Are people happy?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Can governments make people happy?

A newspaper reported that Sri Lanka’s President addressing a local government election rally at Matale, recently, had said that “the Government’s motivation is to make people happier”.

Leaders around the world are showing serious concern as to whether their people are happy. It all started in Bhutan in 1972, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the King of Bhutan, at that time first proposed it.

The reasoning was that economic activity per se is inadequate as a measure of success. There are limits to the satisfaction economic growth by itself provides, there is a search to look beyond material fulfilment.


There are many aspects in the social life of economically developed countries, which are falling apart, like family relations and community life, the world is fast becoming atomised and individualised to the extent that a community feeling has ceased to exist in some cultures. Leisure, community activities and inter action have ceased to be important or even exist anymore.

Another leader to show interest is China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who recently declared that Chinese officials are going to be judged on their ability to “make people happy”.

He said: “An official’s performance and political achievements should be evaluated by whether the public are happy or not, dissatisfied or not, but not by how many high rise buildings and projects he has been involved in.”

Key theme for China

A senior Chinese official commented: “It’s all about making people happy these days. Happy, happy, happy that’s the only word that counts.”

The People’s Daily in Beijing stated that the call to achieve greater happiness among China’s masses is to be a key theme of China’s next five year development plan. “Let happiness take off among the masses,” it exhorted.

Another newspaper, the Oriental Outlook, reports that happiness has become a new buzzword for China’s bureaucrats, displacing the earlier favourite, ‘harmony’. The Province of Guangdong has named its five-year plan as ‘Happy Guangdong’.

Chinese leaders fear that too many people have been marginalised and left behind by China’s infrastructure-led economic growth. They are concerned of the human cost, such as quality of life factors, access to health care, education, affordable housing and clean air and water.

Chinese academics are working on developing a National Happiness Index to measure soft factors such as environment issues and a sense of social contentment.

‘Xiaokang’ society

Addressing China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), Grandpa Wen, as the Prime Minister is fondly referred to by Beijing’s media, said: “In addition to safeguarding price stability and national security, national creativity will be enhanced, philosophy will be enriched, an innovative spirit will be aroused, extravagance will be resolutely opposed and one hour of exercise for students in schools on a daily basis will be ensured.”

The aim of all this aggressive arousing, enhancing and ensuring is to turn Chinese society into a ‘Xiaokang’ society, by the end of the decade. Xiaokang is a Confucian concept which promoted a moderately prosperous society enjoying the fruits of its labours.

Two days before Wen’s address to the NPC, the Chinese media published a survey indicating that only 6% of China’s citizens felt happy. Confucius’s Xiaokang seems the Communist Party’s remedy.

Sri Lankan employees most satisfied

A UNDP report – ‘The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development’ – says that employees in Sri Lanka are the most satisfied, up to 86% have declared to be so. An earlier survey has shown that Sri Lanka has topped an Asian list of people most satisfied with their lives; 93% of those surveyed in Sri Lanka said they were satisfied.

People’s happiness and satisfaction has been difficult to measure. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that being ‘happy’ is being cheerful with feelings of pleasure or satisfaction. ‘Satisfaction’ is, in turn, when you are pleased because you have achieved something or because something has happened as you wanted it to.

A synonym is being ‘content’ being happy and satisfied with what you have. Rulers have however constantly tried to measure happiness as an indicator of the quality of life of the ruled.

Economic performance measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of the value of goods and services produced in a country. It has been defined as the total of all economic activity in one country, regardless of who owns the productive assets. However, it has many flaws and does not even measure the value of goods and services precisely.

Further people’s feelings of happiness or satisfaction or optimism also depend on things GDP does not capture. The HDI, Human Development Index, developed by the UNDP under the guidance of the late Dr. Mahbub ul Haque, was an alternative measure. Dr. Haque said: “The human dimension of development is not just another addition to the development dialogue. It is an entirely new perspective, a revolutionary way to recast our conventional approach to development.”

Gross National Happiness

In 1999 the Planning Commission of Bhutan organised a workshop in Thimpu to consider whether or not the concept of Gross National Happiness – GNH – as articulated by the King of Bhutan as a development target of his Kingdom, could be related to the HDI indicators of the UNDP.

The workshop considered a number of issues: Could an index for GNH be constructed in the same way as the index for HDI? What are the main ingredients of happiness and what are the indicators for happiness? Were the four platforms of economic development, environmental preservation, cultural promotion and good governance through which Bhutan was pursuing GNH the appropriate ones?

In 2007 a British academic Adrian White published a league table of happiness which put Denmark in the number one position. White took data from diverse sources as UNESCO, WHO and the CIA and obtained data from 80,000 people in 178 countries. He concluded that factors such as health care and education were significant when it came to a person’s happiness.

Happiness Index

In early 2009 a British think tank, the New Economic Foundation, produced a Happiness Index; they used criteria such as life expectancy and the ecological footprint of the population as criteria. Lord Layard, an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, one time the British Government’s Happiness Czar and an academic, is of the view that happiness can be measured by simply asking people.

Lord Layard also is of the view that relationships are a lot more important that researchers normally allow for; people who want to be happy have to pay a great deal more attention to relationships and be not so willing to sacrifice them for the sake of income or productivity.

Lord Layard says, on this strategy to measure happiness: “I think it’s wonderful; it’s something I and others have been advocating for some time. It’s based on the idea that unless you measure the right things, you won’t do the right things.”

Bigger social problem than unemployment

Lord Layard argues that unhappiness was a bigger social problem in Britain than unemployment. In his Depression Report ( 2006), Layard pointed out that more people were claiming incapacity benefits because of depression and other mental disorders in Britain than were on income support for being unemployed.

Layard is of the view that GDP is overrated as a gauge of a country’s level of happiness and wellbeing. Once an economy reaches an income per person of about $ 15,000, economic growth ceases to add to happiness. This is why in Adrian White’s league table of happiness, quoted above, Denmark rates higher than America.

But others do not agree, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson of Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania say they have never found a formal statistical test of the proposition. Angus Deacon of Princeton University also disagrees with Layard and says that the reality is that an extra dollar is worth less to a rich man than to a poor man.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron, promised at the election he won, to measure subjective levels of wellbeing when the government sets about collecting other data for the census and measuring the usual things such as income levels and fear of violent crime.

Now the Prime Minister Cameron believes that the State can have a role in helping citizens feel better and argues that successful government should improve the quality of life as well strengthen the economy.

Britain’s National Statistician, Jill Matheson, said: “There is a growing international recognition that to measure national well being and progress there is a need to develop a more comprehensive view, rather than focusing solely on gross domestic product.”

Science of happiness

France has also jumped on this bandwagon of this ‘science of happiness’ movement, instead of confining oneself to only earning francs. In 2008 President Sarkozy appointed a Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Nobel Prize Laureate Joseph Stiglitz consisting of 25 prominent social scientists, five with Nobel Prizes in Economics including Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.

The Commission presented its report on 14 September 2009, calling for the world, in the words of Stiglitz, to abandon its “GDP fetishism”. The Commission dealt with the criticisms of GDP as measure of wellbeing.

GDP takes no account of depreciation of capital goods, although the value of production is based on market prices, not everything has a price, the value of these services, such as owner occupied housing and voluntary child care by parents is imputed by assumption.

Canada has also developed a National Wellbeing Index, the Canadian survey asks subjective questions like ‘How much do you enjoy your life? Are you comfortable with your current level of debt?’ and asks about Canadians core values, living standards and their identification with minority or ethnic groups. The British survey is expected to follow this format.

Preliminary results show that eating a family meal at least three times a week is a key to happiness because it helps to build a strong bond between partners and their children. Richard Easterlin asked the question: “Will raising the income of all raise the happiness of all?”


Lord Layard in his book ‘Happiness: Lessons from a New Science’ says: “There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier.”

The Commission also examined the wellbeing of future generations. Our successors will inherit a stock of resources, machines, buildings and institutions, the quality of their lives will depend to a great extent on our behaviour and investments we make today, especially in their human capital, education and health and the environment.Economic activity can be described as sustainable if future generations can expect to be at least as well off as us.

The report concludes that finding any one measure which catches up all this seems too ambitious and that it is wiser to look at a wide range of indicators that is a basket of figures broadening official statistics beyond GDP alone.

Pursuit of happiness: A fundamental right

In Brazil a Senate Committee has approved an amendment to the constitution which would make the pursuit of happiness a fundamental right.  A Brazilian NGO was pushing for this. This brings the Brazilian Constitution somewhat in line with the USA’s Declaration of Independence which includes the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

The Brazilian NGO Movimento Mais Feliz (Happier Movement) say that the amendment was supposed to emphasise that other essential rights, such as access to adequate services in health and education, were essential to the achievement of happiness.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

Professor Cristiano Paixao of the Faculty of Law at the University of Brasilia described the amendment as “a useless and worrying change to the constitution”. “Can you guarantee happiness by law?” is his question.

The NGO’s position is that it aims to promote happiness through five fronts: increasing popular awareness, mobilising social groups, stimulating participation in social projects, training ‘multiplier’ community activists and motivating citizens to contribute to its projects.

It says: “The state has an obligation to create conditions to provide education, health, security, etc., the idea is to force the State to assume the responsibility of meeting these needs so that citizens can seek happiness.”

A Gallup poll has found that Brazil was 12th happiest of 155 countries surveyed, one position happier than the USA. Four of the five happiest countries were in Scandinavia.

Cynics’ stance

Cynics say that the recent wave of unrest in North Africa, West Asia and the Maghreb has quickened the need for the world’s leaders to find out whether their people are happy.

If so, they could take solace from the worlds of an earlier Arab leader Abd-er Rahman III: “I have now reigned for about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call; nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot, they amount to 14.”

George Bernard Shaw was of the opinion that “a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth!” while Oscar Wilde was of the opinion that there are two types of human beings: “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go!”

Happiest man in America

Recently in America pollsters claimed to have found the happiest man in America. He is Alvin Wong, a 65-year-old, married Chinese American, and Kosher observing Jew who lives in Hawaii.

The Gallup Well Being index matched Wong’s characteristics and profile to a statistical composite for the happiest person in America. Wong told the New York Times: “My life philosophy is, if you can’t laugh at yourself, life is going to be pretty terrible for you.”

Should the people’s happiness be a concern of governments? Even the American Declaration of Independence limits the government’s task to merely securing the citizens inalienable right to pursue happiness for themselves: “All Men are created equal, that they are endowed… with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher, thought that enlightened policymakers should seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University says much turns of the citizen’s capacity to be happy.

He tells the story of a Brahmin in colonial India who pointed to an untouchable and said: “I am 10 times as capable of happiness as that untouchable over there.” Kanbur contends that governments should tax millionaires in order redistribute wealth to paupers, whatever the limits there are to the paupers’ capacity to achieve happiness compared to that of the millionaire.

The Buddha’s conclusive word

Gautama the Buddha probably has had the conclusive word on this when he preached that the way to happiness and satisfaction was to limit and control needs and eliminate greed and craving, the second of the Four Noble Truths – Samudaya – is that suffering is caused by craving. The surest way to ensure happiness and satisfaction is to minimise needs.

Generally surveys have shown that when people have been asked to say how happy they were as compared to the past, the answers show that for the very poor, level of income really matters when they self-assess their level of happiness.

But similar surveys have also shown that an enhanced income does not contribute to happiness, among segments of the population who have something over and above than the basic necessities of life.

But the fundamental issue is: Can kings, politicians and bureaucrats deliver happiness to citizens? On that the jury is still out.

Recent columns