Design yourself to be happy in 2022 | Part 4: Learning from public policy research

There is a lot one can learn from public policy debate and research on happiness. The quest for alternative development paradigm, away from a mere income-centric approach, has provided many take away for personal life. Income may be essential but not a sufficient condition to ensure happiness.

Our old grandma persistently advocated that “money cannot buy happiness”. Nevertheless, as an ardent follower of money doctrine, as has been with conventional development doctrine, Mr. Darcy a character in Jane Austin’s novel Pride and Prejudice tried to comfort Elizabeth by advocating that, of course, money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy all those things which will make you happy! Indeed, one after another, most great economists of our time tirelessly advocated growth as the single most important recipe for all kinds of misery, poverty, unemployment, and inflation. Evidently, countries with higher per capita GDP are also the one where basic amenities of health, education, air quality etc. are found much better. Simultaneously, it has been observed that the pursuit of growth and relentless increase in GDP alone has not solved all our problems. Rather, the GDP centric pursuit of growth has created few more problems which has destroyed the basic fibre of human relationship, resulted in depletion of natural resources and environment, fragmented families, and pushed the humanity on a brink. Happiness seems to be eluding in spite of great progress made. Steadily, newer problems feeding on hatred, divisiveness, and terrorism have started taking the centerstage.

Robert Kennedy, while contesting for US President in 1968, made a candid remark about GDP: “It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our courage, nor our wisdom, nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans”.

All said and done, the moot question is where do we stand in reality– with Robert Kennedy and our old grandma, or with Mr. Darcy and our learned breed of distinguished economists?

We may find ourselves on any one side of the argument, but what we all need at the end is happiness. Happiness may not be equally available to all, but for sure it is equally demanded by all. Everyone deserves their bit in happiness. Perhaps, it is in this light that the Declaration of Independence by Americans considered “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the basic rights. Researchers have tried finding out what happened to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ in America. The research findings by Pew Research Center suggests that happiness trend line of Americans has flattened over a long period of time, which means that average happiness of Americans has remained sticky and has not changed much. The findings also suggested that just a third of adults i.e. 34% of Americans reported that they are very happy, while rest half reported that they are pretty happy, and about 15% reported that they are not too happy. The survey indicated that these proportions of reported happiness has not changed much over a considerable period of time. 

The survey reveals that about 49% people with annual family income of more than USD 100,000 considered themselves to be very happy, while just 24% of those with annual family income of less than USD 30,000 considered to be very happy. It looks like that income is important for happiness and at higher income level high proportion of people tend to be happy. However, statistical data may present a correlated figure but this does not mean that one thing leads to another or they depend on each other. If this would have been so, the happiness of Americans would have increased over time as their per capita income tended to be more than doubled in last four decades. The reality speaks differently. The reported happiness plot as worked out by John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffery Sachs testifies that income and happiness do not have cause-and-effect relationship, especially happiness of Americans tended to remain sticky in spite of huge rise in income.

Income and happiness

Income does contribute to happiness, but it never suggests that higher income will always bring greater happiness. There is an upper turning point which indicates that after a certain level of income, factors other than income tends to explain happiness. Money may not remain main source of happiness for all time to come and at all stages of age and income cycle of an individual. Similar is the case of a nation. An unabated rise in per capita income and GDP would not ensure that everything is going right and people are happier than ever before.

A perusal of the economics of happiness suggests that there are three aspects one can derive happiness from: domain factors, social factors, and lifetime pursuits or global factors. Domain factors are related to jobs, basic needs, housing, family size, comforts, luxury etc. These are important factors in happiness as long as they are in deficient state and people toll hard to get them. Once they are met with, large part of happiness is derived from society and happiness turns out to be inter-dependent. Factors such as liveability, neighbour’s behaviour, friends & networking, and quality of social participation tend to be major factors in happiness. However, even social factors do not explain all happiness as large part of happiness after fulfilment of domain and social requirements do come from individual’s lifetime pursuits. Life time pursuits include call for purpose of life or spiritual needs as such. Therefore, any measure of happiness based growth scenario must take cognizance of all three aspects of domain, social, and lifetime pursuits.

Analysts have also pointed out that happiness also get affected by inter-personal comparison of individual’s accomplishment. As Karl Marx pointed out, “A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands of a dwelling. But if a palace rises besides the little house, the little house shrinks into a hut.” Indeed so true. This indicates that extend of disparity would be a big hindrance in achieving larger goal of happiness for a nation.

Happiness is derived from society

Richard Layard in his paper Happiness: Has Social Science a Clue? pointed out that GDP does not reflect welfare as Pareto optimality asserts that it is a trade-off and hence happiness cannot be achieved without making someone unhappy. At the aggregate level, GDP based growth measure would tell us that only a higher income per capita would make population happier. This would in a way mean that we essentially have to make part of population unhappy in order to create greater total happiness. This approach fails to understand that after subsistence is met, happiness does not largely come from income rather it tends to come from society and inter-dependency.  

J. F. Helliwell  in his paper  How is Life? Combining individual and national variables to explain subjective well-being (NBER Working Paper, Cambridge) emphasises on interconnection of social capital, education, income and well-being. Based on data from three waves of world value survey including about 50 countries, Helliwell concludes that purchasing power is not the only determinant of happiness, rather there is lot more to it beyond income. It gets determined by environmental factors which has obvious social context. Our overall happiness rightly depends on income, work, family, and health but social capital such as freedom, trust and morality as also spiritual factors are important for enhancement of happiness. This work has combined individual and societal determinants and serves as good identifier of happiness for public policy.

The leading researcher and authority on happiness Rutt Veenhoven visualizes happiness as the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of life as a whole favourably. Psychologist Jonathan Freeman points out that people may pursue happiness differently, but by and large it is the same happiness for everyone.

Life time pursuit is important for happiness

Happiness scale moves up as we grow as individual and reaches an adequate level in life. Short period mood swing and pleasure based happiness is different from long term pursuit of happiness. Over a considerable number of years, short term factors such as mood swing does not remain prime source of happiness rather domain factors like income, employment, family life, work environment etc. tend to explain large part of happiness. After domain stage gets over, it is the lifetime pursuit which becomes the major source of happiness. Life time pursuit is mainly reflected in social interaction and cultural orientation. There is yet another major source of happiness which is spiritual and global that goes beyond life time pursuit.

Therefore, happiness is an individual phenomena as much as it is a collective expression. Important point to be brought home from policy point of view is pursuit of growth must be holistic based on domain aspects enhancement, and simultaneously it should look at lifetime and global pursuits (religiosity, culture, freedom, trust, morality, principles etc.) as well. 

Capability approach to happiness

Amartya Sen in his celebrated book Idea of Justice (2009; Penguin) devoted a chapter to talk about happiness. He has advocated ‘capability approach’ and asserted that capability to remain happy differs across individuals. This means that with similar circumstances one can be happier than other. Happiness enhancing experiments or module can be used for pepping up individual’s capability to be happy. Enhanced capability to remain happy would also add to productivity and hence add to GDP. This makes the subject matter of happiness relevant and worth pursuing.

The commission on measuring economic performance was constituted by the former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy with three Noble Laureates Joseph E Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi (Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress: http://www.stiglitz-sen- to look into the issue of measuring the progress of the nation. The commission advocated that the measure of progress must be holistic in nature as GDP based measurement has not done good enough for the world.

As the quest for a holistic measure of growth, in public policy domain, intensifies and gaining currency, it is worthwhile to design our life holistically before it gets too late.

Author: Dr Prabhat Pankaj

Dr. Prabhat Pankaj is a postgraduate in Economics and a Ph.D. in applied economics. He is a teacher by choice and started his career 30 years ago in 1991 from Arunachal University. He has been teaching Economics at postgraduate and undergraduate levels for about 30 years, in Universities and B-Schools in India and abroad, including 7 years in Bhutan. Dr. Pankaj has also obtained his Executive Education in "Management and Leadership in Higher Education" at Harvard University, Boston, USA. Furthermore, He has written for the Times of India and other popular publications. Currently, he is serving as the Director of Jaipuria Institute of Management, Jaipur.

21 thoughts

  1. Having read that, firstly, I congratulate the author for using such easy to understand language for writing the article and bridging the concept on money and happiness. In a nutshell, we can say that maybe money directly doesn’t buy happiness, but money buys you freedom to pursue things that indeed make you happy. And this is indeed a very detailed article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very true. Income can never buy happiness. It is essential but not sufficient. Man being a social animal he truly can derive happiness from society. Loved the capability approaches to happiness. Look forward to many more.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This article is so sensational that it intimidates us to rethink about our thoughts and concepts of happiness in today’s world. The part of the article where Robert Kennedy defined the GDP has really touched my heart and mind both at the same time. This article is truly mind blowing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Simply great. Congratulations to author. Reading this article actully brought happiness to me. After a long time I read such a meaningful text. Thanks for sharing. 👌

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful piece on all-encompassing HAPPINESS concept…. Linkages between happiness and Income levels, economic growth, social factors, interdependency are insightful and lay the foundation for understanding the holistic meaning of life and long-term pursuit of happiness.
    Often it is quoted “ happiness is within you”….
    Realising this is a first step towards this lifetime pursuit.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks Dr Pankaj for sharing such a well-researched article!! Need of the hour seems to be to enhance capability to remain happy… this I feel is one area where companies and individuals can work upon to improve, to remain happier!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Well researched !! While earlier articles in this series touched upon things taking internal, psychological issue in consideration, this part hits your thoughts with the role of money and other related factors in finding happiness.
    Yes it is not easy to be happy and balanced all the time still it all begins with your mental state primarily.
    Happiness as a habit is to be cultivated and needs all kinds of possible efforts to be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice article. Dr Prabhat has developed his expertise in teaching about happiness. Having spent some time in Bhutan which is one of the happiest country, his expertise has increased considerably in this field and has written/talked about happiness many times.
    I also find very good and healthy environment in his college wherein I find happy faculties in the college under his leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes absolutely.Money is a medium of possession ie of things.HAPPINESS IS A CONDITION created out of deeds, emotions , interaction.Good writing Prabhat ji

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A holistic approach for happiness is something we as individuals shall work on correctly mentioned by author that “before it’s too late” . Well detailed article sir ! Explaining the minute difference between a happiness leads to productivity rather than happiness through financial independence. Thanks for enlightening us with this !

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As you have beautifully put forward the view of the contemporary world here, at the same time, the philosophy of life and happiness of the old Indian thought might also enlighten us regarding pursuit of happiness in the present scenario.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Sir, your article is excellent. Thank you for your contribution! Increasing our capacity to be joyful is something we must strive on!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Dr. Prabhatji: We can appreciate this article as the Western world sits on turmoil of heavy conflict. It is guts wrenching to watch families disintegrating and see kids and ladies fast moving into insecurity in less than a week. Your article brings true meaning to happiness and brings back calm with oneself! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Design one must to be satiated or happy, delightful, chirpy, exuberant, alive… Awareness of domain, social and global factors may help. However, one must also learn to be equipoise when circumstances may overwhelm one’s so called happiness. There is indeed a world beyond happiness.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Contrary to popular belief, more income does not necessarily make people happier. This context has been very well and structured. Thanks Sir

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you Dr Pankaj for sharing such a wonderful article. As you have said money is a necessary condition for happiness and there are other sufficient conditions. In any case, i hope you will agree that sufficient conditions can succeed necessary and the converse is not true. For those who haven’t fulfilled necessary condition, sufficient conditions cannot help much. Necessary condition is more important than sufficient condition. I think we should not undermine the importance of money. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thank you for this timely and useful article, well supported by some authentic researches. It reminded me of several things- 3BL- Triple bottom line where the focus is on people, planet and profit, the sustainability goals of UN, The Shloka from Vedas- Atmano Mokshartham Jagat Hitaya Ch and Yanjaryat Karmnaha, Parasparam Bhavyantaha and many of the spiritual learnings. It may probably act as a thought provoking for the policy makers. India, I think has tried to live it and still has an orientation for it. also liked the concept of domain, social and life time pursuits for happiness. What Dr. Covey has said in his book the 8th habit of finding one’s voice. A lot of this wisdom is given by many of our Indian scriptures which probably gets hidden in the current rush to life. If possible, further and deeper thoughts on the day to day happiness for individuals is an article which many will welcome from you. Also, ‘Same Happiness for everyone’ is something having a very deeper meaning for everyone of us to ponder upon. This and previous articles also hits at the common misconceptions of equating pleasure and happiness. I take this description of happiness as peace or closer to it. Best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dr Nishant for your elaborate comment and appreciation for the write up. I agree with most of what you have written. I would be really glad if you pls also subscribe to my blog with your email and share the link in your circle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s