Happiness indices must be discounted

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Aug 5 2006, 05:30am hrs
A recent study that has received global attention seems to conclude that money can buy happiness and probably falls short of asking: Does happiness buy money at all The study led by Adrian White at the University of Leicester, measured three basic factors: wealth, health and education. These have unexciting correlations of 0.52, 0.62 and 0.51, respectively, with happiness. And wealth being in a good position to buy education, as well as health. It says: When people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good health, a higher per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy. Of course, the study does not answer how Japan is ranked 90 out of 178, nor why Russia and the entire erstwhile communist countries have low ranks. India is 125th.

There was also a recent study by the New Economics Foundation, UK, looking at the relationship between the consumption of the earths resources, life expe-ctancy and happiness, instead of wealth measurements. It declared the Pacific island of Vanuatu as the happiestit is another matter if some visitors were happy, as the last reported cannibalism there was as recent as 1985! Latin America dominates the top 10 places, while the African and East European nations crowd the bottom. The US comes a poor 150th, while Japan is 95th and the UK 108th.

These simplistic studies do not debate the dynamics of happiness and its place in public policy. While Richard Layard of the London School of Economics has started this debate in recent years, Bentham and other utilitarians of the 19th century have indeed laid the foundations. Even Karl Marx had something to say on this.

Layards lecture series have shown several dynamics of happiness, such as the distribution of happiness amongst different income groups; happiness with various types of activities and happiness from relationships. An important conclusion has been that in many countries, while income surged, happiness stagnated. For instance in the US, after a marginal increase of happiness between 1946 and 1960, it remained stagnant despite the GNP growing three-fold. Surveys of Japan show no change in happiness since 1950, despite a six-fold increase in incomes. The Eurobarometer of happiness, which began in the early 70s, also shows similar stagnationeven the poor do not seem to become happier by higher incomes.

India, with its rich heritage of thinking on happiness,must take a lead in debating an appropriate framework
Happiness being fuzzy, multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional, there has been no serious attempt to build a policy frame based on reasonable assumptions. The early approach of utilitarians has been to promote welfare through good governing principles and values which, in turn, would bring happiness to people. Regre-ttably, governments have implicitly accepted that focus on wealth creation, aggrandisement and consumption is the modern way to build happy societies.

Environment, values, culture and universal principles are being sacrificed continuously to promote markets, investment and financial and economic indicators, despite much evidence and logic against it. Studies have shown that the quality of governance and religion bring greater happiness than a mere increase in family income by 50%. Studies have also shown that family stress, such as separation/divorce, can make people more unhappy than reductions in income or employment security.

Bhutan is the first country, at the initiative of the king around 1972, to have officially talked about a Gross National Happiness Index. It measures this through the levels of environmental protection, cultural promotion and good governance in addition to economic development. The concept of gross national happiness helps in putting individuals, culture, values and environmental sustainability higher than crude economic measures while making policies and taking decisions.

Despite methodological challenges and criticism from modern schools trained to think in terms of markets, the idea is sound. The pillars chosen for promoting happinessparticularly those of values and good governancehave shown a strong correlation with happiness even in the western world. If the Bhutanese appear outlandish, policy thinkers must realise that development indices, competitiveness measures and the slew of new indices on happiness are also flawed. India, with its rich heritage of thinking on happiness as well as public policy, must take a lead in debating an appropriate frameworkof public policy as if people, not arcane numbers, mattered.