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modern times

The Statistical Pursuit of Happiness

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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Amartya Sen and others have convinced France that measuring the joy of a nation is as important as calculating its GDP. But why does this make you smirk?

It was first a Bhutanese delusion. That happiness is a national resource, a mind of state. And that it can be measured. Jigme Singye Wangchuck was 17 when he became the king of Bhutan in 1972. It is easy to imagine the boy looking around his impoverished kingdom and realising he is actually not very important to the world. But he imagined, like our mothers once did, that the consequence of wealth was sorrow. “So what if they are rich,” your mother might have said pointing bitterly to someone beautiful in a car, “they are not happy.” The king then suggested a measure that suddenly made Bhutan visible on global statistics charts. It was natural that the measure would be called, in all its juvenile conceit, Gross National Happiness. But it was taken so seriously that it even became an abbreviation—GNH. The rich, who are given to suspect that something is amiss in their lives, were jubilant at the naming of what was wrong with them. And the king was rewarded with invitations to the best kind of holidays—international summits. Now GNH has a more serious name—Happiness Index (HI). Nobel prize winners Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz are among its prime promoters. Following their advice, a few days ago, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the adoption of the Happiness Index as a social and economic measure. This will lead to more international summits.

In the Happiness Index system, people would be asked various questions that measure how happy and content they really are. Such an abstract idea has gained so much respectability in the developed world because there has been for long some dissatisfaction around the GDP way of calculating the well-being of a nation. Measuring merely the generation of wealth, several scholars say, does not tell the whole story of a nation. For example, in the GDP system, a dying man’s medical expense contributes positively to the economy. When you bribe a cop or when you pay ‘the divorce lawyer’ (the favourite example of several economists for some reason), you expand the economy. But do these economic activities reflect the well-being of a nation? No, fans of the Happiness Index say.

But they do, in reality. A cancer patient does contribute to the well-being of those who financially benefit from his condition and he contributes in a way that is no different from the happy event of a man buying a lot of infant food. So, while the GDP system is flawed in including the cancer patient as a beneficiary of a financial transaction he initiated, it is not wrong about the others in the chain. The point here is that despite its flaws, the monetary representation of a country offers a good insight into its well-being.

An interesting aspect of the Happiness Index is that it wants to consider those joys of life that are never mentioned on any balance sheet. Like, a nation’s love for its poetry. (Here, we take a pleasurable digression before coming to the point. The contribution of acute mental depression to literature is underestimated. Many writers could do what they did because they were miserable. In fact, a colleague was once contemplating a beautiful story—how Prozac destroyed literature.)

GDP measures only money. And money, obviously, is not everything. Yet, such is the way of the world that financial statistics provide the most accurate indicator to happiness. For example, the most vibrant literary and artistic societies today are also affluent economies. Rich countries are healthier than the poor.

The problem with the Happiness Index is the happiness part. It pretends to be an economic model but at its heart is a philosophical question—what is happiness? In our imagination, the pursuit of happiness is a process at the end of which we would find joy. Yet, we know that is not true. Most of us find happiness easily. It’s just that we get used to it and then search for a different kind of happiness. So happiness is not one mother pursuit but usually a string of escalating aspirations. Happy people may not always realise that they are happy. This is exactly why we may not be able to tell the story of a nation by asking its people if they are happy. That rich societies fear they may not be happy enough is not proof of their unhappiness but merely evidence of their higher expectations from life. Similarly, four urchins standing in line on the road and smiling at a white photographer is not proof of their inherent indestructible Indian happiness.

Also, more importantly, with nations now talking of happiness, you must really dread government involvement in your joy.