Happiness is…a national index of joy?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 21, 2010

By Rashmee Roshan Lall

The happiest thing about constructing a happiness index is absolute liberation from the miserable thought of reaching journey’s end. Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to start measuring recession-hit Britain’s happiness in order to steer government policy is likely to make at least the following four groups very happy: a shuffle of bureaucrats; a scum of politicians; a confusion of economists and a variance of statisticians.

But it’s odds on that Cameron’s people — the carefully measured and computed lay public — will remain doubtful and miserable. And that no British national index of wellbeing will ever capture the essence of this newly multi-cultural nation’s unique and immeasurable joys, viz the Indian doctor’s wife in Bristol rooting for the right MBBS match for her daughter; or the Pakistani father in Bradford who’s delirious his nephew in Mirpur got a UK visa. How does their individual joy compare with the typical question Britain’s independent national statistician is likely to ask Britons from next spring as part of the happiness survey: do you think men and women are treated fairly in the workplace and home?

The sad truth is the science of happiness remains a migraine-inducing puzzle for national leaders. Hardly anyone has got it right, mostly because it’s unhappily easy to go wrong. Last year, French president Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a special report on how to measure happiness from Nobel Prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. Months later, there’s little sign France is any further forward. But Canada has said it is on course too and Bhutan, famously, has a 30-year headstart, having pioneered the whole business of looking beyond economics to track people’s wellbeing.

Bhutan may be one of the few countries well-equipped to look beyond economics. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuk casually coined the term Gross National Happiness in 1972, he was articulating a concept rooted in his people’s mindset — that their Buddhist country was a kind of mandala, a geometric pattern that represents the cosmos and is a microcosm of the universe. In that self-satisfied view of nationhood may lie great happiness. Thierry Mathou, French diplomat and Bhutan-watcher, says the country’s unique “cultural imperative and political objective” is to achieve a “balance between spiritual and material aspects of life, between Peljor Gongphel (economic development) and Gakid (happiness and peace)”.

But more importantly, the King may have been expressing Bhutan’s deep sense of satisfaction at having the best of all worlds — the freedom to go its own way at someone else’s expense. More than half of Bhutan’s budget is paid for by India; a sizeable chunk of the rest comes from Japan, western Europe and the US. Mathou is understated: “While strongly dependent on foreign aid and expertise, it (Bhutan) is determined to follow its own set of priorities.” On Friday, one of Bhutan’s papers was less muted. Ahead of the December 18 launch of a new project in the country’s south-eastern Samdrupjongkhar district, the Bhutan Observer sternly said this was a chance to build “a model Gross National Happiness or GNH community” that would grow vegetables on its rain-fed soil and make the people “self-sufficient and feed themselves”.

At least some Bhutanese journalists are discernably unhappy with their country’s rely-on-someone-else policy of economic laissez-faire.

But if GNH must be economically sustainable, what of a low GWB (general well-being) built on a high GDP, as believed to exist in the developed world? This is what Britain, France and Canada are thought to mean when they talk of measuring their people’s happiness, rather than material wealth. In May 2007, Amartya Sen and economists at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) proposed the GWI or Gross Well-being Index as the defining international statistical measure. Poverty, they said, should be assessed in terms of happiness, not material goods.

At the time, OPHI director Sabina Alkire, who led the research in Kerala, declared, “No longer will we just say someone is poor but we would describe poor in five or seven areas of life — someone, like Ambali, the woman I met in Vengur district, who lives on less than one dollar a day, could not eat every day, but she was a poor person who was very happy.”

No one has caught up with Ambali yet but it’s a moot point if she would agree with Alkire or with Woody Allen who has long insisted money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.

Rashmee Roshan Lall /  World Report