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Most Indians aren't happy. Here's why

India is at the bottom of the World Happiness Report. A lack of social support and equity are among the reasons.

Indians need to worry about the current state of emotional affairs in the country
Indians need to worry about the current state of emotional affairs in the country (iStockphoto)

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India continues to languish at the bottom in the recently released World Happiness Report 2022 published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. We rank 136 in a survey of 146 countries.

This ranking is based on responses to the Cantril Ladder of Life Evaluation. Here, one imagines a ladder from 0 (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible life) and is asked to report which step of the ladder one feels one is at currently. The low ranking represents the lower quality of life for Indians (on average), which can have pronounced implications for general health, happiness in other contexts, and several other factors. Life Evaluations, as a metric, are assumed to be more stable and complete representations of subjective well-being. A low rank indicates that Indians have a significantly low evaluation of their current life, extending beyond the pandemic. 

Though marginally better than last year, we are still among the bottom 10, sharing space with war and violence-wracked countries like Lebanon, Mexico and Afghanistan. 

Why does India rank so low and what can be done collectively to improve the ranking in the future?

While the World Happiness Report has robust systems and metrics, some experts are critical of it and say the report lacks value in terms of a scientific study. Dr Vinod Kumar, who heads Mpower, The Centre, Bengaluru, a mental health care service, is somewhat critical of the report. “The methodology used is inadequate, in my opinion. The report will not stand the basic rigours and standards of scientific research. For instance, the sample size is 1,000 respondents for a population of 1.4 crores for India,” he says.

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Shreya Kaul, counselling psychologist, Karma Centre for Counselling and Wellbeing, New Delhi, presents a balanced critique when she says that happiness is subjective. “While this particular ranking system has chosen these sets of variables where India ranks 136th, there could be a different ranking system, which takes into consideration completely different factors, where the country ranks well,” she argues.

She says countries are at different population densities, poverty, and educational standards, which also have an impact. “It isn’t as black and white as it may seem. We cannot ignore these rankings but at the same time we must realise that this isn’t the complete picture.”

Should Indians be worried?

Overall, experts agree on one point: Indians need to worry about the current state of emotional affairs in the country. As Mumbai-based Dr Aman Bhonsle, a psychotherapist, mindset coach, and author puts it, “I would say that happiness is a cause of concern even without there being a ranking in place. The crime rate of a country, which is another statistic, is an equally potent indicator. In India, there is violence against women, which we’ve seen increasing over the last ten years, there are hate crimes against minorities, there are certain socio-religious and political scenarios playing out in Karnataka and Kashmir. There’s a lot of anger and confusion that the masses are experiencing.” Dr Bhonsle feels that this is one of the primary causes that must have worsened the country’s current ranking in the Happiness Report.

A similar sentiment is echoed by Dr Amit Malik, the founder and CEO of Mumbai-based health platform InnerHour. He touches upon other relevant statistics that showcase areas of concern. India was among the bottom three in terms of ‘Experiencing Calmness’, a factor with a significant positive correlation to happiness. “India’s Happiness quotient reflects perceptions of low perceived social support, healthy life expectancy and generosity,” he says.

While one can presume that the pandemic has contributed to the low scores on individual dimensions, the ranking has been similar in the last five years, indicating more significant socio-cultural and systemic factors, he adds.

Socio-cultural impact

While Covid-19 had exacerbated everyone’s worries, India especially ended up experiencing a lot of socio-economic distress during the pandemic. As Dr Bhonsle points out, “We live in a country of socio-economic disparities. There are a lot of political upheavals which have a lot more visibility as more people have access to the internet than before,” he reasons.

Kaul concurs. “We’ve also had multiple protests over the past few years, which is indicative of unrest in the population. Climate has brought about heat waves which we are unprepared for, leaving a significant population in harmful situations,” she says. She adds that the second covid-19 wave in India last year was traumatic, to say the least.

“To hear reports of not having enough beds, oxygen and support for people with Covid was terrifying. We had people dying in huge numbers, the media was politicising the situation, and it was quite harrowing to witness. This had to have had a deep impact on the population. Unfortunately, now we’ve reached a stage where no one seems to care, which is dangerous in itself,” she says.

Economic impact

Dr Malik explains that happiness is “a mood or affective state.” What determines happiness and life satisfaction is a combination of internal and external factors (including the larger social, cultural, and economic context).

“(Maslow’s) Hierarchy of Needs states that physiological and safety needs are prerequisites for a sense of fulfilment- and hence having these needs compromised becomes an obstacle in overall happiness,” he says.

He adds that people are currently burdened across rural and urban regions due to a lack of affordable housing, adequate and easy commute, economic health facilities, and pollution-free cities. In light of the covid-19 crisis, there has been a significant loss of livelihood and consequent decline in income.

“Majority of the workforce in India operates in the informal sector; hence they are deprived of social security and income security that ensures savings to buffer them in the face of shocks like the ongoing pandemic, resulting in economic burden and misery,” he says. He also points out that the income inequality creeping up across the world is also very high in India. “The result is a sense of the unfair distribution of resources among a large section of the Indian population affecting their happiness and satisfaction,” he remarks.

On a positive note, Dr Malik observes that we have collectively suffered from a sense of loss, grief, uncertainty, and anxiety as a nation. Still, we have witnessed individuals and communities coming together to aid each other reflecting selflessness, altruism, a sense of hope and generosity. “According to the WHR-2022, India was found to be among the top 20 to contribute to research and publication on happiness, hence as a country, we are attempting to better understand and thereby improve our emotional states and well-being,” he shares.

How to be happy

While we all stare at problems every day, it is important to understand that managing one’s emotional state ensures general well-being.

As Hansika Kapoor, a psychologist and researcher at the Mumbai-based Monk Prayogshala, observes, “Although not directly measured in the WHR 2022, resilience seems to be the predominant emotional state in India. Although research has shown strong relationships between happiness and resilience, these are not the same emotional experience. Therefore, it may be useful to expand our definitions and understanding of general well-being to include related emotional states as well.”

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In her opinion, flexibility and autonomy are two important factors contributing to general well-being. “At an individual level, it would help to maintain a healthy work-life balance and manage one’s DSE (diet, sleep, and exercise),” she suggests.

Dr Bhonsle strongly emphasises that everyone must understand and acknowledge that “happiness is not a destination but a philosophy of life.” He says," Happiness is not like wealth that compounds on its own if you park it somewhere. Happiness is something you have to qualify yourself for daily. It’s something you have to follow as a self-informed prescription. You are happy to keep your mind stable and functioning so that it does your calling as opposed to the other way round, which is what most suffer with.”

He shares an interesting perspective on how being happy is not normalised in society. “We’re hardwired to believe that we’re normal when we have a problem. This is why unhappiness is more normal than happiness. There’s also a certain cultural threshold of how happy is too happy, or if you’re happy, don’t show too much of it. Your happiness is the ultimate indicator of how emotionally healthy you are as a human being. The way you parade a nice outfit, take good care of your skin, why can’t you parade the fact that you are taking good care of your mind? “ he argues.

Dr Malik points out that out of all the parameters used as measures for happiness in the WHR-2022, for India, the most variance was contributed by GDP, followed by freedom to make life choices, healthy life expectancy and sense of social support. “It is important for policymakers to take into account the overall health implications of policy decisions,” he remarks by adding that introduction of a happiness curriculum in schools by the Delhi Government is a positive step towards teaching the importance of mental well-being in children and also empowering them with strategies for the same.

Kapoor suggests that policymakers make happiness a measurable target. She believes that today, it may not be enough to focus on raising employment or income levels, “We need to factor in human development indicators like subjective well-being (happiness) to achieve sustainable progress."

Make India a 'happier nation'

Courtesy Shreya Kaul

Keep equity in mind while creating policies

Ensure accessibility while making policies

Give mental health some regard

The policy-making process needs to be more inclusive and needs to take advice and insights from the related populations

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) counsellor

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