“People in the West generally hold that it is man’s duty to promote the happiness-prosperity that is of the greatest number. Happiness is taken to mean material happiness exclusively, that is economic prosperity."

– Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi wrote these words back in 1908, while still based in South Africa, in his introduction to Sarvodaya, a Gujarati translation of English intellectual John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, an essay that was instrumental in influencing Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence in thought and action.

Back then, as he gently meditated on the concepts of happiness (East and West) and wondered about how to link them with his political campaign to secure equality for Indians in South Africa, Gandhi would not have imagined that exactly 110 years later, an Indian state would set up a “happiness commission".

The idea that Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has revealed revolves around the capital of his truncated state, which was bifurcated in 2014 to make way for India’s newest state Telangana. Naidu wants Amaravati, the new capital of his state (the old capital Hyderabad went to Telangana) to be a happy place.

“We want Amaravati to be among the top three happiest cities in the world on globally recognized benchmarks," he told the Happy Cities Summit in Amaravati this week.

“We have already requested several municipalities to earmark some space to organize ‘Happy Sundays’ so that people can come out to a public space and play, dance or sing," Naidu said. “We used to talk only about development. But governments should focus on happiness, too." The happiness commission will launch initiatives to help the state realize these goals.

The chief minister can do with all the help he can get. Even as it rises in the index of ease of doing business, India has slipped steadily down the ranks of the World Happiness Report (edited by distinguished economists, including Jeffrey Sachs) from 111 in 2013, to 117 in 2015 (for the years 2012-14), 118 in 2016, 122 in 2017 and 133 out of 156 countries in the latest annual report.

Apparently, these rankings are not based on entirely objective yardsticks of happiness. Rather, the report says, it gives “a primary role for people’s own evaluations of their lives"—very different, in other words, from the global index on the ease of doing business, for instance, which is an “outside-in" view.

It is not a coincidence that Naidu frames the pursuit of happiness in the context of a large city—to summarize his comments, he’s trying to build a city with psychologically fulfilling traits. This is an ambitious task, but there is some academic literature to support his mission.

In a study on “Happiness in India" published in a 2012 volume called Happiness Across Cultures: Views of Happiness and Quality of Life in Non-Western Cultures, academics Robert Biswas-Diener, Louis Tay and Ed Diener delve into their own extensive research as well micro studies and global surveys to come to an unusual conclusion: that in the Indian context, “inside-out" perceptions are as important as those of “outside-in".

To a column titled Outside In, this is extremely interesting to say the least.

To an outsider, the sight of homelessness in Indian cities is distressing (although Mother Teresa did make the classic “outside-in" point, during a visit to the UK, that she found homelessness in a wealthy nation far more obscene). Indian cities—and let’s hope Amaravati is a resounding success in promoting happiness—can be frustrating places, where rising numbers of the fabulously wealthy as well as the destitute migrant signal growing income inequality. But this clearly is not the whole story. A recently announced scheme by the Narendra Modi government to roll out what will be the world’s largest health assurance (government pays the premium) scheme, covering an expected 100 million needy Indians, can radically alter this landscape of dispossession.

Working to ensure a minimum living income for farmers at the same time may discourage continuous rural-urban migration. Lack of health insurance, rural distress and the abject poverty of migrants are three important factors in the unhappiness of many city dwellers.

But there is surprising news from these three researchers in the context of urban living: the authors say their two studies conducted in 2001 and 2006 found that homeless urban Indians were “mildly satisfied with their lives and were significantly more satisfied than those in the US (cities of Oregon and California)."

Their hypothesis is that societal factors such as attitudes toward poverty or the value of close family relations helps Indians enjoy “surprising levels of happiness." This is also directly connected to their study of “inside-out" views of happiness, much of it determined by culture.

This is their conclusion: “Indian policymakers should carefully consider how transportation, economic health, education and social policies will affect the happiness of the citizenry. Policies that promote public cooperation and equality are likely to be part helpful in increasing objective indicators of well-being such as longevity.

“Outside-in influences are not the only factors influencing an individual’s happiness. Inside-out factors also influence well-being. Indians do not need to wait for a post-materialistic society where basic material needs are fully met to attend to their happiness. In fact, the evidence from impoverished groups suggest that non-material aspects of life such as high quality social relations and a positive view of the self are instrumental to a person’s happiness."

Which brings us neatly back to Gandhi, the apostle of non-material aspirations. To complete the 1908 quote we began with, Gandhi said, “If in the pursuit of this (western definition of) happiness, moral laws are violated, it does not matter much (to the West). Again, as the object is the happiness of the greatest number, people in the West do not believe it to be wrong if it is secured at the cost of the minority. The consequences of this attitude are in evidence in all western countries."

India has long been a place for poverty research. With the right kinds of policies, may be it could become a laboratory to study happiness one day?

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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