Last Friday, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network released the World Happiness Report 2021, in which India was ranked 139 out of 149 countries, alongside nations such as Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. In 2020, India was ranked 144, while Finland has emerged as the happiest nation in the world for the fourth consecutive year, taking its place alongside other European countries including Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
This year, the focus of the report was the impact of COVID-19 on people and how respective governments of the countries in question handled the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis and response was one aspect of the study, but factors that were also probed included social support, the liberty to make important life decisions, the expectancy of a healthy life, per capita GDP and the notion of corruption. Interestingly, having a loaded pocket is not the only criterion that qualifies a nation for happiness. The United States, which is supposedly one of the most prosperous nations in the world, barely made it to the 19th spot on the tally. Even European heavyweights such as Italy and France, are ranked 28 and 21, respectively, while the UAE was ranked 25.
These revelations do inspire the question, what really constitutes happiness. As Tolstoy observed, a one size fits all solution is not really the way to go for societies across the world. Take, for instance, our neighbouring nation Bhutan, which has unofficially gained the moniker of being among the happiest nations globally. The country does not endorse a concept of GDP, but rather focusses on the idea of Gross National Happiness. One of the trade-offs that the nation has endured to keep its very inimitable and non-replicable culture and way of life is by willingly foregoing the trappings of many modern-day developing nations, such as India and China. The country might have Wi-Fi and broadband, but it still chooses to keep its enterprises highly localised. Even the hospitality sector is highly regulated with a focus on Bhutanese nationals retaining ownership and propagating homegrown enterprises, as opposed to the rampant franchisee model that has now become the mainstay of India. But such an approach maybe is possible in a nation where the population just about exceeds 7.63 lakhs, as per 2019 figures.
One must realise that there aren’t any easy answers to happiness, particularly for a nation like India, where there are as many problems as people. Over the past few decades, reports by the dozens have painted India in an unflattering light. The nation has a high degree of corruption on the government front, is rated low on individual and personal freedoms, the safety of women and vulnerable groups, including sexual minorities, and even has a dismal track record when it comes to freedom of the press and media. To top it off, there’s also the growing risk of sectarian unrest, the flames of which are being fanned by divisive groups.
However, things are beginning to look up. In 2017, CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s government formed a Department of Happiness in Madhya Pradesh, aimed at ensuring the mental well-being of citizens. Similarly, Andhra Pradesh’s CM N Chandrababu Naidu had also shared his plans in 2018 to constitute a Happiness Commission to ensure all-round development of people.
The Happiness Index must be treated as a wake-up call, not just by the government which runs this country, but by every individual and group who has a vision for turning around our fortunes. Instead of taking this as an affront and setting off on yet another round of fire-fighting, those in power could begin formulating policies, keeping in mind the simple principle of citizen welfare and justice for all. Get the fundamentals right, and happiness will follow.