Pursuit of happiness: A wild goose chase?

Tuesday, 12 March 2013 00:48 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The American Declaration of Independence, in its second paragraph states that “… all Men are created equal, and that they are endowed… with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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 constantly tried to measure happiness as an indicator of the quality of life of the ruled. The idea behind the attempt to measure ‘happiness’ by government is to ensure that governments can make their voters ‘happy’. It would be good for governments to keep in mind Samuel Coleridge’s comment in The Three Graves: ‘We ne’er can be, made happy by compulsion!’

Some define happiness as the satisfaction of the will. If you succeed in obtaining what you have been dreaming of, can you be said to be happy? Pursuing this definition of happiness, a person may do countless things, spending all his time, money, energy and skill, to make his life happy. But would such happiness be sustainable?

If something perishable, changeable and impermanent is procured in the pursuit of happiness, it is bound to slip away from his grasp as definitely as night follows day. Then unhappiness will result. Experience shows that education does not bring happiness, neither does wealth bring happiness.


The Buddha’s view

The Buddha taught that happiness can be eradicated by eliminating the craving for happiness and all worldly things. The Buddha explained that one gains happiness through the association with the wise and the avoidance of fools. “Good is the sight of the Noble Ones; happy always is it to live with them; away from the sight of fools, one would always be happy.”

Generosity or Dana makes the giver happy. But in the last resort the Buddha made it clear that the path to happiness is through the purification of the mind. The Buddha said: “Our actions are all led by the mind, the mind is their master, mind is their maker. If one acts or speaks with a pure state of mind then happiness follows like a shadow that trails constantly behind.”

Happiness is therefore most certainly generated by the by the mind freed from factors which oppose it, that is free from craving. Doing good deeds with a pure mind is a source of happiness. The Buddha explained that there are three stages to happiness: moral behaviour (Sila), concentration (Samadhi) and wisdom (Panna). Living a good moral life is a source of happiness. So also concentration of the mind through the practice of meditation. The realisation of the truth, the wisdom so achieved is the third stage of happiness which frees the mind of craving


Gross Domestic Product

But in the material world we live in, sustainable is defined as something which survives and can be maintained without change. One measure adopted by rulers, encouraged by their economic pundits, is the Gross Domestic Product, better known by its initials, GDP, which also has been the professional economists’ chosen measure of a nation’s wellbeing over the years.

Economic growth is assumed to equate to wellbeing. However it is well recognised to have serious limitations, for example it takes no account of environmental pollution and degradation, which negatively affects sustainability, also it excludes all unpaid services which exist in the economy, such as volunteering and domestic housework – homemaking. Robert Kennedy, Attorney General of the USA and brother of President John. F. Kennedy, put it succinctly, when he said that GDP “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile!”

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.


Freedom and happiness

The reference to the liberty in the American constitution, has led, together with other constitutional principles developed in other parts of the world, to a theoretical nexus being developed between, the level of freedom in a society and the level of happiness. Is there a connection between the quantum of freedom and the level of happiness? The measurement of the quantum of freedom is connected to the issue of basic rights.

Safeguarding the right o the individual necessarily envisages placing restrictions on the state interfering with his rights. Both international treaties and national laws limit the right of the state to impinge upon individual rights. The fundamental principle is that an individual has been endowed, by custom, tradition, religious beliefs and humanitarian considerations, among others, with certain essential and inherent rights, which must be respected and protected, if society is to be just. If the rulers are to be considered as just rulers.

These rights range from freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom from torture, discrimination, arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of speech and association and association and freedom. But these freedoms cannot and are not unlimited. Social cohesion and control requires that for a community to be functional and not dysfunctional and anarchy, there must be reasonable limitations of individual freedoms. The state therefore, with consent of the people, imposes restraints on the exercise and enjoyment of individual rights in the interest of good governance and the very existence, survival, safety and security of the state, as a voluntary grouping of citizens and their communities.

A nation’s basic law or constitution reflects this trade off. The emphasis is shifted away from the primacy of individual rights to the recognition of common and community rights to which individual rights are subordinated. However it is a fine line of demarcation. Much disputed.

For example the principle of absolute freedom of contract of the parties to an agreement, is most times subordinated to the higher moral aspiration of equity and social justice and the protection of weaker segments of the community from the economically and socially powerful.

Today environmental and ecological obligations also play a powerful role. For example, the current much debated trade off which is highly controversial, over the ability of the department of Wildlife Conservation and the safari jeep drivers at the Yala National Park to earn a maximum income by taking large numbers of tourists into the park, and the deleterious effect of such over visitation on the fauna and the flora of a very vulnerable eco system.

These sort of issues took primacy at UN gathering in Brazil, the Rio +20 World Sustainability Conference, those that were concerned enough to attend, that is- the major players simply kept away! The 238 point final agreement, entitled ‘The Future We Want,’ was arrived on the day appointed for the conference to end, a sure sign for an ineffective UN conference, there was no real controversy, where there are controversial ‘real’ issues raised, the meetings go on until the early hours of the morning, trying to hammer out a compromise. The EU’s climate change commissioner commented on the final communiqué: “Telling that nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That’s how weak it is.”

A growing number of ordinary people around the world are recognising the mutual interconnectedness of these issues and the need to think of a way to evolve a measure of development which would capture the real situation of the status of humanity as to their thinking of their present and future. How is ‘sustainable progress’ to be measured in the 21st century? The traditional indicators of economic activity simply don’t tell us enough about ordinary peoples hopes, goals and aspirations.


The Happy Planet Index

It is this realisation that prompted the United Nations to host a High Level meeting on Happiness and Well Being. For the same reason the few world leaders who actually attended Rio +20 were involved in negotiations on development indicators which ‘would go beyond GDP’.

The New Economics Foundation, responding to this need has created a Happy Planet Index (HPI). The HPI is considered to be one of the leading global measures of sustainable wellbeing. As a measure of human progress, it measures the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for their citizens.

The 2012 HPI report published on 14 June 2012 ranks 151 countries based on their efficiency – defined as the extent to which each nation produces long and happy lives for their citizens, per unit of environmental input. Clearly the results show that we are not living on a happy planet. No country has good performance on three critical indicators – life expectancy, experiential wellbeing and ecological footprint. Some countries certainly do well, but maybe not the ones you expected.

None of the top 10 in the HPI are the world’s rich countries. Of the top 40 in the HPI, only four have a GDP per capita of over $ 15,000. The highest ranking Western nation is Norway at 28. New Zealand is 29th. Costa Rica leads the HPI table, with its very high life expectancy, high experiential wellbeing and an ecological footprint one-third of the USA’s. The HPI results show that progress is not just about wealth and that it is possible to live happily in a sustainable way, without doing irretrievable damage to the environment and that this is measurable.


The ‘Better Life’ index

The OECD, a mainly rich country think tank has attempted to address this issue of developing an accurate indicator for development has created the ‘Better Life’ index. The index uses 24 variable indicators across 11 sectors, to create a measure of welfare for 34 of its members, plus Brazil and Russia. If the 11 sectors are grouped into two broader categories – America excels most in money and jobs, Switzerland in health and education,

The index was launched in May 2011; it was the first attempt to bring together internationally comparable measures of well being. The 11 sectors measured include housing, income, jobs, community life, education, environment, governance, work life balance. Each topic was considered using three indicators, for work life balance three indicators were considered, the number of employees working long hours, the percentage of working mothers, and the time people devoted to leisure and personal activities.


The Human Development Index

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.”

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 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 healthcare and education were significant when it came to a person’s happiness.

France has also jumped on this bandwagon of this ‘science of happiness’ movement, instead of confining oneself to only rupees and cents. 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 a 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.

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. Will our legacy be obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and cancerous tumours?

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.

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.

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.


The price of inequality

The Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who Chaired former President Sarkozy’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and was also involved in the OECD Better Life Index, in a recent book entitled, ‘The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future’ which he has written in response to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters.

Stiglitz says that the Occupy Wall Street protesters slogan of ‘We are the 99%’, echoes an article he wrote in 2011 in Vanity Fair entitled ‘Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%’ in May 2011. This inequality Stiglitz argues is the result of public policy being captured by an elite who have feathered their own nests at the expense of the rest of the community. They have abused their power to distort the political debate on these issues, pushing through tax cuts and concessions to favour the rich and adjusting monetary policy to favour the banks and financial houses. The challenge is how to measure these inequalities accurately so that there could be effective policy responses.

The Rio + 20 commitments to new environmentally friendly development benchmarks as an alternative to GDP, combined with the need to control human greed to conserve scarce resources, maybe a way forward. On the pursuit of happiness, George Bernard Shaw memorably expressed the view that “a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth!” Oscar Wilde opined that when it comes to happiness, there were two types of human beings: “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go!” We may end up happier by chasing after wild geese! Is it a fools’ errand?

(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.)

Recent columns