26 May, 2022


Measuring Happiness And Its Sustainability

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

Recently, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, published the World Happiness Report 2013. Happiness was measured by this American University utilising indicators such as economic growth (GDP), life expectancy, level of social support, perception of corruption, and the freedom to make choices on lifestyle, etc. The analysis was based on data available between 2010 and 2012 and with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The Earth Institutes analysts concluded that the world had become ‘a slightly happier and more generous place over the past five years’.

Denmark was adjudged to be the world’s happiest nation with a score of 7.693. Norway was second with 7.655. Switzerland was third with 7.650. The unhappiest country of the 156 measured was Togo, in Africa with a score of 2.963. The bottom five were all African nations: Benin, the Central African Republic, Burundi and Rwanda joining Togo.

Sri Lanka

The largest increases in happiness were recorded in Angola, Zimbabwe, Albania, Ecuador and Moldova. The threshold would have been fairly low in these countries. Sri Lanka was ranked 137 out of the 156. One editorial in a national newspaper commented that Sri Lanka was ‘in the exalted company of Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mali and Haiti, etc.’ The Editor went on to indicate that coming close on the heels of Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay’s trenchant comments, after her groundbreaking visit to Sri Lanka, the UN does not seem to have much affection for Sri Lanka! But the Earth Institute’s analysis is based on hard research data, submitted to UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network voluntarily by Nation States themselves.

Sri Lanka’s Opposition Member of Parliament, Economist Harsha de Silva, has chimed in saying that the vast majority Sri Lankans are shown by the Earth Institute to be unhappy, mainly due to the heavy debts accumulated by the Government and Government-controlled commercial banks. These loans are taken at interest rates of 9.25% and 9.5%. These have to be paid back by all Sri Lankans collectively. The small coterie of people benefitting from the present Government’s largesse, the immediate circle drawing benefits of political power and influence, are happy, de Silva indicates, but the vast majority of Sri Lankans will fit into the Earth Institute’s categorisation of being unhappy, seems to be the Economist’s view.

Measuring 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.

Whether Columbia University’s criteria for ensuring happiness sit well with these definitions is indeed a moot point. Measuring happiness as an indicator of the quality of life of average citizen has been an ongoing exercise from time immemorial. Sustainable is defined as something which survives and can be maintained without change.

One measure adopted, encouraged by their economic pundits and taken into account by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is the Gross Domestic Product, better known by its initials GDP, which has also been the professional economists’ chosen measure of a nation’s wellbeing for over 70 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, it also 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.

Difficult and challenging times

We live in difficult and challenging times. Global poverty and inequality stubbornly persist and the threat of the negative consequences of global climate change looms over all our heads.

At a 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 of 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: “It is 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 people’s hopes, goals and aspirations. It is this realisation that prompted the United Nations to host a High Level meeting on Happiness and Wellbeing. 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 Happy Planet Index

Like Columbia University’s Earth Institute, 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 well being 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. That it is possible to live happily in a sustainable way, without doing irretrievable damage to the environment and that this is measurable. There does not seem to be much diversity in the findings of the Earth Institute and New Economics Foundation.

‘Better Life’ index and the HDI

The OECD also, 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 wellbeing. The 11 sectors measured include housing, income, jobs, community life, education, environment, governance and 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 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 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.

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 in this way, for example 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.”

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.
Britain’s National Statistician Jill Matheson said that “there is a growing international recognition that to measure national wellbeing and progress there is a need to develop a more comprehensive view, rather than focusing solely on Gross Domestic Product”.

The science of 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 measure of well being. 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. 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 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 phase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

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

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.

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 criteria used by Columbia’s Earth Institute and the other studies referred to seem have a commonality which gives them credibility. But the odd man out is the issue of sustainability – change is constant and is the only certainty. In such a rapidly changing scenario, is sustainability a myth? Are we are all just playing catch up with the constantly evolving reality of survival?

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Latest comments

  • 0

    They define and understand something different when they say happiness.

    For them Material wealth is the foremost and the most important. Even the wife and children are part of that. they treat and use those as materials.

    Consider how much stress they go through because of that greed. See how many get cancer. Cancer is like common cold among them. Why are all these for them ?

    See how prevalent the narcotic addiction and prescription drug addiction to such drugs as pain killers, sleeping pills, birth control pills, pills for depression etc.,

    Now, I hear stress and Obesity among Sri Lankans too. GO and see rural poor people how happy they are. Sri Lanka is becoming a non-happy society.

    that is all.

    • 0

      To the writer, Thanks for your efforts for these great stuff to find them all in one place. As for Jimy the rufy-dogy; Srilankans are becoming unhappier due to blinkered dimwits like him along with VP and the LTTE that elected, promoted and sustained through corrupt practices those in power and authority today to ride the rough-shod over the poor dumb masses.

  • 0

    Excellent from Charitha Ratwatte. Besides money and material to live, there are some others that contribute to my happiness or unhappiness. I am unhappy when I see injustice and abhor the government’s open advocacy of discrimination between communities, races, and religions. I am unhappy when the law is dispensed unfairly. I am unhappy when corrupt politicians serve themselves to public funds and enrich themselves.I am unhappy when public officials and politicians do not declare their assets and go unpunished. I am unhappy when Banks and other institutions make unconscionable profits without regard to uplifting the poor and the destitute. I dislike the pompous and supercilious demeanour of the rich and the powerful, whether politician or not. Humbleness, compassion and respect for fellow citizens, the rule of law, and a commitment to safeguarding the rights of the individual are paramount in my list for the ‘happiness index’. Which is why I am unhappy in Sri Lanka.

    • 0

      I do most certainly well and truly do fully concur with you and any and all such like minded people anywhere on this planet. Yet these are mostly determined by genetics, epigenetics, mematics arising from the interplay of nature and nurture from our birth to death that the others to the contrary cannot help being what they as nature seems to carry on regardless with its amoral quest using, abusing and misusing us all as its robotic prototype experimentations.

  • 0

    What happiness you are talking about in Sri Lanka?
    When you were heading a public sector institution, all the senior positions you appointed were based on politics rather than qualifications, knowledge or experience. May be this is your happiness.
    I am sorry you are the wrong person to write about happiness, Charitha.

  • 0

    Mr Ratwatte, are you completely happy your appointment as the Secretary to Ministry of Finance during Chandrika’s regime, (a daughter of Ratwatte although I am not sure whether you are related) was based entirely on merit?

    Will you be fully happy if the next SL President appoints you as an advisory / ambassador/ UN / World Bank or some other junket post?

  • 0

    There are other measures of happiness.
    These were defined some 25 centuries ago and still valid today…

    “You’re the primary architect of your own happiness and suffering, other people are the primary architects of theirs. If you really want them to be happy, you don’t just treat them nicely. You also want them to learn how to create the causes for happiness. If you can, you want to show them how to do that. This is why the gift of dharma — lessons in how to give rise to true happiness — is the greatest gift”
    Source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/headandheart.html

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