Money can't buy people happiness

In a 2005 book titled “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science”, Professor Richard Layard, head of the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance and member of the British House of Lords, argued that societies do not become happier as they become richer. “There is a paradox at the heart of our lives,” writes Layard. “As Western societies have got richer,” Layard tells us, “their people have become no happier.” All the evidence shows that on average people have grown no happier in the last fifty years, even as average incomes have more than doubled: “In fact, the First World has more depression, more alcoholism and more crime than fifty years ago. This paradox is true of Britain, the United States, continental Europe, and Japan”.

In a recently conducted World Happiness Survey by Layard’s team, Bangladesh emerged as the happiest nation in the world. India is the fifth happiest nation in the world. Even apparently small countries like Ghana, Latvia, Croatia and Estonia are quite high up in the happiness list.

Britain ranks 32nd and wonder of all wonders, the United States, the promised land where Declaration of Independence enshrines life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, ranks a lowly 46th. Quite naturally, LSE researchers, while seeking to find a link between personal spending power and the perceived quality of life, concluded the time-worn axiom that money can buy everything but happiness. Economic growth makes us healthier, better educated,  nurtures social toleration, and a milieu favourable to art and culture, but does it make us happier? 

We Indians are absolutely soaked in the high GDP rates. But Gross National Happiness (GNH) – a term coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, committed to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values, who has opened up Bhutan to the age of modernisation — is an attempt to define quality of life in more holistic and psychological terms than GDP. This is a departure from conventional development models that considers economic growth as the be-all and end-all. GNH claims to be based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

Now, supportive of what Layard says, Notre Dame University political scientist Benjamin Radcliff argues that market-oriented societies are by nature “corrosive” to happiness and that large welfare states are the remedy. Radcliff argues that “the more we supplement the cold efficiency of the free market system with interventions that reduce poverty, insecurity and inequality, the more we improve the quality of life.” University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart shows that nations with rising levels of per-capita GDP tend to shift culturally from “materialist” values, “which emphasize economic and physical security,” to “post-materialist” values, “which emphasize self-expression and quality of life.”

India’s position
In almost all important parameters of development, India lags behind. Apart from faring poorly in the Human Development Index, India is ranked a poor 65th in battling hunger, according to the Global Hunger Index for 2009.

It said 21 per cent of the Indian population was undernourished (between 2003 and 2005), 43.5 per cent Indian children under the age of five were underweight (between 2002 and 2007) and infant mortality rate of children below the age of five in 2007 was 7.2 per cent.

In a 2009 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) — the Gender Gap Index report — measuring equality around the world, ranking of which are based on the quantum of progress nations have made in the areas of job, education, politics and health to determine gender parity, India ranked a dismal 114th position out of 134 countries surveyed.

But India is said to be happier than a host of developed nations in terms of what is called “subjective well-being” despite its low entitlements and therein lies the rub. The question is: would we like to be as “unhappy” but wealthy as America or as happy as Bangladesh? It is inconceivable to think that Indians with such an appalling degree of health insecurities, poverty levels, literacy and gender-related disparities are generally happy. If we are, then we have right to claim a better life and secure a better nationhood.

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