Happiness: A scarcity that’ll take long to eliminate

Studies have repeatedly shown that while the rich are generally happier than others, wealth and prosperity are no guarantee of happiness.
Studies have repeatedly shown that while the rich are generally happier than others, wealth and prosperity are no guarantee of happiness.

Summary

  • That the UN deemed happiness worthy of celebration tells us how elusive it is for most of the world. After all, economic well-being is a necessary but not sufficient condition for it.

There’s another International Day on its way: 20 March. It’s marked on the calendar as the Day of Happiness. In an increasingly polarized world that looks set to become more so as political divisions deepen, where two major wars are raging, one in its third year and the other with no end in sight, and where not a single day goes by without countless acts of violence, celebrating an International Day of Happiness sounds absurdly Panglossian. True happiness, after all, is a pipe-dream. But can it become an ideal that all of us can aspire to, no matter how out of reach it may seem for most of humankind today? Perhaps. This was what led the United Nations General Assembly to pass a resolution 12 years ago marking 20 March out for annual commemoration.

The UN website describes ‘happiness’ as a fundamental human goal. And in recognition of the right to be happy, it calls for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples." Ah, so there you have it: Happiness is not entirely surreal. It is closely linked with economic well-being. But if you think being well-off alone ensures happiness, perish the thought. Studies have repeatedly shown that while the rich are generally happier than others, wealth and prosperity are no guarantee of happiness. Else, the world’s richest large country, the US, would also be its happiest. Instead, the UN’s 2023 World Happiness Report, published on 20 March last year, ranks the US a relatively low 15th. In contrast, the Nordic countries—Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway—rank consistently among the top 10, with Finland leading from the front for the sixth successive year. So, is there some magic potion these countries have that others don’t? Far from it. “The effectiveness of the government has a major influence on human happiness," says the report, stating the obvious. Despite the triumph of free-market capitalism in the late 20th century, the reality is governments have an unduly large influence over our lives. The report identifies five government traits that have a close relationship with people’s well-being: its ability to raise money, ability to deliver services, the rule of law, avoidance of civil war and avoidance of repression. And it is immediately clear why Nordic countries do so well. Their willingness and capacity to keep the welfare of citizens foremost is legion. As is the trust of citizens in their government.

Of course, any attempt to construct an index of happiness—which is, after all, a state of mind—is bound to suffer from the usual drawbacks of subjectivity and inherent biases. Israel, for instance, ranks among the top 10, though it is often at war. Even so, it is disconcerting to find India ranked among the world’s lowest. Our rank, 126th out of 136 countries, below the likes of China (No. 64), hardly a bastion of civic freedoms, and Palestine (No. 98), an embattled if not still-born state, does us no justice. Sure, it will be a while before state capacity and civil society in India match their Nordic counterparts. But the economic underpinning of happiness means our steady ascent of the global league tables for GDP (we rank fifth) and market capitalization (we’re fourth) should see us perform better on the happiness index as well. To get there, though, we must remember that economic well-being is a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness.

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