In pursuit of happiness

WELL BEING INDEX

In pursuit of happiness

What makes us happy? Just what is happiness? Happiness is a rather subjective notion. Some regard it as an achievable spiritual state of being, others as a fleeting mood. It’s a tough thing to pin down. Yet, despite the difficulties, researchers have attempted to measure happiness and have come up with some interesting findings.

Although it might be tempting to believe happiness is mainly the result of an individual’s inherent disposition, French sociologist Emile Durkheim discovered long ago that feelings of well being are linked to the type of society we live in, its social fabric and belief systems. Durkheim noted that the compulsion to commit suicide was very often the result of society’s failure to inculcate people with collectively embraced values. When this occurred, he found that many experienced a state of anomie (normlessness) and that, consequently, the suicide rate went up.

If wider society is as influential in shaping personal feelings as he suggests, we may well then ask, just what type of society is best for nurturing happiness?

In 2006, the first ‘Happy Planet Index’ (HPI) measured happiness across 178 countries. The small south Pacific island of Vanuatu was the happiest nation. Germany ranked 81st, Japan 95th and the US 150th. The index was based on consumption levels, life expectancy and reported happiness. Although Vanuatu was top, it only ranked 207th out of 233 economies when measured against Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Wealth vs happiness

Over the last 60 years, living standards in the West have improved enormously, but, from these findings, it appears that people have not become much happier. However, the impact of wealth on happiness should not be discounted. 

Ruut Veenhoven, from the World Database of Happiness (WDH), argues that wealth can actually be a very reliable predictor of happiness. According to the WDH, people in Denmark and Austria report being happier than people in the Philippines and India, and people in those nations report being happier than people in Armenia and Zimbabwe.
If this is the case, why do some wealthy countries, such as the US, rank lowly in certain happiness surveys? Well, high GDP doesn’t necessarily mean that any increase in wealth has been shared equally. Unsurprisingly, many citizens may therefore be unhappy. And, even when personal income has increased, always being on the verge of redundancy or experiencing other related insecurities can increase stress. Furthermore, as expectations rise due to society becoming more prosperous, a feeling of relative deprivation can become widespread if opportunities are blocked.

So, it appears that while wealthy western nations use up vast quantities of the world's scarce resources, many of their citizens are not much happier, or indeed less happy, than those who belong to poorer countries that use far fewer resources.

Some have therefore questioned the current focus on GDP. The endless striving to increase it may not only be ecologically destructive, but doesn't always deliver a better quality of life. In fact, Bhutan places emphasis on ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). Although over 30 per cent of Bhutan’s people are in poverty, GDP per capita is among the highest in South Asia and it has made tremendous strides in education and tackling malaria. While the country recognises a need to modernise, it is attempting to do so within the framework of its Buddhist values. It acknowledges the importance of economic growth, but also encourages the promotion of culture and heritage and the preservation and sustainable use of the environment. GNH comprises nine components of happiness: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, all of which can be quantifiably measured. 

What we may therefore need is for nations to live within their environmental limits. Perhaps we should look no further than Costa Rica. The 2009 version of the HPI ranked it 1st. Costa Rica also gained top spot in the WDH, which is based on respondents self reported happiness on a scale of one to 10. Costa Ricans scored 8.6. Denmark followed at 8.3 and Togo and Tanzania were last at 2.6.

Costa Rica dissolved its armed forces in 1949 and invested heavily in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society and boosted the economy. Rising education levels also nurtured impressive gender equality and improvements in health care, which means that life expectancy is now about the same as in the US. Education and health may therefore be a far better investment than military hardware for improving the quality of life and a general sense of happiness.

Countries that are highly unequal and lay great emphasis on military power, such as the US and UK, don’t always fare too well in happiness surveys. Perhaps, they could take a leaf from Costa Rica, or even Denmark.

According to the World Values Survey in 2007, Denmark was the planet’s happiest country. Denmark is not just wealthy, but its people feel safe because emphasis is placed on social equality and robust welfare policies. Indeed, Scandinavian countries always come out near the top of quality of life and well-being surveys, usually quite a bit ahead the UK and US, which have adopted a more strident neo-liberal policies.

Countries that are said to be happier tend to avoid undermining the ability of future generations to prosper and people in other countries to live fulfilling lives. The policies of western countries have often run counter to this ethos, and, in the 1970s, the writer Ivan Illich developed a scathing critique of western institutions.

Illich criticised western style institutions by believing modern medicine is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security and the rat race for productive work. He argued that the traditional social fabric has been ripped up, and, in a futile pursuit of happiness, in its place are institutions designed to facilitate social control and the craving for ever more consumer goods, resulting in a negative impact on social relations at home and abroad and the global environment.

Is development good?

In India, we don’t have to look far to see alternative models of development based on non-consumerist and communal forms of living. The Auroville community, in Puducherry, was set up in the 1960s as an experiment in human unity that is concerned with sustainable living and the cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of its 2,200 plus residents. Elsewhere, the Navdanya organisation has trained over 5,00,000 farmers in sustainable agriculture and is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge and culture. Another example, recently in the news, has been the initiation of a government backed project in Dandi and surrounding villages in Gujarat, based on the Gandhian values of village development and environmental conservation.

Such projects acknowledge that the pursuit of material wealth to the exclusion of all else impacts negatively on health and the quality of personal relationships, which are among the most potent predictors of whether people report they are happy.

These initiatives may well be on the right track. According to the Human Development Index (HDI), economic growth in itself seems to have little to do with all round well being. Indeed, several poor countries have caught up with much richer ones in the non-income aspects of the HDI, such as life expectancy and literacy. Despite high GDP growth, India ranks 134th among 182 countries in the HDI.

An over emphasis on the pursuit of economic growth can undermine or destroy quality of life and lead to greater unhappiness. In fact, according to the World Map of Happiness, Indians are an unhappy lot. Based on standards of wealth, health and access to education, it ranks 125th out of 178 countries.

Look no further than India’s urban centres as to why this may be. In a headlong rush to blindly ape the West, its cities are increasingly defined by their traffic-jammed flyovers cutting through fume choked neighbourhoods that are denied access to clean drinking water and a decent infrastructure. Scratch a little deeper, and you can see that its institutions are being moulded to fuel the consumer culture that Ivan Illich was once so critical of. Away from the cities, the influence of agribusiness, dam building and state-corporate grabs for land are leading to upheaval, conflict, great unhappiness and ecological destruction.

But we are told that this is ‘development’ and ‘good’ for ‘the country’. I guess it depends on just ‘who’ the country is meant to be and therefore whom all this turmoil happens to be good for. 

Many less wealthy countries do well in happiness surveys because cultural priority is placed on family and friends, on social capital rather than financial capital, on social equity rather than corporate power. When decisions are taken to invest heavily in education and health as well as in self sustaining communities, local economies and the environment, happiness is boosted.

In September, world leaders attended the annual UN General Assembly. The PM of Bhutan proposed that happiness be included as the 9th Millenium Development Goal. Some laughter ensued, followed by a round of applause. Taken as a bit of a joke perhaps? But why should it be? World leaders could do much worse by taking a firm lead from the Bhutans and Costa Ricas of the world. They seem to be doing something right.

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