Life's a happy song

It's true that happiness cannot be measured. But, isn't it a pleasure that happiness has now evolved from being a philosophical concept to a global movement?

If you are a keen follower of politics, you must have heard about the controversy that broke out some time ago over the revised gross domestic product (GDP) data under the previous Congress-led UPA regime. Contrary to what was declared earlier, the recalculated figures revealed a low economic growth rate during the UPA rule. But even as the BJP government and the Congress continue to spar over the revised figures, the world over, GDP, which has been the standard measure for gauging economic success, continues to lose ground.

It has always been thought that higher the GDP, the better a country and its people are doing. That is no longer so. GDP doesn’t rule supreme anymore. More and more countries are choosing happiness over it. GDP is no longer considered the only indicator of a country’s growth and prosperity. Instead, happiness and well-being of the citizens are now being incorporated into planning and policy-making processes.

Origins of ‘happiness policy’

Choosing happiness as a measure for evaluating public policies and social development is a radical idea for sure. An idea that traces its origin to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where references of the existence of a happiness policy have been ascertained to as far back as the 1600s. Back then, however, this early happiness policy focused on encouraging people to embrace the Mahayana Buddhist goal of spiritual enlightenment. And it was only in the 1970s that the 4th king of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, made history when he declared, “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross National Product (GNP).”

But the initial GNH philosophy wasn’t as progressive as it was made out to be. The Bhutanese monarchy is said to have chosen to preserve Bhutan’s Buddhist culture over conventional methods of development.

Furthermore, the ‘One Nation, One People’ policy in the 1980s also came under fire for forcing all citizens to conform to the traditional Drukpa attire and speak the Dzongkha language. This led to widespread protests and violence in the country with accusations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of minority groups, especially the Nepalese population, the Lhotshampas, who were forced to flee the country and end up as refugees in Nepal.

With time, of course, Bhutan opened up to the world, embraced development, and likewise the happiness policy too evolved to include other factors. It adopted a more holistic approach when it came to measuring the progress of a country. The GNH Index was developed based on four pillars: that of good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. Later, these four pillars of GNH were further expanded to include nine other domains, which also took into account the health and psychological well-being of citizens among other inter-related factors that are important for creating conditions for happiness.

GDP vs. Happiness

Bhutan wasn’t the only country to shun GDP. Simon Kuznets, the late American economist, statistician, and Nobel Prize winner who built the foundation for GDP metrics, was also aware of its limitations. In the 1930s he stated, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.” Kuznets wasn’t the only one. Along with him, a growing number of economists started questioning the efficacy of this popular metric.

Defined as the final value of the total goods and services produced by a country in a specific period, GDP has generated a whole lot of criticism. One common argument that goes against it is that it does not calculate the goods and services that cannot be valued at market prices. For instance, black market activities, voluntary services and unpaid work do not find their way into GDP estimates. A homemaker’s contribution towards the household is overlooked when it comes to calculating GDP. But if one pays wages to a cook, cleaner or a day-care service provider, then these expenses are added to GDP.

Similarly, should a farmer wish to grow agricultural produce for personal consumption and not sell it in the market, the value of the produce and the work done is not taken into account. Then there is also the argument that GDP recognises some costs as benefits. Market transactions made towards combating pollution, or repair works after ecological disasters are considered in the nation’s calculations of GDP, making it a flawed metric. It is obvious that GDP is neither an accurate measure of welfare nor an indicator of well-being.

Prof Hema Swaminathan, chair & associate professor, Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, further adds, “GDP is not concerned with the quality of growth; thus as a statistic it is not worried about employment generation, types of jobs being generated, and more importantly, on the distribution of income and wealth. These factors affect the quality of life and one’s sense of well-being.”

Acknowledging the shortcomings of GDP, the United Nations (UN) has since 2012 declared March 20 as the International Day of Happiness. The same year, the UN General Assembly also adopted the resolution ‘Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development’, recognising that GDP did not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of the people. It called for member states “to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better-captured the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development, with a view to guiding their public policies.”

Every year, since then (with the exception of 2014), the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network has come out with an annual Happiness Index to rank the countries by their happiness levels. According to the report, all the top-ranking nations tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.

In 2018, Finland topped the list with other Nordic countries occupying some top spots. India featured 133rd amongst 156 countries, slipping down from the 122nd rank in 2017.

And despite that India’s GDP has shown an upward trend over the last few years, our dismal happiness rankings state otherwise. Similarly, the US and China, despite high per capita income gains, featured low on the happiness scale.

Elaborating on this trend, Prof Swaminathan says, “If the economy grows at 10%, but if all the growth is captured by the top 1%, GDP calculations would be agnostic to this issue. Recent estimates suggest that inequality in India has risen sharply. What it means is that the benefits of this growth that India has enjoyed in the last 15 years or so have not been spread across the population.” She further adds, “The World Inequality Database shows that the pre-tax national income share of the top 1% has increased from 13% to 21% between 1995 and 2015. For the same period, the share of the bottom 50% has declined from 21% to 15%. Thus, even as GDP numbers look good, there could be social unrest due to rising aspirations, lack of jobs, poor social mobility and so on.”

According to Transparency International, India also featured amongst the “worst offenders” when it came to ranking the most corrupt countries in the world. Ironically, Bhutan too did not fare well and placed 97th in the Happiness rankings. For a country that introduced the GNH concept to the world, we expected better.

While critics have expressed concerns arguing that happiness being a subjective feeling may not always be something that can be accurately measured, the idea of reorienting public policy with happiness and well-being at the core is steadily gaining acceptance amongst world leaders. According to the Global Happiness Policy Report 2018, “The conditions for achieving happiness within a nation are becoming increasingly well understood, thanks to advances in survey data, psychology, and comparative social analysis.”

Action for happiness

Prof Swaminathan says, “Understanding happiness and well-being is extremely relevant for policymakers. An individual’s sense of well-being and happiness may be derived from non-monetary sources. It could be driven by one’s perception of safety, law and order situation in the country, quality of governance, corruption levels, satisfaction with our politicians, fear of persecution based on identity or sexual orientation etc. In short, these aspects go well beyond standard indicators and can prove useful in understanding the multi-dimensionality of human aspirations and realities.” Of course, she also says that we need to understand these measures and work with them reliably.

In 2008, former French president Nicholas Sarkozy commissioned a French economist and two Nobel Laureates including Amartya Sen to develop a framework for measuring happiness and well-being and include these in governance policies.

Likewise, in 2010, the UK established the Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme, aimed at monitoring and reporting how the country was faring, with the help of accepted and trusted set of national statistics. In 2018, the UK further appointed a Minister for Loneliness – to tackle the problem of isolation and loneliness amongst its citizens.

In 2013, Venezuela formed the Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness, while Ecuador followed suit by appointing a State Secretary for ‘Buen Vivir’ or good living. In 2016, the UAE appointed the world’s first Minister of State for Happiness and Well-being “to harmonise all government plans, programmes, and policies to achieve a happier society.” Having rolled out a Happiness Agenda and the ‘Smart Dubai’ initiative, the UAE today is probably one of the most proactive nations when it comes to adopting happiness in public policy across sectors.

And while South Australia is well on its way to becoming the ‘State of Well-being’, New Zealand too has caught the attention of economists with its recent ‘Well-being Budget’. This list, however, is not exhaustive, as other countries have also slowly started introducing some forms of happiness measurement tools and indicators in policy settings.

Happiness & Indian policy-makers

Back home, in 2016, Madhya Pradesh was the first in the country to have a happiness department or Anand Sansthan. Some initiatives launched by the department are — Alpviram, which aims at bringing a positive disposition in the outlook of people in general, as well as government employees and officers. According to official numbers, around 50,000 people have been introduced to this concept till now.

Anandam encourages people to engage in the ‘Joy of Giving’. The idea is to give the more fortunate a platform to share their surplus with the lesser-privileged. People are expected to leave their surplus belongings at predefined spaces from where the deprived could collect items of use. This arrangement of Anandam has been established in every district of the state with the help of public representatives and citizens. A popular sports and cultural annual event, Anand Utsav, is also organised involving the participation of around 7,500 village panchayats.

This year, with the help of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, the MP government plans to conduct a comprehensive and all-inclusive survey to measure the level of happiness in the lives of its citizens. Also on the anvil is the launch of the Hindi version of an online course, ‘A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment’, offered by the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

Andhra Pradesh was the second in line to establish a dedicated happiness department. When contacted by Sunday Herald, the Andhra Pradesh Happiness Commission revealed its goals and shared its current plan of action. With the objective of “securing a better quality of life by ensuring low levels of pollution, congestion-free roads, effortless accessibility to government services etc,” the Happiness Commission also aims to “create a support system that shall overlook health and education, safety and security, and work towards reducing corruption within the government as well as business.”

The state government has also identified six key themes under which it has planned to promote a host of activities. These being — healthy lifestyle, ease of life, protecting natural resources, adventure and outdoor activities, creativity, and behavioural changes. For instance, one of the initiatives under adventure and outdoor activities is Happy Sundays, which aims at bringing people together and involving them in sports and activities such as hiking and trekking.

The Delhi government, too, has introduced happiness classes for children up to class 8 as part of the regular curriculum for all government schools.

With so much going on, it would be safe to say that happiness has evolved from being a philosophical concept to a global movement.

In 2017, the first Global Dialogue for Happiness was held at the annual World Government Summit in Dubai, which saw world leaders, economists, academics, corporate executives and other dignitaries gather to discuss ideas, evaluate policies and review attempts being made to bring happiness to the fore.

And while it is a good thing that governments are going all out in their efforts to raise the levels of happiness of their citizens, for a country like India, happiness initiatives, if launched in tandem with raising the standards of living of the population in general, would certainly show better results. As Prof Swaminathan puts it, “Happiness departments and external activities may help, but what really everyone wants is to live a life of dignity, and freedom from the violence of hunger, poverty, ill health. Without guaranteeing basic rights to the people, establishing happiness departments is a smokescreen.”

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