The pursuit of happiness is perhaps the most cherished goal of humankind. Traditionally considered subjective, therefore unmeasurable, it is increasingly being considered the proper measure of social progress.

The recently released World Happiness Report 2017 takes a look at where countries stand on the quality of people’s lives measured on a scale of 10 (best) to 0 (worst). It helps policymakers look beyond maximising national and per capita incomes, important as they are, and create a pathway to take happiness forward.

Key factors

The key determinants of happiness are economic variables (income and employment), social factors (education and family life), and health (mental and physical). The six indicators the report uses to validate what people feel are GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust, freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. These matter more than GDP and healthy life expectancy put together.

India ranks an appalling 122 among 155 countries considered. This puts it behind not just China (79) but Pakistan (80), Bhutan (97), Nepal (99), Bangladesh (110) and Sri Lanka (120). India is truly the unhappiest country in the region. If it is any consolation, the US ranks 14, way behind the top ten happiest countries in the world. The top ten have remained fairly consistent over the years, comprising mostly the small or medium West European democracies ( leaders are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, with Sweden at 10). All have very free markets, big government, high social spending and high tax rates. They also score well on governance (low perception of corruption).

The study also records how countries have fared during the period 2005-07 to 2014-16. By this measure, India fares even worse. It has suffered a significant decrease in happiness, ranking near the bottom at 119 among 126. Over the same period, China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have risen in the happiness ladder.

While these rankings are based on universal factors, the report also studies variations across countries. In a study of the US, Australia, Britain and Indonesia, it was found that in western societies, mental illness is more important than income, employment and physical illness. In Indonesia, mental health is important but less than income. Having a partner is crucial in western countries. Education has a positive effect in all countries, except Australia. Relative income, rather than absolute income, matters more. A study of British data suggests that policies can be most effective by focusing on children. The emotional health and behaviour of a child anticipate his chances of well-being as an adult. The best predictor for the child is the mental health of the mother. Also critical is the social ambience of primary and secondary schooling.

Work and happiness are interrelated. Throughout the world employed people evaluate the quality of their lives much higher than unemployed. Rising unemployment negatively affects everyone, including those who have jobs. Blue collar work is correlated with less happiness. Well-paying jobs are more conducive to happiness but other things also matter — work-life balance, autonomy, variety, job security, social capital, health and safety risks. High levels of worker well-being may lead to gains in productivity and firm performance. In sum, policies that focus on both quantity and quality of work support well-being.

The report devotes a chapter to China which through the nineties and till the mid-2000s went down the happiness slope, and recovered only thereafter. But even so, at present it is probably less happy than a quarter century ago. Through this entire period, it took tremendous strides in per capita GDP growth.

The takeaway

The report’s takeaway from this: “If the objective of policy is to improve people’s well-being (GDP relates to just the output of goods and services), then social well-being is a more meaningful measure than GDP, as the Chinese experience attests.”

In a chapter addressing the cause and finding a cure for rising American unhappiness, Jeffrey Sachs says America’s crisis is a “social crisis” made up of rising inequality, corruption, isolation and distrust, “not an economic crisis”. Yet the dominant political discourse is focused on raising the rate of economic growth. The prescription for faster growth — deregulation, tax cuts — will exacerbate social tension.

There are two ways to learn how to be happier. One, read reports like this one. Two, turn to the classics. As the immortal Beatles song says: “Money can’t buy me love.”

The writer is a senior journalist