Globally, economies are on the path of targeting high economic growth and, in this context, have witnessed significant rise in global living standards and wealth. However, with advanced standard of living, whether people have become happier is something which seems difficult to answer considering a whole lot of subjective and objective factors associated with the term ‘happiness and well-being’.

Another aspect worth consideration is to what extend the existing measures of growth and prosperity such as Gross National Product (GNP) or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) capture the aggregate well-being of a nation considering it misses a lot of economic activities like unpaid household work, and failing to factor in economic and environmental sustainability.

Access to necessities

One angle for measurement of happiness and well-being is whether a country’s population has access to the basic necessities of life at an affordable cost coupled with freedom for its citizens to perform basic activities without any hindrance. In this context, mention may also be on societies which are still suppressed due to colonisation/war and social discrimination and similar such issues, which are indeed the basic reason for unhappiness.

This necessitates social equality to be an important component in the development agenda. Thus, it is argued that measures of national well-being should capture not just the monetary well-being but also adequately represent overall happiness. Nevertheless, both conceptual and measurement issues have been associated with such measures of progress.

This provides direction for a new paradigm of research known as ‘happiness research’. The basic notion underlying the new paradigm is the belief that ‘money is not everything’, or perhaps the age-old question: ‘does money buy happiness?’ Consider the Indian economy of yesteryear, characterised by joint families with meagre income, traditional mode of livelihood and lack of technological development, against the present society of nuclear families, busy urban life coupled with digital revolution and growth in all sectors of the economy.

Therefore, the inevitable question to be asked is whether countries having higher income or GDP are happier than countries with lower income?

Comparing the above two from the happiness point of view may indeed be an intricate exercise. One may necessarily opt for the social and secure set-up, prevalent long back, along with the improved life in the modern technological and digital world. Thus, happiness cannot be measured comprehensively based on just income criterion.

From the happiness angle, the other factors that could be considered are human welfare such as educational attainment, life expectancy, quality of governance, health outcomes, etc. Additional factors such as freedom, environment and security. may also be considered. Accounting for these factors may reflect well-being far better than economic output does.

Biological basis

Another angle worth exploring may be the biological basis for happiness, which reveals that 30-40 per cent of the differences in happiness among people can be attributed to individual’s genetic differences and the other 60-70 per cent differences not to genes but to effects of environmental influences. Studies show that some people have genetic variants that make them happy easily. The findings of these genetically informative studies thus recommend social policies, activities, intervention and environments that flourish genetic potential and, at the same time, offsets risk and vulnerability.

Well-being is indeed a combination of feeling good coupled with positive emotions such as happiness and contentment and experience of positive relationships. Subjective well-being is synonymous with positive mental health. Well-being can also be linked to success in career, creativity in workplace and similar such achievements which place an individual in a better position compared to others.

Studies have shown that an individual brought up in a better environment with good educational facilities are more inclined to be in better ‘well-being’ in the later part of his/her life. It is pertinent that in the World Happiness Report, the measurement of subjective well-being relies on three main well-being indicators — life evaluations, negative emotions and positive emotions, wherein, life evaluations are considered as the more stable measure of quality of people’s lives in happiness rankings.

Trustworthiness is another key component which influences happiness and well-being. This could be explained better with an example; the probability of, say, getting a lost wallet in a crowd differs across countries. Studies conducted in Scandinavian countries reveal 100 per cent chance of getting a lost wallet from a crowd compared with other developed and developing economies, where it may be much lower.

Another example could be linked with the workplace. An individual spends a major part of his/her time in office, and thus the environment in the workplace has a significant role in his/her happiness or well-being. It depends on how a senior officer treats his junior in workplace — that is, as a partner or as a source for deriving maximum work? This indeed determines a person’s happiness in the workplace which may have an effect on his/her productivity and dedication to work.

In view of the above, it is time for global economies to integrate and capture national well-being into their policies by unveiling plans to measure national well-being. The involvement of psychologists, behavioral economists and other strands of social thinkers may necessarily be involved in designing policies.

The idea of maximising happiness as originally proposed by Jeremy Bentham is getting back into discussions, though consensus on how to measure happiness has not yet been resolved in spite of the World Happiness Report being released every year.

The writer serves as Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Finance. Views expressed are personal