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'Happiness' is not for Indians yet

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In the World Happiness Report of 2015 of the United Nations on 158 countries India has slipped from 111th place in 2013 to 117th. This, obviously, means that people in India have become unhappier during the last two years. The report covers the period from 2012 to 2014 and takes into account not just individual satisfaction and wealth but also broad contentment that includes social support, high healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, perceptions of corruption, pro-sociality – the kind of conduct that may include honesty, benevolence, cooperation and trustworthiness.

With Switzerland expectedly topping the list, Nordic countries make up the top five. South Asia generally is in the bottom half and what is perhaps a reason for concern is that India has been ranked below Pakistan and Bangladesh – two countries that of late have been facing Islamic terror and yet their happiness quotient has come out to be higher. Bhutan, which practices the concept of Gross National Happiness and inspired the study through the UN General Assembly, has been ranked 79th – higher than India, yet a not-too-high a rank, given the head start it had in reckoning “happiness” (as against “product”) as a metric for growth and development.

According to the Summary of the 2015 report, the world has come a long way since the first report was launched in 2012. It asserts, “Increasingly happiness is considered a proper measure of social progress and goal of public policy. A rapidly increasing number of national and local governments are using happiness data and research in their search for policies that could enable people to live better lives”. We in India, however, are not aware of any move to collect “Happiness” data at city, state or country levels to enable the administration to frame policies to mitigate the general feelings of unhappiness and misery. If at all this has been done, apparently, the official organisations responsible for collection of such data have been doing so in a surreptitious manner. Not a word seemed to have been breathed to the media.

That, of course, is another story and not material to this piece. What, however, needs to be pointed out is that over the last three or four years the method of measurement of “Happiness” has been refined. The 2012 report was based basically on the assessment of “Happiness”, whereas the succeeding reports have, in addition, assessed the feelings of “Wellbeing” among those who were surveyed. “Wellbeing” is being measured in the United Kingdom and OECD countries and perhaps measurement of “wellbeing”, especially “subjective wellbeing”, will be true reflection of people’s quality of life – as against the “gross domestic product”. We know how during the years of high growth rates in the country’s GDP quality of life of vast numbers of people did not improve in any way. Poverty, mal and under-nourishment, high infant and maternal mortality rates have continued to haunt the nation.

The report has been produced on the basis of some data that are already available with a few international organisations and others were made available by Gallop World Poll (GWP) against eight constructs, viz. (1) “GDP per capita” in terms of Purchasing Power Parity taken from World Development Indicators released by World Bank in 2014, (2) “Social Support“ available for individuals is the national average of binary responses (of either 0 or 1) to GWP question, (3) data on “Healthy life expectancy” has again been borrowed from World Health Organisation and World Development Indicators (4) “Freedom to make life choices” is again a national average of binary responses to the GWP question “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life”, (5) “Generosity” is the national average of the responses to the GWP question “whether you donated money in the past month”, (6) “Perceptions of corruption” are again national average of binary responses to GWP poll to the question “whether corruption was widespread in the government and also within business” (7) “Positive affect” is defined as previous day’s affect measures of happiness, laughter and enjoyment” and (8) “Negative affect” is defined as the average of previous-day affect measures for worry, sadness and anger.

As of the eight above, GDP per capita in terms of Purchasing Power Parity and figures on “Healthy Life Expectancy” have been taken from relevant international organisations there is some kind of finality about them since these are based on national data fed to them. Predictably, per capita GDP and healthy life expectancy are depressed and have apparently pulled the country down a few notches. The life expectancy was stated in January 2014 to have risen in cases of both the genders. But “Healthy life expectancy” is quite another matter – given the state of environment, sanitation and healthcare in the country. A google search failed to reveal India’s “Healthy Life Expectancy”.

Brief comments on each of the six constructs are as follows: Prevalence of “social support” is generally insignificant. It is the lucky few who are able to network and can expect support in times of physical or emotional distress. But indifference of general public to distressed fellow humans is graphically exemplified by accident victims or molested females in public spaces in the country who are left to deal with their misfortunes themselves.

Any kind of “Social Support” cannot be taken as a given in India like in more developed countries. Similarly, the freedom to make “Life Choices” of a largely poor, illiterate/semi-literate and unskilled population residing in a country bereft of job opportunities has got to be restricted. And, if one does not have enough to live a dignified life how can he be expected to show “Generosity” by making donations? “Public and Business Corruption” cases have, of late, caught the attention of everyone. Almost every day new cases of fraud of mindboggling amounts are revealed. When huge amounts of public money find their way into private pockets the probability of “Happiness” of vast numbers of people would necessarily recede. Besides, in rural or urban life “Negative Affects” top the “Positives”. Barring a few financially well off, the masses, by and large, get back home harried and distressed after their daily struggle.

Though inspired by Bhutan which is trying to shun consumerism, the report is basically meant for economically advanced countries which, after becoming prosperous, are now trying to take the lives of their citizens to a higher level of contentment and emotional wellbeing. Several countries reportedly are increasingly making use of the World Happiness Reports to fill the gaps in their respective systems to better the quality of life of their peoples. Economic wellbeing enables them to study the problems, if any, and change gears, if needed, to provide for a more fulfilling life of their citizens. Admittedly, material prosperity alone can neither be the sole objective of socio-economic development nor can it give people a sense of “Happiness” and “Wellbeing”.

However, in a highly populous country like India with illiterate/semiliterate or unskilled population that is generally engrossed in somehow making a living, such reports have, at best, only academic value. For such countries, measuring “Happiness” of the people is, therefore, a peripheral issue that can be put off for some other time, overwhelmed as the Indian and state governments are currently with the job of taking succor to the country’s hungry and undernourished millions. Hence, nothing would, surely, be done on the basis of this report in India just as no action was, apparently, taken on the 2012 and 2013 reports. Placement of the country at 117th position, therefore, seems very charitable. “Happiness” and “Wellbeing” of Indian masses do not yet figure in the lexicon of Indian administration.


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