In India, the chief blessing we give to others is ‘khush raho’, yet the country ranks 122 (out of 155) on the International Happiness Index. Over the course of time that saw purchasing power rise, being busy becoming a virtue, and smartphones turning an important force of self-promotion, we began to believe that perhaps happiness is elsewhere.
Go on vacations, be happy. Happiness is in a plastic card. Consume, be happy. Happiness is the perfect selfie and 50 ‘likes’. Apparently, the billion-dollar global industry built around happiness is not working for the most part. Is the pressure to be happy, the very thing making us sad?
Happiness is a goal for most. As an emotional state, happiness ranges from contentment to intense joy. You could have a serene day or go out with friends who make you laugh wildly or experience passionate closeness with the love of your life. All these are happy experiences and often our goal is to extend these minutes, hours and days to make happiness a constant.
Approaches to Happiness
To reach this happiness goal, approaches in biology, psychology, economy, religion and philosophy have sought to define happiness and its sources. Countries (Bhutan ranked 97) and research groups (positive psychology, happiness economics) are researching the topic of ‘happiness’, and how to own it. The approaches can be subjective or correlational to the wider community. There is a gaining acceptance that well-being and happiness are meaningful when correlational.
Anything aspirational must be measured. What is and how to measure happiness is a fundamental question both in social sciences and philosophy. The World Happiness Report does this by measuring quality of life and the social context of happiness.
Of the six factors that the World Happiness Index 2017 considers, per capita GDP and healthy longevity are two country-specific metrics derived from the World Development Indicators. The other four factors have a social context to individuals, and the answers are binary.
Try the following questions with a Yes/No answer:
• Do you have someone you can count on if you were in trouble?
• Do you have the freedom to make your life choices?
• Have you carried out any act of generosity recently?
• Do you live in a trusting social environment (ie absence of corruption in the government and business)?
Note the social context in these questions. But didn’t the happiness industry always tell us that happiness was an easy emotion that could be tapped inside of us? Suddenly there is this index which says ‘look outside’? How much of happiness is rooted in the individual and how much is social?
The Bhutanese Buddhist perspective is that happiness is “a selfless pursuit, acknowledging that we cannot be happy if those around us are unhappy”. Is happiness a personal choice or is it influenced by macro-indicators? Which comes first – does being happy influence pro-social behaviour or is it the other way around?
Perhaps, this is a kind of circular reference that actually works. Those who have happier lives are likely to live longer, be more productive, respond better to life’s demands and be more supportive of societal needs. Perhaps this will feed back to improve health, GDP, and generosity. Even though happiness is a simple emotion, the factors that enable happiness are complex and hard coded into social, economic and genetic contexts.
The top ranked countries on the happiness index – Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland – are defined by a high social capital, social support systems, generosity and voluntarism, and honesty in public administration. The pathways to higher social capital include education, professional codes of conduct and public policies to narrow income inequalities.
How then does a country ranked 122 and defined by low social capital focus its policy on increasing social capital? The first choice could well be to reduce misery and then move to the loftier goal of increasing happiness. To build a happier country requires that decision-makers give a central role to social capital criterion in decision-making, requiring changes in how policies are designed, delivered, and evaluated.
A focused approach to the subject of social support, incomes and healthy life expectancy and policies pertaining to education, healthcare, employment, wages, progressive taxation, safety, transport and environment are to be viewed with the happiness metric or the misery alleviating lens.
Material security, living up to one’s potential, being healthy, caring for our planet and people are all to be pursued individually and collectively in the larger quest for happiness. In the individual journeys we make, and each day is a choice to focus on social foundations and trust and make a difference to the people and environment around us.
Happiness perhaps begins with a smile but can only grow and sustain in the spirit of collective well-being. So when we say ‘khush raho’ to another, we know that we have an integral part to play in their happiness.
(The author is a senior management professional)