Why should we prioritise happiness above all else? How can new technologies be adopted to increase happiness in our lives?
Rima M. | Rakesh Sharma
"Let joy be your GPS," said motivational speaker and author Robin S Sharma in a recent interview. Yes, he is the same guy who left his career as a litigation lawyer at 23 to write the international bestseller, 'The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari,' and now advocates a simple recipe for happiness. One that includes consuming fresh fruit juices every day, waking up at 5 am, defying the tyranny of technology to meditate and taking the time to be with Nature and so on.
His success should tell you that people really are looking for answers that they already know but are too unsure about following their inner compass.
So when Robin puts it down in black-and-white, a lifehack seems official and we quote, "You must run your own race. It doesn’t matter what other people say about you. What is important is being comfortable in your own skin. Be true to you. That’s a key source of happiness."
Reassuring, isn't it, to hear even something as happily banal as this from another source?
Another master of joy who knows how to feel better under the most trying of circumstances is His Holiness, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who visibly lives by his many mantras one of which is, "Choose to be optimistic, it feels better."
That the pursuit of happiness is not accumulation but curation is Japanese organising consultant, author and now a Netflix sensation Marie Kondo's mantra. Her fundamental organising and happiness hack is this question, "Does this spark joy?" And whether it is a cluttered home or mind, the answer to this question can bring our focus back to the essential elements of what really matters to us and what can be discarded, be it a T-shirt, a memory, or a grudge that we have outgrown.
Then there is the non-denominational spiritual teacher Esther Hicks who channels what she calls is supreme, infinite intelligence to cut to the chase, and whose basic idea about the Law of Attraction was appropriated by the book The Secret. Now Hicks, in the true spirit of, well, a spiritual master refused to turn the battle over the best selling Secret into a copyright mud fight but the conflict showed those who cared to watch that happiness is now a commodity that can be branded and sold in a competitive market teeming with famished and spent consumers.
But coming back to Esther or Abraham as she likes to call herself when she is channelling unearthly wisdom, the simplest life hack if you want to be happy is this: Just be happy. Because, as she says, the purpose of your life is joy and it is happiness that attracts more happiness and a positive mindset that attracts more positivity. And how can you "just be happy?" By making joy your goal now than those things or paths that you think will bring you joy in the future.
And on this edition of Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol, we will try and decipher this seemingly unfathomable code of joy that remains elusive to so many and which has birthed an entire industry around the excavation of happiness. What is happiness? Why are so few governments prioritising the pursuit of happiness? What are happiness metrics? And what do these metrics sometimes get wrong?
A happiness curriculum?
On July 2, 2018, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and His Holiness Dalai Lama launched a 'Happiness Curriculum' for students from nursery up to class 8. This move underlined the need to teach our harrowed children, a basic life skill that may help alleviate, as the spiritual master put it and we quote, "the negative emotions" of mankind. And will possibly pave the way, as he says, "for physical and mental well being, solving troubles caused by negative and destructive emotions like anger, hatred and jealousy."
The chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on the other hand said that there was a need to overhaul the present education system that has not been able to produce "good human beings." The point being, happy individuals add to the happiness quotient of the world.
The curriculum slated to impact over 10 lakh students and involving the participation of around 50,000 teachers is still in its infancy but it just may succeed in its attempt to teach children right at the onset of their academic careers just how to manage stress with tools like meditation and positivity enforcing mental exercises.
The question this initiative raises is whether our education system misses something crucial while preparing children for the real world? And if ambition to acquire wealth and power compensate for the hollowness that equates visible success with self-worth.
How unhappy are we?
In March 2019, Samir Nazareth, for DNA, wrote about the World Happiness Report. The Happiness Report is incidentally the product of a resolution of the 2011 United Nations General Assembly which invited countries to measure the happiness of their citizens to guide public policy.
As Samir informs, in the 2018 Happiness Report, India ranks at 133, after the Palestinian Territories — a country that we know has been scarred by constant turmoil and violent occupation. That should tell us that something is seriously amiss in the way we are conducting the business of life especially if we remember that in the 2013 report, India ranked at 111 or thereabouts.
Currently, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway top the happiness chart and we quote, "they tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity."
If we move from the question of individual happiness to a wider context, are nations happier when there is less inequality?
As we have reported before and as DNA also mentions, the 2018 Oxfam report, has stated that 73 per cent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest one per cent while the poorest half of the population increased their wealth by only one per cent.
DNA tries to understand the reasons behind our dipping happiness score thus and we quote, “80 percent of the doctors serves only 28 per cent of the population. Unemployment is another factor that could be considered, it does not only impact the individual but inflicts a slow and silent mental trauma on the entire family.”
India is the most depressed country in the world, according to the WHO. A study conducted by Assocham last year showed that 42.5 percent of employees in the Indian private sector are afflicted with general anxiety disorder or depression, as compared to government employees. A study conducted for the NCMH (National Care Of Medical Health) states that at least 6.5 per cent of the Indian population suffers from some form of a serious mental disorder, with no discernible rural-urban differences. Though there are effective measures and treatments, there is an extreme shortage of mental health workers like psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors. As reported latest in 2014, it was as low as ''one in 100,000 people''. The average suicide rate in India is 10.9 for every lakh people and the majority of people who commit suicide are below 44 years of age.
The writer asks and we quote again, “But the people in Palestine Occupied Territories are living in similar, if not worse conditions, and are happier than Indian citizens. Could the current trend of nationalism and Hindu revivalism have something to do with India’s abysmal scores? The 2018 Happiness Report mentions social support, freedom, trust and generosity as key factors for happiness but do nationalism and revivalism foster them?”
As the writer says, “This is the first time in Indian history when nationalism has a negative connotation. The nationalism of the Indian freedom movement or of the first few Five-Year Plans and that felt during the 1962 Indo-China war instilled everyone with a common purpose. However, today’s saffron-hued nationalism is divisive. It instils fear either for being of a particular caste or for practising a particular religion and dietary habit. Citizens don’t use their constitutionally protected freedoms for fear of social and official retribution. The fabric of the country has been weakened and cannot support, let alone protect, citizens. Government institutions supposed to tend it aren’t functioning optimally.” We might not immediately think of these aspects when discussing the cause-effect of depressive disorders, but the consistent fall in our rankings in recent times impel us to think beyond the usual questions we ask of ourselves when discussing what is essentially now a public health menace.
He cites the 2018 Edelman Trust Survey that found that the trust Indians have in their government has fallen when compared to 2017.
If we are to believe that generosity generates happiness, then we are failing even there. India’s rank in the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) World Giving Index has also fallen. It was 69 in 2013, fell to 91 in 2016, rose to 81 in 2017 and again fell to 124 in 2018.
As the piece suggests, nationalism that requires funds to sustain itself costs the country substantially. The writer says and we quote, “The Statue of Unity and the Shivaji statue are nothing but nutrients for such nationalism. The approximately Rs 5,800 crore spent on these two structures could have been better invested to improve the country’s ailing public health infrastructure, provide aid to farmers in distress or in other much needed social infrastructure projects. These expenditures have greater tangible benefit across Indian society. Shivaji’s statue will soon overtake the Statue of Unity’s distinction of being the world’s tallest statue, proving that such chest thumping and one-upmanship is not only hollow but short-termed.”
The writer concludes and we quote again, "India’s Happiness Ranking is an unhappy reflection of the country’s rulers succumbing to their personal parochial and recidivists needs instead of ensuring the welfare of people they have sworn to serve."
What makes a nation or a city happy?
In one word, convenience.
Dante Disparte, the founder and CEO of Risk Cooperative, a specialized strategy and risk advisory firm, wrote a Forbes Exclusive on March 9 titled, 'Smart Dubai, Building The Happiest City On Earth.'
The piece features conversations with Aisha Bin Bishr and her colleague Zeina El Kaissi, respectively the Director General and the head of emerging technology for Smart Dubai to explore how citizen-centric applications play a part in building a Smart Dubai. The piece advocates the understanding of context and the fashioning of applicable policy when it comes to improving the lives of citizens without whose well-being, no nation can claim to be happy.
The piece says and we quote, “Driving Smart Dubai’s vision is the right combination of political leadership and a whole-of-government strategy, which breaks down siloes and pet technology projects, while putting the citizen first. On the face of this citizen, Dubai wants one thing – a smile, a vision enshrined in H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s commitment to making Dubai the happiest city on earth. This vision is captured by a veritable happiness meter available as a smart phone application recording citizen sentiment in real time and in a transparent dashboard. The measure of success for Smart Dubai and the billions spent on digital transformation is a rather tenuous metric of improving citizen happiness. There is a powerful if counter-intuitive subjectivity in this goal. One which other countries, cities and, indeed, businesses could borrow from for its simplicity and for its power of shifting outcomes and measures of satisfaction back to the granular, non-institutional level.”
In the piece, Dr. Aisha reminds the world’s public servants and political leaders that they too are beneficiaries of citizen services. As the writer puts it, the lack of trust, inefficiency and friction that plagues most of the world’s citizen services is not only costly, averaging 26% of GDP globally, it its leaving billions of people behind and trillions in economic opportunity stranded on the sidelines in spirit-eroding bureaucracy. Not to mention, as the piece goes on to say, the ever-present risks of corruption, bribery and fraud thrive under the cover of darkness and the one-sided information systems, which are the standard operating procedure in most governments around the world.
We quote, "In no small measure, this popular frustration is showing up in some deleterious ways and few countries or cities are being spared from the consequences. Against this backdrop, putting a smile on people’s faces and simplifying the provision of key services from the government to the people and removing friction at each of these touch points, is not only enlightened it is self-preserving. Where most digital transformation efforts are trying to capture a hard return on investment or efficiency gains using quantitative measures of success, the subjectivity of happiness as the quotient of success or failure has helped democratize Smart Dubai’s journey and the choices the government makes on where to move next and how. For example, when the otherwise penurious process of paying a traffic fine also enables citizens to direct how the money from their infraction is directed via their smart phones, it not only increases the likelihood of compliance, it increases the satisfaction and their empowerment."
Furthermore, Forbes says, the technology interface for this impressive omni-channel, whole-of-government platform underpinning Smart Dubai resides on citizens’ smart phones using an application called DubaiNow, which unifies 55 key services from 22 government agencies. Notably, Dubai has a mobile teledensity of 2:1 (the highest in the world). With this degree of connectivity in the hands of the public, catering to a citizenry accustomed to immediate gratification, the city government had no choice but to match service levels typical of private sector actors, rather than their slow-moving and analog public sector peers around the world.
So what we are learning is that cutting-edge technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and industrial automation can be used to benefit citizens rather than just keep them in line or for entrepreneurial profit making.
As the piece concludes, "Dr. Aisha demonstrates a refreshing technology agnosticism typical of transformative leaders who understand that to drive real-world change (and to put smiles on people’s faces) is measured in tangible outcomes and not in code."
Life hacks to cut out stress
Travelling from the national indicators of joy or misery to personal indicators that we are indeed in the need for a road map to happiness.
On March 07 2019, contributor Lal Chand wrote on Gulf News, how corporate executives shouldn’t be out to eliminate stress but need to find ways to cope and perform optimally. Okay, so this is not exactly a roadmap to everlasting enlightenment but we all can learn how to eliminate stress, especially at work to ease ourselves into a less exacting personal life.
As the writer says, stress has become an integral part of corporate life. The need to reach more milestones in the shortest possible time creates stress levels not only on the professional front but also in the personal, and leads to the creation of a vicious cycle of even more stress.
We quote, “This is not restricted to any one individual. It affects CEOs as well as company directors, the executives as well as blue-collar workers. No individual is exempt. What is important is the ability to handle stress in the right manner and thus leading to a measure of personal contentment. There are many executives who believe it is not possible to live a stress-free life. They believe in the fact that a complete switching off is not even remotely possible. While this may be true to an extent, most of them fail to realise that stress can be managed through a conscious set of actions.”
And what are those actions?
We list out in full, the writer’s suggestions to make life flow a tad better:
* Prioritise — The key factor is in understanding and prioritising what is important. There is a fine line between what is urgent and what is important. It is vital to understand this and work accordingly. It is important to cultivate the ability to work on things that matter and focus on the task at hand.
* Tune out — It is very essential to switch off from the cacophony of opinions, suggestions, advises, information, etc, that one is bombarded with. If one starts to give importance to all these, there will not be any time left to attend to the tasks on hand.
* Communicate — Learn the art of right communication. Many executives are scared of the word “No”. This results in them committing to tasks that are beyond their reach, leading to burnouts.
* Increase the happiness quotient — All of us have the innate strength to be happy. Change the mindset and tune it to accept happiness.
* Gratitude — Dissatisfaction is the root cause for all stress. It is imperative that corporate executives express their gratitude for what is positive in their personal and professional life.
* Get adequate sleep — A good night’s sleep enhances productivity.
* Improve the well-being quotient — This is possible through positive psychology and the science of happiness, mindfulness as well as yoga.
While these hacks may be available in a million versions every time you google search,' joy', and many of them may sound mundane, as the writer says, the absence of stress does not lead to contentment. Management of stress is what leads to happiness and growth.
The origins of the quest of happiness
Writer Terry Cummins traces the academic quest for joy back to the 4th century B.C. in ancient Greece, when Socrates, Plato and Aristotle opined about the meaning of life. Aristotle said that the first thing to do in order to know joy is to “know thyself." Centuries later, the Dalai Lama said, “I think the reason we’re on earth is to be happy.” In philosophy, spirituality and politics, happiness is an unavoidable conversation and of course the American founding father, Thomas Jefferson also mentioned in his Declaration of Independence, an inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But is it the pursuit of joy after all that tires us? What if joy was inherent and all we needed to do was to quiet our mind to tap into it?
What if the intangibles were more crucial to our happiness than the tangibles? As the writer says, a basic tenant of Buddhist culture is “compassion” for others and cites the Dalai Lama’s example who says that compassion is the gateway to true happiness. It’s not a complicated theory says the writer and adds, “If I can lead other people to happiness, won’t it will rub off on me?”
His rather effective last paragraph goes like this, “Is the extent of our happiness quotient dependent upon congressional legislation, or the state of the union, or the president’s happiness? America won’t become great again until the president learns how to be humble.”
When joy meets cynicism
Last year in February, Julie McCarthy wrote on NPR's website about how Bhutan, the birthplace of 'gross national happiness' is growing a bit cynical.
The root of the country's legendary well-being of course lies in the fact that environment is central to Bhutan's happiness index. Conservationists believe the country, roughly the size of Switzerland, has the highest proportion of protected land in Asia.
The piece features an interview with Dorji Penjore, an anthropologist who has been researching Bhutan's biggest soft-power export: its "gross national happiness."
He says "GNH" is an attempt to live in a way that's "holistic," not restricted to merely measuring economics like the gross domestic product, or GDP.
We quote, “When Bhutan's prime minister introduced GNH to a United Nations forum as a paradigm for alternative development in 1998, it turned heads, and spawned a global industry in happiness. Think tanks dissected it, and governments grappling with improving social policies took a serious look. After the 2008 financial crisis, people started to question the viability of Western liberal capitalism, the corporate world, and we were bombarded with questions.”
As the piece points out, today, experts and dignitaries attend World Happiness Summits. The U.N. has declared a World Happiness Day. Students enroll in happiness courses. Yale has a popular class: how to live a happy life. And of course, the Delhi school system as we said before, is adding happiness to its curriculum — citing Bhutan.
Yet when the United Nations released a report ranking countries by happiness in 2017, Bhutan was nowhere near the top and came in at 97th! Still the nation takes its state of well-being very seriously and as the piece informs, “Divining gross national happiness is a matter of minutely categorizing and carefully tracking the lives of Bhutan's 800,000 citizens. Every five years under the direction of the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, survey-takers fan out across the country to conduct questionnaires of some 8,000 randomly selected households. The complex survey is broken down into nine "domains," 33 "indicators" and hundreds more variables. The broad categories include psychological well-being, health, time use, education, culture, good governance, community vitality, ecology and living standards.”
This is no Western-style satisfaction survey on a scale from zero to 10, Penjore says. Bhutan asks about 300 questions.
The survey takes about three hours and the participants are compensated a day's wage.
As one of the center's lead happy index researchers, Penjore says, "We try to measure ... all forms of capital. So that is the difference between GDP and GNH.”
He says, for example, the government asks people about their spirituality: "Do you meditate?" says Penjore. "How frequently do you pray?" They ask "how much time and money you devote to your community, how many hours you sleep and how many hours you work."
But the piece also cites Namgay Zam, 32, who hosts a radio show on the mental health challenges of the Bhutanese, and says that the glowing image doesn't always square with the reality. She points out, for example, there are only a handful of psychiatrists in the entire country. As Zam says, “The country is having difficulty living up to the "brand." It's expensive, it's tiring, and it's making a lot of us cynical.”
In the piece, Needrup Zangpo, executive director of the Journalists' Association of Bhutan, said that the outside world glamorizes Bhutan but overlooks a list of problems besetting the country. For starters, youth unemployment stood at 13.2 percent in 2016, up from 10.7 percent the previous year, according to government data reported by leading national newspaper Kuensel.
Bhutan's GDP was $2.2 billion in 2016, according to the World Bank, and the kingdom is on the U.N. list of "least developed countries."
"We have an increasing income gap, we have increasing youth unemployment, environmental degradation," Zangpo says.
As the piece points out, Bhutan is also facing climate change with melting glaciers, potentially affecting the hydropower plants that provide the nation's energy and a big chunk of its revenue.
While Zam says in the piece that the idea of GNH may have put Bhutan on the map, but the concept has been hijacked by the West — and quantified to a degree that makes it unrecognizable to ordinary Bhutanese.
As the piece says, gross national happiness is rooted in the principles of the country's religion, Buddhism, with its focus on compassion, contentment and calmness. And you can't quantify Buddhism.
So it is obvious that personal happiness is driven by social well-being and vice versa and any discrepancy between the two inevitably leads to cynicism.
But Bhutan is obviously on the right path. Bhutan offers all of its citizens free education and free health care. Villagers get much of their electricity at no cost.
And as the piece correctly points out, the Bhutanese generally seem to derive happiness from the fact that, in a region beset by conflict, their country is at peace.
Wikipedia’s experiment with joy
And in this information age saturated with hackneyed answers to every question imaginable, it would make sense to ask Wikipedia just what happiness is, wouldn’t it? In 2017, Quartz reported on Wikipedia’s attempt to answer questions, that it said, have confounded history’s greatest philosophers, like “What is ‘happiness,” all while accounting for input from the entire world.
While the overarching answer, “Happiness is the state of being happy,” should have ended all debate, Wiki encompassed theories of happiness, providing links to other relevant Wikipedia pages:
And according to Wikipedia, "happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Happy mental states may also reflect judgements by a person about their overall well-being. A variety of biological, psychological, economic, religious and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources. Various research groups, including positive psychology and happiness economics are employing the scientific method to research questions about what “happiness” is, and how it might be attained."
Says the Quartz piece, “The most amazing thing about the entry is not how useful or detailed it is, however, but how it came to be. This Wikipedia definition is the result of nearly 6,000 edits by over 3,000 users (including some bots) to the page. In this way, Wikipedia understands something that most philosophers after Socrates didn’t—definitions are not static, and cannot be perfected and finalized. They must be constantly challenged, updated, reverted, and discussed. Wikipedia is like a Socratic dialogue on a massive scale.”
The writer of the piece Nikhil Sonnad further puts it beautifully, “To understand how the definition of an essential but abstract concept went from a throwaway truism to a carefully worded introduction, I downloaded, read, and analyzed all of the Wikipedia revisions on “happiness” over the course of 14 years. The journey is not pretty—the page endures a continuous barrage of hate speech, vandalism, assertions that happiness is not real, or more sorrowfully, that it is unknown to the person making the edit. This reveals that the process of defining something like “happiness” is even more important than the definition itself.”
He further says, “There is no abstract definition that can perfectly capture what happiness is to all people, all the time. The closest thing I’ve seen, though, is the full history of this Wikipedia page leading up its current point. It contains both vigilant efforts to succinctly characterize the concept but also people telling us why they are happy, what would make them happy, and even that they think happiness is a useless concept. The real definition isn’t gleaned from the resulting entry, but instead the process.”
And that in the end is a perfect summation of happiness, right there. That it is not etched in stone. That it is what we make of it. That it changes when we change, expands and shrinks with us and that, it is subjective, personal and always an inner experiment with our reality and what we want it to be rather than a race towards an ever shifting goal post.
The problem with happiness metrics
As academician Jessica Pykett wrote in The Conversation in 2018, happiness may be the metric of the future – but there are problems with how we measure it.
She says, authorities all over the world may be developing “smart” approaches to measuring happiness, and mobilising an ever increasing array of mobile apps and behavioural data that aim to sense, map and explain our daily happiness, but what is gained by mapping a smile?
It is a reassuring change though that psychologists are now not just focusing on distress and disorder, and are launching the associated field of positive psychology. The idea, she says, that happiness can be measured and mapped, and that it varies geographically, is now established and while we know today a lot more about happiness, happiness as a whole has not improved.
We quote, “This is a pressing issue, and should affect how national governments, cities, and local authorities go about their modern attempts to improve happiness levels. The problem is that as the field has taken off, a particular understanding of happiness has taken hold. And it is increasingly clear that this definition is limiting.
Behavioural economists have been highly influential in bringing happiness studies to the public policy agenda on a world stage. But in order to measure happiness, it had to be redefined as an observable behaviour. As such, happiness as understood by those monitoring and measuring it is something internal, concerning the mental aspects of individual – yet as everyone knows, happiness generally relates to something outside of ourselves (we feel happy “about” something), and can be transformed by a change in our external circumstances.”
So the point is again that the inner and outer realities need to harmonise for happiness to bloom. Also, happiness studies must take cognisance of neuroscientific and genetic evidence in their efforts to eliminate bias and provide objective, comparable measures. As the writer says, “Again this involves looking inwards – this time at our biology rather than our behaviour – to define what happiness actually means.”
She adds, “There are however serious limitations to behavioural economic and neuroscientific explanations. These approaches transform subjective well-being into an objectified measure, a target of national and global governance, by aggregating the well-being of anonymised individuals. This downplays the role of culture and context in shaping our very sense of self, our expectations, aspirations and perceptions. Alternative understandings that challenge the boundaries between inside and out, and that are central to understanding this important field, have been eclipsed. “Culture”, then, is a sticking point for behavioural definitions of happiness. Even the idea that subjective well-being can be measured by a survey is increasingly contested by some economists, who have, for example, identified that people’s assessments of their happiness can be affected by the way in which their country’s education system grades exams – an unusual effect which challenges the validity of global happiness indexes.”
Also we cannot ignore the paradoxes of happiness or the sobering fact that some of the happiest nations, such as Finland and Denmark, also have high suicide rates, as reported in a new study, which set out to expose some of the contradictions in the Nordic dominance of global happiness league tables.
The piece quotes Isabella Arendt, a researcher at the Danish Happiness Research Institute, who says that happiness is a relative and dynamic term and even if we lived in a Utopia, there would still be unhappy people. Not for nothing does Denmark produce those grim crime dramas.
Increased scientific knowledge about happiness has also not yet led to significant social change in conditions that cause unhappiness.The piece fittingly concludes with these words of caution, “These limitations and paradoxes need to shape the future of happiness studies and well-being policies. It seems improbable that the current “smart happy cities” movement, informed by predictive behavioural analytics, wearable emotion sensing and empathic machine learning, will provide a 21st-century technical fix to the centuries old question of what happiness is and how we might collectively pursue it. Tracking happiness is all very well, but before we use such maps to determine how we are governed, we need to understand what happens to our happiness when it becomes an emotion to be mapped, measured and managed.”