Gross National Happiness in the Era of GDP

    Date : 01-Dec-2018
Subject: Happiness in Nations: Past, Present and Future
December 1, 2018, IPF Seminar Hall, New Delhi
Chair: Prof. N. N. Sharma, Public Policy Expert Key Speaker: Prof. V. K. Shrotryia, Professor, Department of Commerce, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi
Moderator: Dr. Suman Kumar, Associate Professor, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi
The first chapter of the lecture series ‘Gross National Happiness in the Era of GDP’, which attempts to understand both economic and non-economic factors influencing human happiness, was held on 1st December, 2018. It was chaired by Prof. N. N. Sharma, public policy expert, while the key speaker was Prof. V. K. Shrotryia, Professor, Department of Commerce, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University. Dr. Suman Kumar, Associate Professor, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, acted as Moderator for the event.
Dr. Kumar commenced the seminar by introducing the Chair and the Key Speaker and welcoming them. The Chair, Prof. Sharma, then welcomed all the guests.
Prof. Sharma mentioned how GDP has a significant impact on our lives today. It is used as the indicator of economic progress in every country and necessarily influences policy decisions. He recalled how Kuznets had admitted the limitations of this simple measure in 1934. Over time, people from diverse fields began to realize this too. Prof. Sharma took the example of how fuel combustion forms a part of GDP, while the resultant pollution is not accounted for. Even non-market goods are overlooked. He also observed that GDP and inequality have grown together in most countries. The efforts to discuss these issues by the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission were then mentioned. He also talked of the construction of the Human Development Index by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq in this context, which only had the additional dimensions of education and health. He recalled the statement given in 1972 by the then King of Bhutan: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”; it had led to the development of a Gross National Happiness Index in Bhutan in 2008. Prof. Sharma then posed the question: “How is Happiness to be defined?” He said it is easier to define happiness on an individual level. He discussed the ideas broached by ancient Indian sages, Buddha, Aristotle, etc. in this regard. He therefore felt that it is the definition of Happiness on the national scale which demands more serious address. He also noted the work done by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman in this regard. The recently incorporated Happiness Department in Madhya Pradesh also found mention. Prof. Sharma also reflected on how wrong measurements may lead to wrong policies, and correcting for these could make it possible to facilitate all-round human development. Hence, he concluded his speech by requesting India Policy Foundation to conduct further research in this area, so as to form a foundation for the state to take solid policy measures.
Prof. Shrotryia began by observing how the English word ‘Happiness’ has several close translations in Hindi, mentioning that the ‘Ananda’in Madhya Pradesh’s ‘Rajya Ananda Sansthan’ actually meant ‘Bliss’. He also talked about how Patanjali’s definition of Happiness was related to the presence of favorable circumstances. The Madhya Pradesh Government attempts to measure Happiness by measuring the public’s satisfaction with the Government. Talking about the Past of Happiness among Nations, he said how a certain economist, through extrapolation techniques, had found that India’s GDP would have been much higher than that of any other country in earlier times. He mentioned Alex von Tunzelmann’s description of the superiority of Mughal India over Britain in terms of the Happiness of its subjects in her book ‘Indian Summer’. He also felt that the infamous cruel monarchs in India were but few in number and should therefore not be seen as dominant characters.
Through his presentation, Prof. Shrotryia talked of the work done by the Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven in Erasmus University, who had defined Happiness as ‘the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of life favorably’. He stressed on the significant impact that Veenhoven’s ‘World Database of Happiness’ has had in this field.
He also felt that the philosophies of Development and Happiness must move together. He talked about the socialistic form of government, mixed economy approach and Five-Year Plans adopted by India right after Independence. He even highlighted how Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ had been written in 424 BC, way before Adam Smith, the so-called ‘Father of Economics’, had come up with ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in 1776.
He narrated a recent incident where a proposition by Prof Murli Manohar Joshi in Parliament to expand the concept of GDP to include aspects such as Education and Health was vehemently opposed by certain MPs. However, he opined that it is not a modified version of GDP, but an alternative index that is required for more comprehensive policymaking. Similar views had been expressed by former President Pranab Mukherjee at an Indian Chambers of Commerce event in Kolkata in July.
Prof. Shrotryia emphasized on the difference in focus between traditional development and growth scientists and the contemporary researchers of Happiness. He posed the question: ‘Should students determine the demand for skills in the job market or their supply?’ He was of the opinion that education should create j0bs.
He mentioned how the UN proclaimed 20th March to be the International Day of Happiness in 2012, some time after the Bhutanese Prime Minister addressed Happiness researchers from all over the world. The first World Happiness Report was published by the UN in 2012, edited by John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of British Columbia.
He reflected on how material well-being has grown exponentially over the years. An individual, however, seeks a happy and peaceful life. He mentioned the Easterlin Paradox, according to which happiness grows with growing income only up to a certain point. This was criticized by Veenhoven as well as Barack Obama, former President of the United States. Prof. Shrotryia quoted, “The ideologies of the twentieth century that promised happiness and welfare have left us intellectually, morally and spiritually bankrupt and unhappy.”
He proposed the use of a ‘Dustbin Index’, where the household with a larger dustbin is touted to have a greater contribution to GDP. He also talked about the widely accepted Life Satisfaction Index given by the American psychologist, professor and author Ed Diener, whose 1984 paper ‘Subjective Well-Being’ has been cited a large number of times worldwide. This index is a seven-point one, where 1 denotes ‘extreme dissatisfaction’ and 7 denotes ‘extreme satisfaction’. A similar idea was also used by the Madhya Pradesh Government as part of a pilot project, before they signed an MoU with IIT Kharagpur. On the Life Satisfaction Index, the homeless in California scored 2.9, while the homeless in Kolkata scored 3.2. Sex workers in Kolkata scored 3.6, while Kolkata slum-dwellers had a score of 4.6. College students worldwide had a score of 4.9. The Amish tribe of Pennsylvania fared 5.8, a score shared by the Richest Americans listed by Forbes magazine. Here, Prof. Shrotryia cited Mahatma Gandhi’s blissful idea of a village economy in his book ‘Hind Swaraj’. He also presented a 2002 report on the ‘Quality of Life in Ireland’ in this context. He referred to the work by D. G. Myers, according to which money gradually assumes a less important role than love in increasing the level of Life Satisfaction. The World Map of Happiness drawn up by psychologist Adrian White at the University of Leicester was also shown in his presentation.
Prof. Shrotryia remarked how Bhutan is the only poor nation that features among the world’s top 10 happiest countries. Also, the Bhutanese do not emigrate much. They also have a very strong system of community well-being. He observed that the transformation from Compulsion to Choice indicates an improvement in well-being. According to the World Happiness Report, Pakistan has the highest level of Life Satisfaction among all South Asian countries. Afghanistan fares the lowest, while India holds seventh rank. However, Sri Lanka appears at the top of all South Asian countries in terms of the Human Development Index. Surprisingly, Pakistan does very poorly in these aspects. Over time, Pakistan’s rank has improved while that of India has deteriorated in terms of Happiness.
He also discussed Bhutan’s GNH model, which has 16 Key Result Areas. The first survey following this framework was conducted in 2008. A similar approach is now being adopted in Madhya Pradesh. The New Economic Foundation, UK has also come up with a Well-Being Manifesto. IIT Kharagpur has set up the Rekhi Centre of Excellence for the Science of Happiness. With its help, the New Town Kolkata Development Authority also plans to study the happiness index for the locality. The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababu Naidu, also intends to build Amaravati as the happiest capital in the world.
As Prof. Shrotryia concluded his speech, the panel was opened for discussion. First of all, it was asked if there was some way of overcoming the Easterlin paradox or mitigating the causes of individual unhappiness. To this, Prof Shrotryia replied that there are two sides to the idea of Happiness. One is Satisfaction, which is influenced only by past events. The other is an overall attitude of Positivity, which is perhaps easier to generate and spread. It was also pointed out by the panel that the idea of ‘Sustainable Consumption’ had been a part of Indian philosophy since the ancient times. Also, while being stress-free, pain-free, tension-free, etc. are indicators of individual happiness, the equitable distribution of GDP is an extremely important factor in the aggregate. Prof. Sharma observed that instead of a top-down approach, the incorporation of Happiness in the definition of well-being must come through a consensus among the masses. He took examples of the huge acceptance received by the ideas of Sustainable Development and Human Development Index.
The panel also drew attention to the new ‘Happiness Curriculum’ launched by the Delhi Government and raised the question: why is such a huge gap observed wherein the idea of Happiness is still being debated worldwide, while policies such as this have already been brought into action? To this, Prof. Sharma replied that there has very often been a large gap between theory and implementation and that Happiness can evolve from these localized efforts to a national policy only after it becomes a part of the national consciousness and discussion.
Several other questions were then posed, which included:
How is the idea of Happiness, so deeply rooted in Indian spiritual philosophy, to be given the form of policy?
Should individual happiness be considered as a parameter while constructing a Happiness Index?
Are the definitions of Happiness not different for a rich and a poor person? Also, in the pursuit of Happiness, will we continue to move on a circular path, once preferring modernity and then longing for simplicity and back again?
Where do we stand between the two approaches of looking at happiness: the economic or policy-related perspective, and the psychological perspective?
Is it possible to construct a monolithic Happiness index for a country as diverse as India? Also, how is the psychological or neurological aspect of the emotion called ‘Happiness’ to be incorporated along with the sociological discourse?
In what sphere of human life does equality ensure Happiness-driven growth or development? 
In today’s consumerist culture, does the pursuit of Happiness not pose an even more serious threat to the environment?
 To these questions, Prof Shrotryia answered that Happiness is not something which can be taught. Teaching might be desirable from the point of view of infrastructure development. GDP-driven growth might bring about economic development, but not social development. He felt that from the policy perspective, it is much more important to find out about the different factors that affect Happiness and how significant each of them is, rather than teaching it in the form of lectures in the classroom. He also cited Kahneman’s Day Reconstruction Method, which mainly asks people about their experiences of the previous week. He also related an incident where he was told by the Indian economist, Prof Suresh Tendulkar, that Happiness or Subjective Well-being for the BPL population must be very different from those above the Poverty Line, which makes it very difficult to come up with statistics related to this context. Prof. Shrotryia stressed on the need to redirect the focus of policymakers from economic well-being to the satisfaction of the masses. More emphasis should be laid upon the areas in which the people are dissatisfied and vice-versa. This is how, he felt, the idea of Happiness is to be incorporated into policy.
The panel still maintained that certain aspects of becoming happier as a person can be taught in the classroom. When it was asked if any such steps had been taken in the national curriculum, Prof. Shrotryia replied that some elements had been introduced throughout the country to make children aware of the country’s position in the world in this context.
Prof. Sharma concluded the event with the following core points of the discussion:
  • How is the agenda of Happiness to be incorporated into national policy?
  • How should awareness and consciousness regarding this issue be spread?
  • It is perhaps possible to arrive at a consensus among different Governments/ entities regarding the approach to be taken in this context.
He signed off with a request to India Policy Foundation to organize further chapters in this series and also conduct meaningful research that can be transformed eventually into policy initiatives.
Prepared by:
Devolina Sharma
Intern at IPF, working on ‘The Level of Happiness and the Factors affecting it for the Rich and the Poor in Delhi’
MA-1st year, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University