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Happiness, not GDP, must be India’s goal

The happy individual must feel that his or her life is worthy of living in this world.

Sudip Chakraborty | New Delhi |


Happiness is mankind’s instinctive desire. It is the sum of pleasant feelings enjoyed by human beings in everyday life. An individual is supposed to be happy in life if he or she gets everything he or she would crave: good food, good clothes, good music if one is a music lover, a good cricket match if one is a cricketing enthusiast, sighting a rare bird or an exotic plant, and thus the list of objects which may give contentment to an individual goes on and on.

These material objects fill their hearts with immense pleasure. A happy life is a life of pleasure. The happy individual must feel that his or her life is worthy of living in this world. There are happy people in this world. But unhappy people are not few; they are everywhere now, and they were everywhere in the past.

Thousands of people commit suicide every day in this world. Millions of people suffer from depression. Life on this earth is just hell to them. They don’t like to live any more. Aborted suicide attempts by many of them come to public knowledge.

A UNDP report reveals that 800,000 people commit suicide every year in the world. Modern medical science diagnoses this unhappiness and depression as a mental illness originating in the human brain. Neuropsychiatry deals with this subject. Mental health problem is a challenging issue all over the world. Humankind built society for the sake of peace, stability and happiness. Our early ancestors felt the need of organising themselves in social units to escape the odds of ‘jungle’ life. They no longer liked roaming around all the time for foraging and hunting.

This wandering life was beset with risk and uncertainty. Social contract theory, espoused by John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire and others, articulated the realisation of our wandering ancestors’ need for a settled life. Thomas Hobbes, the leading advocate of the social contract theory, observed that life outside the society was short, nasty and brutish. So, humankind was not happy until they formed society. But human society fails to shower happiness on all its members. Human civilization began with the founding of agricultural societies.

These primitive societies later grew to city states. Kingdoms emerged out of the ancient city states. Kingdoms evolved into empires over a long course of time in the past. Smaller empires grew in larger empires through territorial expansion by the mighty emperors. Empires grew, flourished and were then gone. Nation-states emerged out of the edifices of large empires that disappeared over the course of history.

Nation-states took various shapes and character depending on situations. Modern welfare states were born as one variant of emerging nation states. Welfare states evolved on the premise that the state is duty bound to ensure welfare to people. Happiness thus constitutes the core of human welfare. The idea of the developmental state came alongside welfare focus of nation-states. Developmental states aim at raising the standard of living of the people through higher income of individuals. But income as sole measure of human welfare was challenged by economists in the World Bank in the 1990s. They included two other two measures: health and education.

The Human Development index, HDI, turned out to be a better measure of human well-being than per capita GDP. But HDI did not include happiness as a cherished attainment of human life. It was thought to be a subject matter of psychology so it is not quantifiable to construct an index. But one man, the young king of Bhutan named Jigme Singye Wangchuk offered the idea of constructing gross happiness index at the UN. He did it for his own kingdom on an experimental basis in the 1970s.

In the beginning the UN and the world academic community condoned this concept as an immeasurable index. But the young king did not give up. He persuaded the UN to focus on the Gross Happiness Index. Like many great discoveries in human history whose recognition came many years later, the Idea of Happiness Index had the same fate. But three decades later, in 2011, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that happiness is a fundamental human goal. It recognises that wealth alone cannot provide life satisfaction.

Human well-being is a combination of material as well as spiritual development. The UN asked all its members to construct National Happiness Indices on the basis of a uniform and agreed formula. The Happiness Index at the national level is the aggregate of the following measurable attainments. They are: subjective well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and living standard. Each of these nine attainments is assigned equal weightage of one by nine.

The UN undertakes the construction of happiness index each year and brings out the ranking of countries by way of happiness score. The most recent index was published in 2019. A total of 156 countries furnished all happiness data. So, the list contains 156 countries, arranged in descending order. The country at the top with highest score is the happiest country in the world. The one at the bottom with lowest score is the most unhappy nation. Income alone cannot bring happiness. This has been proved by Gross Happiness Index report of 2019.

Finland is the happiest country in the list. Its per capita income is $48,868. Hong Kong’s per capita income is $48,760. Income is almost the same in both these countries. But Hong Kong’s rank in the Global Happiness index is 76. Despite having far higher income, Hong Kong is unhappy. What about India? In 2015 India was at the 117th spot. Now India has slipped to the 140th spot among 156 countries. One basic reason for unhappiness in India is rising wealth inequality. India is failing at sustainable and equitable development.

So, livelihood insecurity is rising. State is withdrawing from basic services and paving the way for the market to reign. The government is very keen to score high in the ‘ease of doing business’ index but what about the people of Bharat whose ‘ease of leading life’ is proving elusive. Ease is giving way to unease for millions. Happiness, not GDP, must be the ultimate goal for our nation.

(The writer, a former Visiting Fulbright Professor in the USA is Associate Professor, Ananda Chandra College, Jalpaiguri)