image missing

World Happiness Index: Measure of Success or Excuse for Failure?

Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get. -- W P Kinsella

With the recent release of the World Happiness Report 2019, the World Happiness Index (WHI) is in the news. It has caused a furore in India as it has ranked India a lowly 140 out of 156 countries, pushing Indians to rethink the validity of the WHI. Is it a true measure of real success in life, or is it a consolation prize for those who cannot score on more concrete measures like Per Capita Income? Is happiness a state of mind that depends on an individual, or can it be a reflection of the quality of life of the general public in a country?

Not only is happiness subjective, but even the term ‘happiness’ means different things to different people. It can refer to, among other things, positive emotions like contentment and joy, life satisfaction, subjective well-being which combines both, or eudemonia which depends on excellence and virtue. For the purpose of public policy studies, measures of life satisfaction make the most sense. As early as in the 18 th century, the English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that happiness was a primary goal of humans and was a measure of the quality of government performance.

The World Happiness Index was developed by the UN General Assembly in 2011 as a measure of holistic development. Member countries were invited to measure public happiness and use it to guide public policy. The WHI is based on a Cantril Ladder Survey, which means that representative samples of survey respondents in each country are asked to rate their own current lives on a scale of 0 (worst possible life) to 10 (the best possible life). The World Happiness Report correlates the results of the happiness survey with various life factors. While the index itself is based on the respondents’ self-assessment of their quality of life, we cannot dismiss it as a subjective, biased, meaningless number. The report shows a significant correlation between this self-assessed Happiness Index and six key national average life evaluations – Per Capita GDP, Social Support, Healthy Life Expectancy, Freedom to make Life Choices, Generosity, and Freedom from Corruption. There can be little argument that these six life evaluations are a comprehensive assortment of hard and soft quality-of-life indicators. The WHI is clearly a holistic measure of development of a nation rather than an indicator of subjective personal emotions.

If India has to move up the ranks of the happiest nations, we must come out of denial. We must not hide behind conspiracy theories and suspect the reliability and validity of the index or the survey’s results. We must analyse the causes of our unhappiness, rather than blaming a foreign hand or an internal enemy. We need to take an honest look at how we are doing on the six key life indicators and face the brutal truth. Despite tremendous growth in our Per Capita Incomes, the rising inequality between the haves and the have-nots is causing greater envy and anxiety. Well-meaning, grandiloquent public welfare schemes have floundered in the implementation phase, leading to a threadbare social support system. Corruption and red-tapism leave the neediest and deserving scavenging for crumbs, while the lion’s share is diverted to the coffers ofthe rich and powerful. Public health spending in India is far below even the global average, leave alone that of the advanced countries. The poor, undernourished, unhealthy billions are forced to depend on the deplorable public healthcare system. Those who can afford private health care are not much better off, as they are fleeced by unscrupulous doctors and hospitals without getting proper treatment in return. Rampant, unchecked air and water pollution, pesticide use, adulteration, self-medication, illiteracy and ignorance, superstition, all contribute to poor health and life expectancy. Freedom to make life choices is severely restricted in India, right from what we wear and what we eat to where we live and whom we meet. There is little choice or mobility in an ossified social order that decides the hierarchical position of individuals in society, based on their gender, caste, religion, class, and other accidents of birth and affiliations of choice. Generosity and altruism are decreasing across the board in India. At a personal level, nuclear families and urban migration are making selfishness a virtue, while at a national level, the belligerent stance against refugees is in stark contrast to the open arms policy of Finland (the unsurprising leader of the World Happiness Report). Corruption, both coercive and collusive, has long been a way of life in India. It is interwoven in the fabric of India’s political, legal, and commercial systems, and is a root cause feeding the vicious cycle of poverty, deprivation, oppression, and despondency. Is it any wonder then that we are an unhappy lot?

Economically, the tariffs are imposed on the other country when there are unfair trade practices and when a country wants to reduce its import and save the domestic manufacturer. Recent U.S. China Tariff imposition, U.S. has punished Beijing for restricting US investment in China. The US also accused China of stealing American intellectual property, Chinese firms imitating US technologies and Chinese exports are stealing the manufacturing jobs in the U.S., which is against the WTO framework. India has also accused China of disrupting the international trading system through hidden subsidies, currency manipulation and, more recently, technology theft.Now, we analyze the geopolitical aspects of the trade war. Historically, we have two Opium wars of 19th century fought between the imperial powers (Britain and France) and China, as example of aggressive trade war to influence the geopolitics and to prove the hegemony. In both these wars, the imperial powers won and got the commercial privileges and territorial concessions in China. These wars show how a country had been ruined by the imperial powers  not just militarily, but economically and politically also. Therefore, trade wars are not only to disrupt the rival's economy but to weaken its hegemony also.

We can treat the findings of this report as a clarion call to wake up and change things. It is not an easy task to turn things around when the problems are as deep-rooted as they are, but we must resist the temptation to make cosmetic changes and temporarily raise morale through diversionary tactics and colour the sufferings of the common man as a virtuous sacrifice and national contribution. Instead, we must take specific concrete action against each issue. Income equality should not be eliminated by bringing down the rich, but by raising the poor. Fiscal and taxation policies should be designed to reduce poverty, unemployment and inequality. Social support has to be provided by the government directly and through the support of voluntary and charitable organizations. Check and balance mechanisms should be incorporated throughout the implementation chain. Public health and education spending should be increased and made more efficient and effective. The medical system should be properly regulated, and patients should be neither over-treated nor under-treated. Preventive medicine and healthy lifestyles should be promoted. Mental health issues should be seen as a real illness and psychiatric counselling should be provided as required. There should be genuine regulation against pollution of our air, water, and food. Our heritage values of unity in diversity, tolerance, and fraternity, should all be encouraged to improve our freedom to make life choices. Easy universal access to education, employment, entrepreneurship, public facilities, and redressal systems, should empower citizens in the matter of life choices. Reactionary social groups trying to take India back into an age of ignorance under the guise of protecting our heritage should be given no political or official support. Generosity, empathy, and altruism need to become a part of our individual and national character. We need to remember to love our own and at the same time forget to hate others. Corruption must be weeded out, through stringent enforcement of rules and strict punishment for violations. More importantly, the systemic causes of corruption should be identified and eliminated. The government should stick to its job of governance and leave the business to private enterprise. In all these, modern technology can be a great enabler, together with responsible media and empowered citizenry. It is hard work, but a small price to pay for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.