The great Indian ‘happiness’ tragedy

Thomas Sajan Titto Idicula | Updated on March 29, 2018 Published on March 29, 2018

India’s abysmal ranking in the UN Happiness Index exposes deep-seated flaws and contradictions in its social foundation

How come a bunch of cold countries around the North Pole, with day-long darkness lasting many winter months, become the happiest nations on Earth? Well, that is what the UN’s World Happiness Report, published a few days ago, reveals. While Finland, Norway and Denmark bagged the first three positions, the remaining Scandinavian countries (Sweden and Iceland) found themselves in the top ten rankings.

On the other end of the spectrum, India is ranked terribly low (133 out of 156 countries) alongside some Sub-Saharan African countries, dropping 11 spots from last year.

Anyone who looks at the Happiness Index would be surprised by the fact that most of the emerging economies — Mexico (24), Brazil (28), Argentina (29), Malaysia (35), Russia (59), China (86) — are placed far ahead of India. All the South Asian countries also ranked better compared to their big brother.

Measuring happiness

An often raised criticism about the World Happiness Report is that one cannot correctly measure the subjective feeling of pleasure and comfort, let alone happiness. Is this widely renowned and much acclaimed index really a good measure of joy and cheerfulness?

The answer is an emphatic “no”. This catchy index is basically an appraisal of the general well-being of a nation rather than an indicator of personal happiness as many misunderstand.

Besides measures of prosperity such as income and healthy life expectancy, the key variables that are used to ascertain happiness are generosity, having social support in times of trouble, and freedom to make life choices.

Another important variable is trust, which is measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.

What makes Scandinavian countries perennial toppers in the Global Happiness Index? An introspection of Norway — a relatively resource-poor European country half a century back, which became highly prosperous in the last few decades — as a prototype Scandinavia is worth pursuing.

Wealth for all

Riches started flowing in since the 1970s when Norwegians discovered a greater fortune than fishes in the North Sea; massive amounts of crude oil and natural gas. What is noteworthy here is the political consensus that emerged in Norway for sharing the suddenly-discovered oil wealth for the entire citizenry than falling into the hands of a few business giants, leading to the creation of a welfare state model par excellence.

When petroleum profits exceeded all expectations, the government established an ‘oil fund’ in 1990, which is now the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund entitling every Norwegian a millionaire on paper.

Though lacking such a vast natural resource that Norwegians enjoys, Finns, Swedes and Danes are all the ‘happy’ beneficiaries of the least corrupt social-welfare systems. Life for Scandinavians is to be taken at a slow pace leaving their worries and anxieties into the hands of a dependable, trustworthy government.

Denmark, Sweden and Finland top the Commitment to Development Index, a ranking of the advanced nations based on their dedication to policies that help the poorer countries.

No one can forget the Finland premier’s empathetic words offering his private home to accommodate Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the country: “We should all take a look in the mirror and ask how we can help.”

Unhappy India

How could we explain India’s awful performance among otherwise comparable countries? There is no single or simple explanation, but it is worth taking a critical look at the underpinning reasons through the prism of happiness variables. The following five points are not answers, but pointers to the making of the ‘Great Indian Happiness Tragedy’.

First, despite being one of the fastest growing economies, India remains a non-egalitarian country, with burgeoning levels of economic inequality. An Oxfam survey in 2017 has revealed that India’s richest 1 per cent has cornered almost 73 per cent of the total wealth created in the country.

Second, India’s public health spending is well below the global average (just 1.4 per cent of GDP), leaving the deprived millions to pitiable public healthcare facilities. Oddly enough, even the well-off Indian professional class, who can afford expensive private healthcare, are not guaranteed a long, healthy and happy life. The shocking case of the early fading physicians in Kerala, the so-called most socially advanced State in India, signifies how scary the emerging situation is.

A 2017 study conducted by the Indian Medical Association revealed that the average life expectancy of a Malayalee modern-medicine doctor is just 61.7 years, almost 13 years less than the State average.

Third, without doubt, India has failed in building a trustworthy social support system, helping people when they are in real trouble. An atrocious incident was recently reported from Uttar Pradesh, where a team of patrolling policemen lets two teenage victims of an accident bleed to death as they “didn’t want blood to stain their car seats”. A perfect example of how little people can trust the state machinery.

Fourth, it is proved over and over again that India’s political system and business establishments are unable to manage big cash flows in a sustainable, responsible and transparent way. Corrupt and fraudulent practices still hold the key as exemplified in the Nirav Modi episode and similar occurrences. No further explanations are necessary as to why India’s rank dropped in the latest global corruption perceptions index.

Fifth, the timid Indian response towards the Asia’s most vulnerable refugees, despite being a country that once welcomed Tibetans and Sri Lankans, illustrates that generosity and altruism are giving way to pseudo-nationalism and self-obsession. India’s do-nothing policy in the Rohingya crisis was utterly inhuman and — for an aspiring world leader — disappointing.

Notwithstanding certain conceptual and methodological lacunae, the Happiness Index clearly exposes the deep-seated flaws in our social foundations making any grand claim for an imminent ‘advanced’ India as nothing more than a wild fantasy narrative.

Sajan is a social anthropologist trained in Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist and researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim

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Published on March 29, 2018
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