Is India an unhappy country? Find out why the World Happiness Index is reading us Indians wrong

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Happiness in India - A Look at World Happiness Index

The latest world happiness index has placed India at the 136th spot in happiness among 146 countries.

To give a reference of how low we are, the country at the bottom of the index, Afghanistan, where there was a civil war and a coup and a massive exodus in 2021, is only ten points below us, while Pakistan and Bangladesh are respectively at 121 and 94, fifteen and forty points ahead. Venezuela, the country that tops most global ranking lists for crime rates is at 108, while Kenya whose massive lakes have wiped out villages and displaced thousands of families since the beginning of the last decade stands at 119.

And India is at 136th.


How can this even be possible?

Don’t you think there is something wrong with this list?

There is but that is not obvious at first. You need to look a bit under the hood.

Let us try to examine the list using the debate-based system followed in Indian philosophy: understand how the index is created and then show why the methodology is not fully correct.

We then look in brief at what is happiness in India.

The Short Version

The World Happiness Index uses a lot of subjective polls to arrive at its numbers. Most of these polls suffer from weaknesses of statistical measurements from small sample sizes and debatable questionnaires that suffer from bias. As such, the measurements are flawed, leading to an index that does not reflect the correct picture.

This was the synopsis. If you want to learn more why this is so, please read on.

World Happiness Index 2022 Country-wise Rank (Higher is Better)

Understanding how the World Happiness Index Country-wise Rank & Report is created

The index is created using the following parameters:

  • Happiness score or subjective well-being: based on the Gallup World Poll. This is based on three indicators, viz., Life Evaluations, and Positive and Negative Affects
  • GDP per capita statistics: data taken from the World Development Indicators of the World Bank
  • Healthy life expectancy: based on the Global Health Observatory data of the World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Social support: based on the Gallup World Poll
  • Freedom to make life choices: again, Gallup World Poll
  • Generosity: Gallup World Poll
  • Perceptions of corruption: Gallup World Poll
  • Institutional trust: this is calculated using a 2-step measure from Gallup World Poll data
  • Gini coefficient (this is a single number representing income or wealth inequality) of household income: taken from Gallup World Poll, and
  • GINI index: from the World Development Indicators of the World Bank

For our purpose, we will not look at data measurements like GDP per capita, life expectancy or Gini coefficient or index as they are what they are and usually based on publicly available measurable numbers. Instead, we will look at the subjective measurements and understand why they fall short.

Happiness Score or Subjective Well-Being

Happiness Score or Subjective Well-Being is calculated using a 3-year average of three indicators: Life Evaluations, Positive Emotions and Negative Emotions.

This is based on the concept of subjective well-being, a field of psychology that was first developed by Ed Diener in 1984. Diener stated that the three concepts that form a part of this index help find how people define the quality of their lives and considers both emotional and cognitive reactions. But as Diener has mentioned himself, the theory has its limitations in cross-cultural surveys. These limitations become more visible when we study the questions used to get the scores for the Happiness Index.

Let us look at each of the indicators in some detail.

Life Evaluations

This aspect uses The Gallup World Poll as the ‘principal source of data’. The poll asks 1,000 respondents from each country to evaluate their current life as a whole on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being worst and 10 being the best life possible. This number is given due weights to create ‘population-representative national averages for each year’.

Why this is not accurate to evaluate happiness or subjective well-being

There are several problems with using quant or data-based surveys to gauge qualitative criteria. Here are a few for this specific case:

#1: Using 1,000 respondents for each country is illogical

The number of respondents from each country should always be directly proportional to its population. For example, the list contains Malta, an economically lower-ranked country in Europe, with a population of 5.21 lakh (0.521 million) as well as countries like India and China with populations of around 140 crore (1.4 billion). If you take 1000 people to get an idea of happiness of 5.21 lakh people, then it makes logical sense to scale the sample size by similar numbers for larger populations. In this case, a simple calculation will show you that this sample size for India or China should be well over 26 lakh which is an impossible number to have for any poll.

In other words, the Gallup poll is not representative of larger population sizes. There needs to be a better way.

#2: Happiness is emotion-driven and a complex aggregate of daily and life events

The report states, “Life evaluations provide the most informative measure for international comparisons because they capture quality of life in a more complete and stable way than emotional reports based on daily experiences.”

There is nothing wrong with the statement as such – until you look at the meaning of ‘quality of life’ and its relation to happiness, and factor in individual psychology, which we all know plays a strong role in personal happiness.

There are no clear definitions of quality of life and its relation to happiness. One for example by Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University, Rotterdam takes it as a 4-segment matrix comprised of the chances we get to live a good life and the results we are able to achieve, and the qualities of the individual and the outside environment.

Four Qualities of Life
 Outer QualitiesInner Qualities
Chances We Get in LifeLiveability of environmentLife-ability of the person
Results We Get in LifeUtility of LifeSatisfaction
Source: Veenhoven 2000

For example, the chances we get and external qualities together define how helpful the environment we live in is to let us live a happy life, while the results we get and our inner qualities give us a sense of satisfaction.

There is also something called Affect Theory that looks at human behaviour as a derivative of positive, neutral and negative human emotions such as Enjoyment, Surprise, Anger, Fear, and so on which lead us to act in predefined ways. This theory has been used to get an idea of Positive and Negative Affects that we cover in the next section but this theory is inherently complex and answers cannot be determined by quant-based questions alone.

There is also a popular Theory of Social Comparison, proposed at first by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, which says that we associate happiness with how we are doing when compared to others in the same environment. Though the theory has detractors and has been further refined, the larger principle has been proved quite a few times in economics and social science research and experiments. What they say is this: the happiness we feel arises from daily and short-term interactions and comparisons with those around us, and not as a result of some long-term objective evaluation we do later in life.

As you can see these theories do not define happiness as only a consequence of life events but also as what happens to us on an everyday basis, and is more complex than a simple cause-effect relationship.

On top of these definitions, if you add the inherently complex field of human psychology, you will realise that defining happiness in objective terms considering only long-term events is debatable at best. Also, calling them ‘complete and stable’ does not hold up to scrutiny.

Positive and Negative Affects

The second and third factors that constitute the Happiness Score or Subjective Well-Being are Positive and Negative Affects both again taken from the Gallup World Poll.

Positive affect is ‘the average of previous-day affect measures for laughter, enjoyment, and doing or learning something interesting’ while negative affect is ‘the average of previous-day affect measures for worry, sadness, and anger’.

Positive affect is calculated using three questions:

  1. Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
  2. Did you experience the following feelings during A LOT OF THE DAY yesterday? How about Enjoyment?
  3. Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?

Negative affect is based on three questions:

  1. Did you experience the following feelings during A LOT OF THE DAY yesterday? How about Worry?
  2. Did you experience the following feelings during A LOT OF THE DAY yesterday? How about Sadness?
  3. Did you experience the following feelings during A LOT OF THE DAY yesterday? How about Anger?

The primary problem with these questions can be gauged from an observation made in the World Happiness Report: ‘Positive emotions are more than twice as frequent as negative emotions’.

This was the response in a year when the pandemic changed life as we know it and negative emotions should not have been so low.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. The reason for this can be found in psychology.

We tend to keep our problems to ourselves or at the very least downplay them. And at the same time, we keep a brave face and look at the bright side of things when the going gets tough. This is especially true when it comes to interactions with strangers and is more likely to happen when asked about one’s state of mind for a poll.

There is another aspect that has not seen much research but will likely affect the answers and that is how a particular group of people respond to the same personal questions. Case in point, research by Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia says that people from rice and wheat eating societies see themselves differently. Rice growing cultures (such as those in Asia) are more cooperative and intuitive (i.e. emotional thinking) while wheat growing cultures (Europe and America) are more individualistic and have better analytical thinking. It is likely the answers the people give will be different for each country.

Social norms also play a role. In cultures like India where the group takes precedence over the individual, truthful answers are more likely to come out in group settings rather than in one-on-one interactions. This problem is further compounded when two or more people take the poll and the respondent feels cornered and takes the safe route of adhering to an expected norm.

All these inconsistencies and the need for better evaluations have been mentioned by Diener (the psychologist who in a way created the field of subjective well-being in psychology) himself in different research papers.

Happiness in India - A Look at World Happiness Index

Social Support

This factor is based on a single question: If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?

There are no 0-10 ladder-type or scale-based answers here but rather a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. And in a year where Indians and most people in countries around the world were cooped up at home – all alone – social support is not going to have a shining year.

There are a few other considerations to keep in mind. For instance, in a society where everyone is suffering from lack of social infrastructure, there is not going to be a clear distinction in most people’s minds between friends and relatives and the larger access to a social support system for everyone.

What should have been used here is a scale and a series of questions that are given specific weights, rather than a yes-no question.

World Happiness Index 2022 Country-wise Rank by Social Support (Lower is Better)

Freedom to Make Life Choices and Generosity

Freedom of life choices is based on the national average of responses to the question: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?

Generosity is based on the question: ‘Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?’ after adjusting for per capita income. 

The first question requires an emotive answer without any need to feel self-conscious or guilty. Consequently, this is one question where the answer will likely be genuine and reflect a neutral or a positive state of mind as it deals with the future. The only catch is that the answer is likely to be influenced by our tendency to be biased and overestimate future events.

World Happiness Index 2022 Country-wise Rank by Freedom of Life Choices (Lower is Better)

Generosity is an emotive event that is influenced by several factors. Logically, an affluent society that ranks high on GDP per capita will likely be more generous than one that scores low. Plus, a country that ranks well on social support should be more generous than one that scores low on this parameter.

But it may surprise you to know that this is not so. For instance, the country that ranks at the top for generosity without adjusting for per capita GDP is Indonesia followed by Myanmar. Thailand ranks fourth. 23 countries of the top 50 in this ranking are from Asia or Africa (India ranks 44). In other words, countries with low scores on GDP per capita or social support rank strongly on generosity. The Rice Theory covered in brief under the previous section may play a role here.

World Happiness Index 2022 Country-wise Rank by Generosity (Lower is Better)

When we talk of generosity, a few other questions come into play:

  • Do religious donations count?
  • Do gifts to less privileged relatives or friends count?
  • What about training or employing jobless members of society or helping them find jobs?

If we consider the different views societies and cultures around the world have on this topic, these types of donations or gifts should count.

Perceptions of Corruption

This rating is the average of the answers to two questions:

  1. Is corruption widespread throughout the government or not? and
  2. Is corruption widespread within businesses or not?

India ranks somewhere near the bottom in most global corruption ratings. Considering how much effort has been put in over the years to weed it out and how it still remains a part and parcel of government, bureaucracy, business, etc., we would not like to state anything against the score India got.

We only wish the questions were more detailed and gave the matter the seriousness it deserves. The questions right now are open to bias and the responses are likely to have been as such. The score is a good indicator but nothing much beyond that.

Institutional Trust

This is a 2-step process but the measurements that define the first step are more important for us. These are:

  • Confidence in the national government,
  • Confidence in the judicial system and courts,
  • Confidence in the honesty of elections,
  • Confidence in the local police force, and
  • Perceived corruption in business

As with perceptions of corruption, there is nothing wrong with the questions per se except that they are prone to bias. These matters are what define the direction a country will go. Fair to good governance, judiciary, etc. will lead to progress while a weak or corrupt system will lead to detrimental consequences some of which we see on our screens every day. As such, these measures should have been given more importance and a better set of scale-based questions.

Now that we have covered the subjective points in the index and looked at how they do not provide a clear picture of a country, let us understand the concept of happiness in India.

The Structure of Happiness in India

Happiness in India is more of a group or social concept rather than an individualistic one. The concept of identity comes into play more among the educated or those who live in cities. For the vast majority, however, happiness is a social construct with the family being at the core of this structure.

The reasons for this can be attributed to history, religion and culture. For centuries (perhaps millennia would be a better word), the majority of Indians have lived at the bottom of the financial pyramid. The ruling and governing hierarchies controlled the bulk of the wealth. Top that with lack of modern-day freedoms and conveniences, the situation became one of utter hopelessness.

The only solutions offered were spiritual and by extension, religious. There is a reason most Indian philosophies talk of sadness as being a part of everyday life and happiness being fleeting. Accepting one’s fate and being a good person (to serve and not trouble the ruling class) became more important than giving vent to one’s dreams and aspirations.

This problem was compounded by British colonisation where there was a relentless drain of Indian wealth (estimated at US$45 trillion) leading to widespread destitution. This was further exacerbated by downplay of indigenous advances across all spheres. It was not until Indologists like William Jones and James Prinsep shone a light on the country’s heritage that the West started to appreciate India’s past.

This loss of wealth and oppression affected the people in innumerable ways from which we are still recovering. For example, the notion of sadness as a part of everyday life is so inherent that there are proverbs and sayings across different communities on being cautious and not being carried away by happiness. Inimical customs and traditions – that intelligentsia rallies against – are still alive and find strong adherents as they offer a safer haven from an uncertain future. This is evolution at play here, not morality and when the two collide, evolution will always win.

Also, if you think about it we have a society that gained political independence and a unified national identity only 3-4 generations earlier. This is too short a time to find our way out of the thousands of years of subjugated mindsets.

Happiness definitions currently are more influenced by Western research and not global. As such there are inherent biases. New research continues to prove this. For example, a recent survey by Kamlesh Singh, Shilpa Bandyopadhyay and Gaurav Saxena of IIT Delhi has identified a layered definition of happiness in India with strong reasons to suggest that Western definitions don’t make the cut.

In Conclusion

Despite all problems with the Index, the list does make a brave attempt to chart a scale on which countries can be ranked.

The problem is that the list is biased especially due to the questions asked, the way they are asked and of course, the sample size. We hope it is made better in subsequent versions.

It will also be good if an Asian, African or South American organisation makes such a list. We think the results will be a bit different.

The case for India: We should take the list as faulty but indicative.

Why should we take the list as indicative?

Though the list is biased, it should be seen more as a challenge by policymakers, judiciary, etc. and us everyday Indians to show us what we need to get right. We have made exceptional improvements in our quality of life since independence but there are massive improvements yet to be made.

A list or a report that is critical of us may be biased and we have every right to denounce it but we should never ever dismiss it – these reports show us what we are lacking to rank at the top. And as a country that prides itself on being one of the top two major economic powers in the last 2000 years (by GDP), it will be good to keep in mind that in terms of per capita GDP we were never at the top or near it in those 2 millennia.

It is time we change that.


Images credits: Kiran Hania (Pixabay)

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