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- fitoussi.fr/en/index.html) 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.