Happiness is the ultimate purpose of our existence, whether as a conscious or unconscious decision. It is every human being’s inalienable right. Yet, how do we measure happiness? It comes in so many different forms and for such diverse reasons that there can never be a consensus of what constitutes happiness.
The world will have you think that happiness is determined by material conditions; the great ancient religions, by asceticism, virtue and moral character. Balancing spiritual and material happiness is a tightrope walk that few have mastered. In our personal quest for this most elusive ideal, we often seek the path of fame, fortune and pleasure. But these are means to an end, ephemeral. As the great Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out: “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” It stands to reason then that the sum of your life, as lived from moment to moment, equals happiness. That is the fundamental philosophy of life. But philosophy does not always translate well into reality. In actuality, a lot depends on where you live, and the contributions of that city to your well-being.
For long, GNP (gross national product) was the measure by which the world gauged the well-being of a country. But this did not take into consideration the contentment of an individual within a society. In July 2011, the UN General Assembly passed a historic resolution inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies.
Yet, in doing so, many factors come into play, factors such as urban and rural, the economic divide, society and community. These contribute to the fluctuation of well-being between citizens of a particular city. The variables are more so between countries when national wealth, human development and environmental conditions are taken into consideration. So it would seem almost a futile exercise to try and determine the happiest city or country. More practical would be to measure the broad parameters of economic, social, cultural and political effects that contribute directly to the well-being of a person.
“Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy,” say the editors of the World Happiness Report (WHR) 2016*. According to WHR, Denmark ranks as the happiest country, followed by Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. It is interesting to note that WHR ranks India 118 after Pakistan at 92 and Bangaladesh at 110!
The editors have arrived at the happiness index using six factors: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations), relative to a hypothetical country called ‘Dystopia’.
The editors, all independent experts acting in their own capacities, have leveraged data from the Gallup World Poll for their analysis. “The rankings are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the poll. This is called the Cantril Ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale,” explains Kris Hodgins, manager, Gallup Analytics.
Statistics aside, it’s what the citizen on the ground has to say that really matters. A quick poll around the globe elicited these responses: Politics, government
In the annual survey (ASICS) of governance parameters done by Janaagraha, a non-profit Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, all major cities in India fall short on the parameters evaluated. “We believe all four parts of the framework: planning, transparency, capacities and legitimate political representation must be addressed in a holistic manner and work in tandem for ensuring a good quality of life in our cities,” says Anil Nair, senior manager, Advocacy. Nair points out that as per the 2015 ASICS survey, of the 21 largest cities in India, Bengaluru was ranked 12th.
V Balasubramanian, IAS Retd, is not so optimistic about Bengaluru. “There is no administrative will within bureaucracy, let alone political will among leaders to pause and think of the future.” The tragedy, he says, lies in the fact that “the central and state administrative leadership are antagonistic to each other. This causes problems in resource flow from centre to state”.
Goa meets with the same verdict. “Corruption is rampant, and demonitisation has hit the common man, and not where it was supposed to hit!” says M L Tavares, a prominent educationist. Agricultural land, arbitrarily taken for development without adequate compensation, is further aggravation.
David Venus from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, seems as disenchanted with his government. “MPs are selected by people in their own area to represent them; these are career politicians and not truly representative of the people,” he says.
There is an echo across the seas from Italy. “My city, Trento, has been among the top three Italian cities when it comes to high living standards. But, unfortunately, my city does not reflect the actual situation in Italy. A slow growth GDP rate since decades, high unemployment rate among people between 20 and 35 years, and unable politicians are destroying every potential that my country could offer,” says Egon Mutschlechner, project manager.
The Middle East seems to fare better. “We have been blessed with a kind and benevolent leader, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, under whom we enjoy peace, stability and economic privilege,” says fashion and lifestyle blogger Rachel George who has lived all of her life in Muscat, Oman, and now considers it home.
Stacie Wideman, self-employed at her family-run spring manufacturing unit, believes that while government transparency is extremely important, it does not mean much if citizens do not get involved. Fortunately for the residents of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, USA where she lives, the local government has “town hall meetings on important issues or new city development where citizens can ask questions and voice their opinions on the subject. It is set up so that you can listen in on the meetings at home on your phone as well.” One such citizens’ victory was when a proposal to increase sales tax (which would have made it the highest in the country) did not pass. Infrastructure
The United Arab Emirates has proven just why they are ranked No 3 in Asia (world rank No 28) on the Happiness Index. Theirs is perhaps the only country in the world that has no taxes, yet citizens receive world class infrastructure. Healthcare and education (including education abroad) is free, electricity and water are heavily subsidised. Generous grants are given for housing as well as for marriages. In addition, the ‘Khafeel’ scheme allows local Emiratis a 51% stake in business without having to invest a fil. While all these schemes are aimed at local Emiratis, foreigners living in the UAE partake of the good life too.
While taxes in many parts of the world are as high as 40-45% of a person’s income, citizens get a lot in return. “Safety and infrastructure are what put Japan ahead of other parts of the world. We have a very good national healthcare system too,” says Japanese translator Rita Sugano who lives in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture.
Austria receives as glowing a report. “The infrastructure here, whether it’s the electric buses, clearing of the snow in winter, maintaining parks to free education in schools and free medical services add to the quality of life and the feeling of community rather than being individualistic,” says regional marketing manager, Nolita Lobo, speaking of Salzburg. We see our taxes working for us, compared to Italy or India,” she says.
“Broken Arrow has a good public school system and a large majority of tax dollars go to the running of public schools. Tax dollars also support libraries, public parks, community centres, government and social programmes,” says Wideman.
“Do we like living in the United Kingdom? Yes, it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad, we have a lot of good with our public services and council facilities, but the real pride is the National Health Service,” says Venus.
To those of us in Indian cities who feel we do not get recompense for our taxes, Frenchman Jean-Marc Dalle offers an explanation: “The Chinese prepare (anticipate) everything before building something, in India that’s the opposite, and all the problems are addressed in a reactive mode when it becomes a problem!”
Safety, law & order
Safety, or the perception of safety, is crucial to living anywhere. In many parts of the world the stark inequality of living conditions is what contributes to the breakdown of law and order. Natural disasters and human terror organisations are rapidly growing threats. It is an ongoing battle for many governments; but not impossible if the will is implacable.
Dr Anil Kashyap, International Federation for Housing & Planning Council India representative, shows in his case studies how Rio De Janerio “that historically struggled to ensure good urban safety... through the integration of monitoring technology, hopes it can mitigate risks associated with both social and natural safety concerns”. Similarly, Kashyap points to Preston, UK. “With the addition of a Community Engagement Officer, Preston’s local community has built a programme aimed at the creation of safe and inclusive local environments.”
“Hong Kong has a great blend of security, stability, sustainability and freedom providing a strong springboard to happiness,” says Penni Mannas Diefendorf. The author, Core of Steel series, says that Hong Kong enjoys a “peculiar kind of freedom where you can be anything and do anything, regardless of background or education!”
Sometimes though, the best of intentions go haywire. Despite having the entire police force out, Bengaluru witnessed the shameful New Year’s Eve debacle, prompting a wry comment from Michael van der Veen: “Of course, Bengaluru is a happy place — now you can do a Trump anytime you want!”
Robust law enforcement, even for minor traffic infractions, makes UAE one of the safest places to live in. A non-existent gun culture ensures the absence of gun-related deaths. Even petty crimes like mugging, thefts and burglary are almost unheard of.
“Japan has a very low crime rate and I love not having to worry... There is an absolute zero tolerance for drugs here. People are polite and the focus tends to be on the community rather than the individual person. They work hard and show us the importance of doing the least little thing properly and with respect. There is great attention given to detail. No one is looked down upon because of what they do,” says Sugano.
Culture & community
Both of which we have in abundance in India! Though there are some that will argue to the contrary, and barring the disruptive elements that attack the fabric of our society, Indians have no hesitation in embracing their neighbour’s food and festivals. We can, by and large, rely on our compatriots in times of trouble and you can expect a warm welcome from a neighbour any time you choose to visit. This is true for many Asian cities, though the same cannot perhaps be said for Europe.
New Zealand, it would seem, is as genuine in its hospitality and warmth as we are in India. “I can really appreciate the genuine authenticity of the people in New Zealand... the way in which NZ society is open to difference, and celebrates diversity, is unparalleled in my experience,” says Rhea Mohenoa, social worker and family advocate.
It is said that Bhutan is one of the happiest places on earth due, in no small measure, to the fact that this country, situated in the Himalayan Mountains, still has well over 60% of natural wilderness. Living with and surrounded by nature definitely has advantages compared to pounding through a concrete jungle all day long.
Mohenoa agrees. “In New Zealand, you don’t need to drive longer than an hour to find a space of tranquillity and beauty... it is a beautiful country, both in landscape and culture, and is really just a slice of heaven that you can’t quite match!”
Lobo puts it into perspective when she cites it a “privilege” and a “joy” to be able to come home to the quiet of the mountains and its stunning beauty in Salzburg. “We love that the locals work hard to preserve their heritage and nature.” This, then, is the underlying global truth: “citizen involvement”!
This is the eventual weight that tips the scale in favour of happiness. While many are still caught on the hedonic treadmill, increasingly the more courageous are jumping off to balance the scales in favour of what they love. “When the mundane duties of life are efficient and seamless to the point of non-existence, it leaves one free to just be — surely the happiest of happiness one could wish for!” signs off Diefendorf.
(*Helliwell, J, Layard, R, & Sachs, J (2016). World Happiness Report 2016, Update (Vol. I). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network. World Happiness Report management by Sharon)