We may gloat as much as we want about acche din, but the world's record keepers say that Indians are getting progressively non-happy. The World Happiness Report for 2016 has placed India at 118 among 157 nations, a peg below last year's 117th position. Worse, the fall in its index points makes India seventh among the biggest losers of happiness in the last one year.
How can this be true when our ministers at the Centre and in the states are full of happiness? Could this be another conspiracy by anti-national elements? It may be difficult to dismiss the World Happiness Report because it grew out of ideas that received support from the United Nations and bears the stamp of internationally known economists. It does not have the authoritativeness of GDP (gross domestic product, the measuring tape economists love), but it has a relevance to the realities of human life that makes its annual appearance an eagerly awaited event.
The idea of measuring national happiness rather than national product is said to have originated in the mind of the King of Bhutan in 1972. GDP, he said, did not convey a correct picture of his subjects' standard of well-being. The UN found merit in the idea and evolved, under the guidance of economists Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, what became known as the Human Development Index. HDI aimed at moving the focus of policy planners from national income to human well-being. A Leicester University social psychologist had meanwhile developed the idea of a World Map of Happiness based on statistical data and subjective interviews with some 80,000 individuals.
The World Happiness Report that came out in 2006 found Denmark at the top of the list, Zimbabwe and Burundi at the bottom. Denmark has remained the leader except in 2015 when Switzerland, usually the number two, upstaged it. Others ranked among the happiest are Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden. Among world's populous nations, USA stands first (rank 13) followed by China (83), Pakistan (92) and India (118).
The report also lists those who lost their positions and went further down in the rankings. In this listing, only six countries have seen a bigger dip in their happiness quotient than India. But they had their reasons: Greece was lashed by economic breakdown, Egypt was hammered by internal revolution, Saudi Arabia was hit by fall in oil prices, Botswana was always in Africa's backyard, Venezuela was another victim of oil's dive, and Yemen was torn by civil war. What reason did India have to join this group of losers? That too, when we are on the way to a Congress-mukt Bharat?
The rankings reflect, in addition to GDP levels, factors like life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom and perception of corruption. India is not bad in life expectancy, social support and freedom. Are we found wanting in generosity? Or could it be that corruption wiped out the plus points? Or are there character defects that we don't see?
India's ancient culture of meditation / yoga had a clear concept of happiness. Admitting that inner bliss was the mark of advanced souls, it related happiness to getting rid of mental toxins such as hatred, arrogance, greed, pride and envy and developing instead qualities like doing good to others. How many of us have come anywhere near this goal? A glance at the headlines in states that recently went through elections or a couple of minutes watching the debates in Parliament would be enough to show that hatred and arrogance are the hallmarks of our rulers. Greed drives them, pride and envy dominate their thoughts. Even spiritual pursuits have become indistinguishable from commercial pursuits. The old saying was that happiness came from pain. Today, even for our grand gurus, happiness comes from sales.
Gallop Poll took a somewhat novel route recently when it tabulated happiness in seven developing Latin American countries. What they measured were the frequency of smiles, how respected an individual felt, how well rested they were, and whether there was a feeling of accomplishment. Panama came first in that survey although 33 percent of its people are below poverty level.
Talk to the Danes and the Swiss and the Canadians. They are noticeably happy with their lives. Denmark is the happiest country in the world because they have a low unemployment rate, a relatively healthy economy and, most importantly, "people don't judge other people's lives". In that last characteristic perhaps lies the explanation for our fall.