Home/ Opinion / Columns/  A brief history of India’s fake claims to true happiness

A brief history of India’s fake claims to true happiness

Over the past decade, a global survey has been asking thousands of people across the world how happy they are on a scale of zero to ten, in six distinct ways of being happy

Photo: ThinkstockPremium
Photo: Thinkstock

Over the past decade, a global survey has been asking thousands of people across the world how happy they are on a scale of zero to ten, in six distinct ways of being happy. Their answers form the core of the annual World Happiness Reports, which have been a source of periodic unhappiness for many Indians. India is consistently ranked at the bottom, among dystopian nations, unhappier than even Pakistan, which triggers special trauma in sensitive Indians. The 2023 World Happiness Report does not actually rank India 126th out of 137 nations. Indians have ranked themselves, inadvertently showing us as people who are sadder than Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Sri Lanka and, of course, Pakistan. Any measure of happiness involves a few foolish processes, and these reports do couch left-wing righteousness as anthropology, but they are less nonsensical than a fable my generation grew up hearing: that Indians are “the happiest people on earth".

Among the first things we heard as children was that the rich were unhappy and the poor were happy. Also, Indians apparently had an innate spiritual power that no one else possessed, some great ancient secret that the West came seeking. Every now and then, a public figure would speak of an unhappy West and our joyful poor. In a Shah Rukh Khan film, his character scoffs at the loneliness of Americans who had “everything" but did not have family, while admiring Indians who had nothing but whose lives were filled with family. In the age of social media, we see posts claiming to be true portraits of happiness. These often feature images of the poor diving into a pond or enjoying rain. It appears water is somehow vital to the visual representation of joy.

All through this farce, India has been one of the most miserable places on earth. As an Indian reporter who has travelled through India and the West, I find it easy to believe the broad conclusions of the 2023 report—that West Europeans are most likely to rate themselves as happy, that suicide rates say nothing about happiness anywhere, and that the average Indian is among the world’s least happy.

This rings untrue to upper middle-class Indian patriots because they are among the happiest. They would score well on the World Happiness Report’s survey that asks people to rate their own happiness on six aspects of life: social support of peers, financial well-being, health, freedom to make important decisions, generosity of society and the absence of corruption.

The bafflement of India’s middle class at the nation’s rank among the most miserable is actually predicted by the report in one of its more credible exercises—a country’s measure of joy inequality. To measure this form of inequality, the report takes the happiest half of a sample in a nation and its unhappiest half, and then considers the gap that separates them. In Finland, ranked the happiest nation in the world, the gap between the top half and bottom half is narrow. This means there is a near uniformity in how people rate themselves.

Several affluent nations demonstrate such uniformity. But the nation that is most equal in its self-valuation of happiness is not a happily rich nation, but Afghanistan, which is among the world’s most miserable places. This means that in Afghanistan, the happiness of the top half is not much higher than that of the bottom half. In other words, the country is almost uniformly miserable.

On the equality of joy, too, India fares poorly. Indians who rate themselves as happy are much happier than those who say they are unhappy. This reflects an India that even the sightless can see—a country where life is very good for the rich and miserable for the poor; where it is vastly advantageous to be born in the right home, and a severe handicap not to.

There is, of course, a big problem in this attempt to measure the happiness of nations. It is not, as patriots argue, in its “methodology". Asking people whether they are happy is a reasonable way to measure this abstract quantity. The problem is not with the sample size either. The report claims that “typically" around 1,000 people, irrespective of population, participate in the survey every year. We can quarrel with the report on whether this is enough to make overarching pronouncements on our sense of well-being, but this is not an important argument. The report’s real problem is why it even exists. This is not an exercise a Donald Trump or Elon Musk or a conservative strongman anywhere would consider worth his time. That should point us to the sort of people who would be interested in such a survey—economists who want a welfare state.

Not very long ago, the same kind of people promoted Bhutan as the happiest place on Earth. It worked. In the 2013 Hindi film, Lunchbox, an unhappy woman in Mumbai plots to flee to Bhutan in search of joy.

Bhutan’s experiments with happiness began in 1972, when king Jigme Singye Wangchuck popularized the idea of ‘gross national happiness’. In the 2000s, this juvenile idea caught the imagination of liberal economists who thought they had found a tool to defame the focus on economic growth. But, it turns out, Bhutanese people do not rate themselves well on the happiness scale. The first World Happiness Report, published in 2012, pays rich tribute to Bhutan, but the country is ranked low. It is western Europe that has consistently regarded itself happy.

The moral of the story is that the secret to happiness may lie in colonizing, brutalizing and plundering vast regions of the world so that you can one day raise a financially pampered and socially compassionate population that cycles to work.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Updated: 26 Mar 2023, 10:29 PM IST
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My Reads Watchlist Feedback Redeem a Gift Card Logout