Happiness is a state of mind. A feeling of contentment, of an expectation that hopes will be fulfilled, that in the end, everything will work out well. In other words, it is what we should all want to be. Philosophers, from Voltaire to Freud, have debated on the nature of Happiness. In his seminal work, Candide, Voltaire satirises optimism, but brings out the essential nature of happiness quite well – it is often a choice, rather than an effect. A poor man can be happy, a rich man can be sad (and often is), and it is how we react to circumstance, rather than the circumstance itself, that determines which of these we choose to be.
At a national level, however, the subjective nature of happiness cannot be considered. Rather, it makes sense to aggregate data and use it to try and construct a picture of a country’s happiness levels. Since 2012, the United Nations has used a ‘Gross National Happiness’ Index to indicate the overall happiness levels within countries. The inputs used for this index currently include:
- Real GDP per capita,
- Social support,
- Healthy life expectancy,
- Freedom to make life choices,
- Perceptions of corruption.
So where does India stand on this? Basis the 2016 ranking, India is at a lowly 118. That is one rung above Myanmar (military-ruled, destitute virtual dictatorship) and just one below Sri Lanka (sufferer of a decades-long civil war). Ehtiopia sits at 115, and Somalia, with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi unfavourably compared Kerala, is well above us at 76. For the record, Denmark is the world’s happiest country (according to this index), followed by Switzerland and Iceland.
To understand why India’s ranking is below so many other countries whose economic indicators are so far below ours, it might help to understand the nature of these measures.
GDP per capita
As high as India’s GDP is, our high population means that per-capita GDP is among the lowest in the world. Increasing this is not something likely to happen within the next twenty years.
For a self-declared socialist republic, India’s social security is negligible. There is no safety-net for the vast majority of our working class, with no health or unemployment benefits. Universal healthcare remains a distant dream, and the quality of education imparted leaves much to be desired.
Healthy Life Expectancy
Though improving constantly over time, India’s life expectancy is lower than many countries with comparable economies, partly due to an infant mortality rate that is still higher than it should be. Investment in primary healthcare services at a rate accessible to all strata of society is a must in order to improve this indicator.
Freedom to make life choices
Without much elaboration, it is safe to say that India is not a country that is friendly to equal rights, for women, homosexuals, transgenders or any other section of society whose habits do not conform to the majority. Religious beliefs, food choices, drinking choices – all are restricted by the nanny state, with ‘bans’ being a popular India pastime. This parameter is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Compared to many other countries (poor one’s included), Indians donate a smaller proportion of their incomes for charitable purposes. And far too many of these donations go to places of worship, ending up as gold plating on a temple roof, kheer in a priests’ belly and not in the mouths of those who need it – and whose smiles would create a dent in that Happiness Index.
Perceptions of corruption
While this might be only parameter to have improved in the last two years, at a macro level, corruption is still an insidious disease, eating away at the strength of the nation-state, and unless curbed, must weaken us from the inside.
We see therefore, that rising on the Happiness Index is likely a long-term goal that we may not see fulfilled. But we can choose to be happy rather than sad, and take a stand to revel in the good things about our lives in this country of ours, rather than dwell on the bad. Perhaps if each of us resolved to find our personal happiness, the numbers on that index will not matter very much at all!