” campaign, in which students, teachers and administrators take a pledge to practice positive behavior.
She sent 60 “Chief Happiness and Positivity Officers” to the Haas School of Business and the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and to Oxford University’s Mindfulness Center and the What Works Center for Wellbeing in the U.K., to be trained in how to create a more positive workforce and, ultimately, a more joyful nation.
In October, Roumi unveiled a “Happiness Patrol” in Abu Dhabi. Instead of handing out traffic tickets, police reward law-abiding motorists with gift vouchers and credit to their cellphones.
The highlight of Roumi’s first year came last month when she organized a global dialogue on happiness as part of the annual World Government Summit in Dubai.
Academics, scientists, governmental leaders and international organizations from across the globe convened to discuss the advancement of human happiness.
Feedback from workshops and panels will be compiled into a guidebook, but Roumi said the discussions had led to one conclusion: “Happiness is not a luxury for people; happiness is a fundamental human goal.”
Accusations of hypocrisy
But not everyone is smiling.
When her position was first announced, critics — most notably outside the country— accused the UAE government of hypocrisy, given accusations about its poor human rights record at home and its involvement in regional conflicts, such as Yemen.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have documented human rights problems in the UAE, including limitations on civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly, arrests without charge and the exploitation of migrant workers.
Women remain subject to discrimination in law and in practice, notably in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody, according to Amnesty International, and are inadequately protected against sexual and domestic violence. (The government insists that gender equality is guaranteed in the constitution.)
Further, citizens do not have the right to change their government or to form political parties, the State Department reported.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, UAE Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan defended the country’s commitment to “justice, international law, human rights, the pillars of good governance, as well as the importance of providing an enhanced environment of happiness to its citizens and residents.”
Women's empowerment had “become a central policy” in the country, Al Nahyan said.
All in the service of happiness.
“I think it’s a journey,” said Roumi. “We’re building a culture. We’re defining something very new for the government. It will take some time.”