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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The enigma of quantifying the immeasurable joy

The notion that wealth directly translates to happiness is a widespread misconception that lacks factual substantiation. Equating prosperity with contentment oversimplifies the complex interplay between socio-cultural influences and our perception of what constitutes happiness. The questions posed and their framing profoundly shape our responses, unveiling the limitations of such assumptions. For instance, inquiring about the weekly time dedicated to parental interaction or the duration of one's current marital union may reveal surprising perspectives that challenge the supposed superiority of affluent Western societies in attaining fulfillment.

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By: Dipak Kurmi

Defining and measuring happiness is inherently complex due to its subjective and individual nature. Attempting to generalize the happiness levels of large populations, such as entire countries, is bound to be controversial and reflect the biases of those conducting the measurement. Despite the challenges in defining and quantifying happiness, the United Nations has designated March 20th as the International Day of Happiness for the past seven years. On this day, the New York-based Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases the annual World Happiness Report, ranking countries based on their perceived happiness levels.

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In the 2024 edition, India was ranked a disappointing 126th out of 143 countries, trailing behind nations like Saudi Arabia (28th), China (60th), Russia (72nd), Venezuela (79th), Senegal (99th), Iran (100th), Palestine (103rd), Ukraine (105th), Pakistan (108th), and even Myanmar (118th). This ranking, which could potentially influence investors and donors, raises questions about the methodology and accountability of such global happiness assessments.

Many nations face dire circumstances that jeopardize the fundamental rights and well-being of their citizens. Some are embroiled in violent conflicts or wars, rendering the basic security of human life a perilous notion. Others are governed by oppressive regimes and autocratic rulers who mercilessly crush civil liberties, with women often bearing the brunt of this repression. Furthermore, numerous countries grapple with unrelenting crises that undermine their democratic institutions, political stability, and economic prosperity.

The methodology employed in this exercise raises legitimate inquiries due to the peculiar outcomes it has yielded. Finland has consistently secured the top position in the rankings each year thus far, while the top 10 countries have largely remained unchanged – Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Australia. A common thread interlaces these nations – a high per capita income. Similarly, other countries with elevated per capita incomes also rank higher on the list, such as New Zealand (21st), the United Kingdom (20th), the United States (23rd), Germany (24th), and France (27th). This outcome is unsurprising, as the materialistic Western culture, deeply entrenched in conspicuous overconsumption, regards money as the primary, and often the sole, source of happiness, in stark contrast to Asian and other continental cultures.

It is noteworthy that only one Asian nation, Kuwait, secured a position in the top tier of the list at 13th place. The next highest-ranked Asian country is Saudi Arabia at 28th, followed by Singapore at 30th. Surprisingly, Japan, renowned for its exceptionally high life expectancy, finds itself languishing at a modest 51st rank, trailing nations like Uzbekistan (47th) and Kazakhstan (49th). This disparity raises pertinent questions about whether the index inadvertently reflects an inherent Western bias – a remnant of the colonial era when subjugating and diminishing the significance of Asian societies was commonplace.

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The case of Bhutan, a nation that has enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a governmental responsibility through its pioneering Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index, further underscores this potential prejudice. Despite being a trailblazer in adopting a multidimensional, non-income-based development metric encompassing nine parameters, Bhutan was ranked a mere 95th in 2019 and has been omitted from the rankings entirely in the current year. This omission casts doubt on the index’s ability to adequately capture and appreciate alternative perspectives on well-being and societal progress.

Attempts to quantify and measure happiness are inherently flawed. Happiness is a transient state of being, a feeling rather than a fixed condition that can be objectively achieved and assessed. Such metrics conflate happiness with “well-being,” which results from a complex interplay of external factors like income, health, education, freedoms, choices, relationships, and physical/social security. However, even well-being is essentially a subjective sense, a personal perception that defies straightforward measurement or quantification. The intrinsically ephemeral and subjective nature of happiness renders it resistant to the reductive approaches used to evaluate more tangible phenomena.

The World Happiness Report ranks countries based on six factors that contribute to subjective well-being. These include economic productivity measured by income per person, overall health and longevity, the strength of social networks and support systems, the degree of personal freedom people enjoy, charitable behavior and generosity within a society, and public perceptions around government transparency and corruption levels. The happiness scores are calculated from “life evaluation” survey data collected by the Gallup World Poll. Respondents are asked to rate their current life situation on a 0 to 10 scale, with 10 being the highest level of happiness or life satisfaction. Gallup polls a sample of around 1,000 people in each country, regardless of population size, and the rankings use a three-year rolling average of these life evaluation scores from each nation.

While India is a vast and multifaceted nation, the sample size employed in this study may not adequately capture the breadth of its diversity and intricacies. The data pertaining to per capita GDP on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis has been sourced from the World Development Indicators (WDI) compiled by the World Bank. Subsequently, a natural logarithmic transformation has been applied to the data, as it aligns more closely with the observed patterns.

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The data on healthy life expectancy at birth, sourced from the WHO Global Health Observatory data repository, along with the indicators of social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption, are all derived from responses to various questions posed by the Gallup World Poll (GWP). These indicators, while attempting to capture different aspects of societal well-being, are inherently linked to the economic status of a nation.

The social support indicator is based on a binary question inquiring whether individuals have relatives or friends they can rely on for assistance during times of need. Similarly, the freedom to make life choices indicator reflects the average response to a question about satisfaction with personal autonomy. Generosity is calculated as the residual from a regression analysis of charitable donations on log GDP per capita, while perceptions of corruption are derived from responses regarding the prevalence of corruption in government and businesses.

Therein lies the crux of the matter: these indicators, despite their varied domains, are inextricably intertwined with a nation’s income or wealth. It is a well-documented phenomenon that affluent nations tend to score higher on such measures, while their less affluent counterparts often lag behind. This inherent bias towards wealthy nations raises questions about the true representativeness of these indicators in capturing the multifaceted nature of societal well-being across diverse economic contexts.

The notion that wealth directly translates to happiness is a widespread misconception that lacks factual substantiation. Equating prosperity with contentment oversimplifies the complex interplay between socio-cultural influences and our perception of what constitutes happiness. The questions posed and their framing profoundly shape our responses, unveiling the limitations of such assumptions. For instance, inquiring about the weekly time dedicated to parental interaction or the duration of one’s current marital union may reveal surprising perspectives that challenge the supposed superiority of affluent Western societies in attaining fulfillment.

Cultures with a collectivistic mindset, prevalent in many Asian societies, view happiness through a communal lens – a shared experience within social groups rather than mere individual fulfillment. In contrast, individualistic societies, commonly found in Western nations, tend to perceive happiness as a personal state of contentment and life satisfaction. The contagious nature of positive emotions implies that joyful individuals radiate happiness onto those around them, fostering stronger bonds within families and social circles, thereby amplifying collective happiness. However, the framing of questions in the Global Wellbeing Project (GWP) survey may inadvertently favor individualistic interpretations of happiness, potentially skewing scores in favor of Western nations that align more closely with such perspectives.

While economic indicators may rank India lower on the prosperity scale, the true essence of contentment lies within the cultural fabric that binds its people. From time immemorial, Indian society has placed greater emphasis on cherishing values, nurturing relationships, and embracing a life of simplicity over the pursuit of material wealth. This mindset, ingrained in generations, has fostered a deep sense of fulfillment that transcends the confines of materialistic measures.

Even as the nation’s economy continues to evolve, the fundamental values that have long defined the Indian ethos remain steadfast. The profound bonds shared within extended families and communities provide a source of strength and solace, rendering the notion of happiness as a mere statistical metric irrelevant. Rather than succumbing to the superficial allure of such indices, Indians can take pride in their ability to find contentment in the richness of their cultural heritage and the depth of their interpersonal connections.

In essence, the true wealth of a nation lies not in its ranking on arbitrary scales but in the resilience of its people’s spirits and the unwavering commitment to upholding the timeless virtues that have shaped their collective identity. (The writer can be reached at dipakkurmiglpltd@gmail.com)

 

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The Hills Timeshttps://www.thehillstimes.in/
Welcome to The Hills Times, your trusted source for daily news and updates in English from the heart of Assam, India. Since our establishment in 2000, we've been dedicated to providing timely and accurate information to our readers in Diphu and Guwahati. As the first English newspaper in the then undemarcated Karbi Anglong district, we've forged a strong connection with diverse communities and age groups, earning a reputation for being a reliable source of news and insights. In addition to our print edition, we keep pace with the digital age through our website, https://thehillstimes.in, where we diligently update our readers with the latest happenings day by day. Whether it's local events, regional developments, or global news, The Hills Times strives to keep you informed with dedication and integrity. Join us in staying ahead of the curve and exploring the world through our lens.
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