The Failure of the Happiness Index

Mar 27 2017 - My next-door neighbour in upstate New York was an old woman named June. Her husband Herbert was housed in a care centre for the elderly. They had grown-up kids living in different states of the US from where they made rare visits to their parents. June was more attached to my wife and kids. She loved us very much. We used to invite her anytime we had some kind of festivities. As I came to know later, one midnight June had chest pain but did not want to disturb anyone. She braved to drive the car to the nearby hospital, where she breathed her last. My family could not resist a tearful outburst when we came to know that June left us silently. How happy was June living in a country like the US that ranked 14th in the latest Happiness Index 2017?

happines_5The death of June was akin to that of Sharatchandra’s Devdas, who had no one at his side to shed tears for him when he was departing the world. Poor Devdas was unfortunate because he was deprived of Parvati’s love. Poignant isolation and dry individualism — common features in Western societies — deprived June of love. We will see many Junes in countries like Norway, Denmark, and Iceland that ranked number 1, 2, and 3, in that so-called happiness index. Bond and love are the main ingredients of happiness — a subject area of literary thinkers, psychologists, and philosophers — but suddenly hijacked by some economists like Richard Easterlin some 40 years ago and later on, mishandled terribly by his disciples.

The concept of ‘happiness’ in economics has drawn little attention in the years since, and probably no curiosity from mainstream economics because defining the richer as happier violates some principles of diminishing marginal utility. However, the recent happiness ranking by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and surprisingly by the United Nations has added some fun to an otherwise dry world of economics. It is hardly different from the UNDP’s human development index (HDI), which is much superior in its treatment to the word, ‘development.’ The ranking in the HDI has a consistent pattern of evolution for countries without adding any sarcastic rise and fall of countries. Seeing Pakistan as a much happier country than Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even India is nothing but a joke.

In economics, utility or satisfaction cannot be measured like money, rather it can be ordered. Although happiness is linked to satisfaction, the properties to measure utility do not necessarily apply for happiness. One property of utility says that more of two goods, say, x and y, will deliver a higher level of utility. This is not necessarily true for happiness, which is based on subjective perception and thus is quite individualistic. Therefore, measuring a country’s happiness is a silly desperation. The index makers are trying to sell the concept of economic prosperity in the name of happiness. While austerity may be a preference for happiness in many superscripts, India’s Charvaka philosophy advises to be happy at any cost even by borrowing from others to purchase ghee — a tilt toward consumerism.

What the happiness index-makers could do is to rely on perception through surveys instead of adding a bunch of prosperity criteria: income, life expectancy, having someone to count on, generosity, freedom, trust, health, and good governance. Happiness resides in simplicity. A complicated array of variables may show their econometric acumen, but they fail to capture the real flavour of happiness. In our school life, we read the poem of Alexander Pope who said ‘Happy the man’ who treasures simplicity with peace of mind. Some five thousand years ago as mentioned in Mahabharata, Yudhishira defined a happy man as the one who has no loan or indebtedness and who is not a migrant — lives in his/her motherland. Pope echoed the same note by saying, “Content to breathe his native air in his own ground.” Bengali poet D. L. Roy defines the happy feeling of a patriotic man who desires to die in the same land he/she was once born.

Rabindranath Tagore warns that your happiness may evaporate if you are venturing for love with the craving for happiness. In the story, “How much land does a man need?” Leo Tolstoy showed how hankering after too much wealth not only damages happiness, but also ruins someone’s life. Let happiness be there in the lap of literature or in the sublime domain of human psyche. Economists need not encroach on all areas like Dhaka’s land grabbers. My American neighbour June had a high per capita income, but did not have anyone to count on in time of troubles. Rather, the poor girl Durga of Pather Panchali had at least her mother beside her bed while dying from high fever. Who is happier? What is the role of good governance here?

It does not mean that we do not advocate for proper institutions and good governance. They may explain affluence or the level of prosperity. But they do not directly interpret happiness. Nor does social support guarantee a higher degree of happiness. Japan with excellent institutions and marvellous social support has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The Golden Gate of San Francisco — a sign of prosperity — once turned into a launching pad for suicides. Did they ‘happily’ commit suicide?

Are not these people of the super-rich nations less happy than the poor boatmen in the rivers of the Padma or Meghna — who struggle to live happily every day? How societies with high divorce rates — particularly evident in richer nations — can be happier than societies with high family ties? Is divorce a source of happiness? It is surprising to see how economists no less than Jeffrey Sachs and John Helliwell are invading the territory of psychiatrists. Economists had never been that predatory; nor was economics this diluted in the past.

On disembarking from the flight, I get my luggage at John F. Kennedy after, say, 15 minutes. However, I get the same luggage at the Dhaka airport after, say, 120 minutes (on a lucky day). It does not mean I am [120/15 =] 8 times unhappy in Dhaka’s case. My rational expectations operate in such a way that I feel like a prince once I get my luggage back after 2 hours and I feel like a king if I find the locks unbroken. Thus, a state of institutions may not necessarily translate everything mechanically and proportionately into happiness. People redefine happiness adaptively and dynamically.

My son once drew my attention to a story which showed that couples who got married during the Great Depression hardly resorted to separations. Why? They were more committed to the bond that embraces genuine feelings, constant adjustments, sacrifice, and deeper love — the unfailing recipes for happiness, which the so-called index cannot capture at all.

The writer is visiting fellow of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and guest faculty at the Institute of Business Administration at Dhaka University. E-mail: birupakshapaul@gmail.com

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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