The pursuit of happiness: Mapping mental well-being is a wasteful exercise

If global rankings are anything to go by, it is easier to do business in India than to be happy living here. In November last year India vaulted 30 places up the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, thanks to some hard negotiation put in by our government. But the Ides of March 2018 brought sad tidings of India’s performance in the latest World Happiness Index, a ranking by another multilateral institution, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN). The country that has bequeathed to the world the uninhibited joys of Bollywood song and dance, the science of mental and physical harmony in yoga, and the unique institution of the spiritual businessperson, the “Godman” (and occasional “Godwoman”), has been ranked a low 133 out of 156 countries surveyed in the index. 

The sadder news is that the country has slipped 11 places from last year’s rank of 122. And saddest of all, India has done a lot worse than terrorist-ridden Pakistan at 75, which has jumped five places up from its 2017 ranking of 80. Even dirt-poor Nepal at 101 (representing a worsening of two ranks), Bangladesh (115) and Sri Lanka (116) did better than India. The message appears to be that Indians, who enjoy 300 days of sunshine, should move to Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, the world’s top four happiest countries in this year’s ranking, even though the sun doesn’t shine in this region for six months, the food is forgettable and suicide and alcoholism rampant. 

Singing, dancing, yoga, religion and sunshine do not, however, figure in the parameters employed by the UNSDSN to divine the happiness of countries. The index combines hard data — GDP, per capita, life expectancy, corruption, social support — with more nebulous criteria such as freedom to make life choices, generosity, dystopia and so on. The latter are culled from a variety of polling organisations, official figures and research methods. On the sum of these parameters, Bhutan, the origin of the term Gross National Happiness that spurred the creation of this index in 2012, weighed in at 97, performing worse than Pakistan, which even managed to outperform China (at rank 79). And the United States, the country that adopted the “pursuit of happiness” as a founding value in its declaration of independence, weighs in at 18.

But should we take this ranking seriously? The World Happiness Index marks a growing recognition among economists that metrics indicating national wealth and prosperity such as GDP growth and per capita income are imperfect measurements of the all-round well-being of people. In the 1990s, as part of this thinking, Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq created the Human Development Indicators that offered a close look at people’s access to social goods, such as health and education. The HDI certainly offered nations a stark picture of prosperity and deprivation. The Happiness Rankings could be considered part of that trend. Mapping mental well-being through a combination of hard data and perception-based surveys is fraught with risk. When the exercise is underwritten by UNSDSN director Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who prescribed, with disastrous results, “shock therapy” for the Russian economy after the fall of the Soviet Union, there is additional need for caution. 

Given the context, the Indian government should be complimented for resisting the temptation to embark on a project to map Gross Domestic Happiness. It would be more useful if it were to focus on improving the quality of our existing economic and social indices to access more granular data in the interests of more efficient policy outcomes. As for worrying whether Indians are happy or not, Abe Lincoln put it with characteristic down-home wisdom: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”

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