2018 was not a bad year in general for India. GDP growth has been relatively good, the Modi administration has launched several new initiatives, and India’s status and world image have strengthened. The problem is that these are all top-line measures and do not get down to how the Indian people are feeling.
Recent research on this, unfortunately, indicates they are not feeling very happy. India ranked as 133 out of 156 countries on the UN 2018 World Happiness Report (Happiness Report). This was 11 spots lower than India’s 2017 ranking. India’s dismal 2018 ranking placed it far below most developing nations around the world and near the very bottom for the South Asian countries surveyed.
A well-being study released by social science researchers at the end of 2018 revealed that life satisfaction in India dropped by 10 percent from 2006-17. What accounts for India’s poor performance on these assessments?
There is no simple explanation. It is instructive, however, to consider the factors that have the greatest impact on achieving good scores on them.
As noted in the Executive Summary of the Happiness Report, “All the top countries tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.” The well-being study disclosed that “The life satisfaction of individuals worldwide correlates with income, health, employment, education as well as with positive moods, freedom and beliefs about the benefits of work.”
India obviously does not score well on most of those factors. There are various studies that have highlighted major deficiencies in areas such as income, health, education and employment. There is not a systematic method in place, however, to assess the well-being of India’s citizenry on an ongoing basis.
India, as do most other countries, puts considerable emphasis on measuring GDP growth and tracking other economic indicators routinely and regularly. The assumption is that moving the needle positively on those metrics will cause benefits to flow through to citizens.
That is not the case. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains, “No single measure can capture what is going on in a modern society, but the GDP measure fails in critical ways we need measures on how the typical individual is doing (measures of median income do a lot better than measures of average income.)”
There are two old proverbs. One states: “What is measured matters.” The other says: “What gets measured gets managed.” By putting a well-being measurement system in place, India would demonstrate that the happiness of its citizens matters and provide the platform for developing and implementing policies for enhancing their life satisfaction.
Given that, I recommend the development of monthly Well-Being Index. Such an Index could be the definitive source for information on the well-being of the Indian citizenry.
Social scientists, economists and statisticians can decide what goes into the Index and its metrics. The important thing is that the Index is developed and put into place as quickly as possible. The reason for this is that the available data and evidence show that India is moving backward rather than forward in terms of enhancing the happiness and life satisfaction of its people.
The Index results and findings should be released at the same time as GDP reports so that all concerned individuals and organizations can determine whether the economic growth and progress of the country as a whole is translating into well-being for its citizens. With this information in hand, decision-makers can take the actions necessary to ensure that when India does well, all Indians do well.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Gandhi was correct.
Research shows though that extrinsic factors such as income inequality and an inadequate education can reduce an individual’s potential for achieving happiness. Improving the conditions and the setting for well-being by addressing those factors will enhance a person’s ability to exercise choice and free-will in order to be happy.
Mahatma Gandhi also famously said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” In this and in the years ahead, I am confident a change that all would like to see is a happier India.
A Well-Being Index would be a starting point for focusing attention on a happier India and bringing Indians together to work in unison on being the change that will be necessary to achieve that end.
(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal.)