Global Happiness Index: Why happiness eludes India?

Published: July 2, 2018 - 16:51

India this year slipped down from 122 to 133 on the Global Happiness Index. What is the meaning of National and Global Happiness Indices when a humongous majority has so far had little access to any freedom or quality of life


Significantly, the idea of holistic well-being has been around for a very long time. St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and Gautama Buddha among others, provide examples of privileged humans who moved out of their comfort zones and made life choices in order to make the world around them a happier place for others. The gradual evolution of the contemporary world from feudal hierarchies of yore into modern democracies was meant to be a game changer because everyone was entitled to equal opportunity.

Given such aspirational potential, the world should have become a better place, but that does not seem to have happened. Widening gaps, deficits and disparities continue to exist, between people at the opposite ends of the pyramid.

Many years ago, the King of Bhutan put forward the idea of the Gross Happiness Index as an extremely relevant indicator of a nation’s progress. Since, it was no longer necessary to see the world as festering with evil, temptation and suffering, Bhutan’s king suggested that we could focus on happiness experienced within the boundaries of life and death. This idea began to provide new imperatives for living. It has been quickly embraced worldwide and put in practice primarily by the privileged amongst us.

Today, a Global Happiness Index measuring the happiness of people in 144 countries around the world is in place. It tabulates happiness by calculating the quality of life measures.  Programmed and given flesh by the West, its indices show India inching towards the bottom, sliding from rank 122 to 133 in the last two annual readings.

It is not very difficult to understand why India has done so poorly on the Happiness Index.  With a complex and extensive pre-history, India is a young democracy going through extremely troubled times. Privileged educational systems are in shambles. Once vibrant, public universities find themselves under siege. Our courts uni-dimensionally prop up an authoritarian State. The police aids the powerful and shuts down dissent. The media, instead of being conscience keepers who buttress facts, sycophantically takes sides. Water crises loom large and potable water is in short supply. Our major rivers are either terribly polluted or have dried up altogether. Landfills overflow and we are light years away from efficient waste-management in prosperous, burgeoning cities. No plan B is in place to protect agricultural produce or improve the lives of agrarian producers or job seekers. Vast stretches of our nation reel from natural and man-made disasters. We function today as a majoritarian nation and continue to be ruthless in our treatment of minorities, women, dissidents and the un-empowered. Such a track record can in no way improve our score.


It is time to acknowledge that in the scheme of things in our new world, older patterns persist and the lives of the privileged few continue to be mapped and recorded. The world continues to view as irrelevant the lives of those less privileged, deprived or bereft. Social media forces us to watch in shock and awe the successes chalked up in the domain of the successful and the famous. In this exclusive space, happiness remains evanescent, like the glimmer of a butterfly’s wings in the sunlight.

Developed countries, blessed with natural resources, better weather and superior infrastructure, seem to have much better in terms of the Global Happiness Index Charts. We need to recall that many of these nations manipulated and controlled several countries, colonising them for hundreds of years. It is only in recent times that religious crusades, imperialism, slavery, colonialism and world wars have become the subject matter for students of history. Hereditary tyrannies, religious strangleholds and megalomaniacal potentates continue to be called out. Yet, a large number of the world’s people remain deprived of sustenance, food, liberty, education and freedom from want. Unsurprisingly, wars of attrition, intolerance and apartheid generated by xenophobia, racism, sexism, class and caste continue to exacerbate fraught situations.

Worldwide, attention continues to be paid towards documenting material from powerful lives. Current social media continues to record individual successes notched up by the privileged and we watch with bated breath all those who forge ahead in the rat race.  

It is time to acknowledge that in the scheme of things in our new world, older patterns persist and the lives of the privileged few continue to be mapped and recorded. The world continues to view as irrelevant the lives of those less privileged, deprived or bereft. Social media forces us to watch in shock and awe the successes chalked up in the domain of the successful and the famous. In this exclusive space, happiness remains evanescent, like the glimmer of a butterfly’s wings in the sunlight.

In recent times, we have continued to witness gifted, talented, successful and well-known men and women ending their lives because of the unhappiness that had leached into them, making living well — nigh impossible.

Robin Williams, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, from altogether different walks of life, cut short lives of affluence. Their departure, untimely and inexplicable, has enveloped many of us in inordinate sadness. How do we make sense of deaths which are not due to exile, wars, genocide, assassinations, natural disasters or epidemics, but because exceptional lives lived king-size and collated as such for viewers, could no longer sustain?

It is bizarre when in famous metropolitan cities, in spite of abundant access to a lifetime of fame, international travel, great food, books and television shows and friends in all climes, prominent people choose to abruptly close the door upon all earthly adventure. Shouldn’t personal and professional successes have stopped them from ending their lives? Why in that moment, did each of them turn away very firmly from everything they had individually accomplished?

Williams was a comic entertainer, an actor par excellence who taught us to laugh, sometimes at ourselves, and drew attention to life’s eccentricities. Spade brought great aesthetics and comfort into innumerable lives and homes. The accessories she designed added extraordinary colour and form to the textures of everyday life.

Unlike the aggressive and opulent First World food shows that showcased supermarkets of exotic foods, Bourdain’s involvement in the world of haute cuisine continued to draw from his experiences of washing up at a restaurant’s kitchen sink. From this lowly space, he successfully infused new meaninginto the consumption of food. His shows recorded the eating of daily meals and street food. Bourdain affirmed everyday lives, reminding us that food was not merely esoteric, but a vital link to life, with deep-rooted connections across cultures.


It is disheartening that despite the wealth of experience and material comfort, Williams, Spade and Bourdain chose to annihilate their very selves. If only they had chosen to function as beacons in our times when we have done away with world wars, are dismantling archaic hierarchies and accessing technology to turn the world into a virtual global village.

Williams, Spade and Bourdain were fuelled by promise and hope and the possibility of transforming lives in the world. Why then did they opt out of gorgeous lives that still remain a chimaera for the vast majority? Our guesses can only be oblique for it is far easier to understand the impulse that drives the vulnerable and the young to end lives. The loss of love through betrayal or death, rejection, failure in examinations or a career; any one of these could become a fatal trigger. Perhaps the impressionistic succumb readily to addiction, intoxicants and drugs to combat the overwhelming depression that can seep into the very core of being and wring the life out. It is devastating to be really ill or unhappy, to be dogged by befuddling hopelessness and loneliness. All of this serves to heighten the conviction that change can be achieved only by ending one’s life.  
Yet, how can this be understood when examining suicide in the context of the dense matrix of a lifetime of older achievers? Our cultures once celebrated the wisdom and vision of older people. Shouldn’t the autumn of lives lived well usher in mellow fruitfulness or reclusive restfulness? Strength gained by combating a gamut of experiences is meant to both enrich and empower innumerable lives.

Surely successful people who have worked hard to make their way up into comfortable niches should also seamlessly enable change around them? Why did despair get the better of Williams, Spade and Bourdain? Why were they dogged by such grief that even strong visual memories of their material successes could not keep them safe? Their lives spoke to each one of us, asking us to believe in the plurality and beauty of this world and love the good things that life has to offer — landscapes, foods, cultures, music, art, laughter and the company of people. They were significant icons and trendsetters, role models who inspired us to shop, spend, travel, read, explore and discover lands and lives with kindness and grace. They were very much citizens of this brave new world that all of us endlessly dream of, although most times, it is a little way off, blurred in our vision, on the edge of the horizon.

It is disheartening that despite the wealth of experience and material comfort, Williams, Spade and Bourdain chose to annihilate their very selves. If only they had chosen to function as beacons in our times when we have done away with world wars, are dismantling archaic hierarchies and accessing technology to turn the world into a virtual global village.

Unbearable sorrow is possibly the proverbial serpent, lurking in our earthly paradise. Great abundance exists but our systems of empowerment remain arbitrary and unfair. Repeatedly, a small number of people at the top, the one percent that feeds off on each other’s life, ignore altogether the remaining and partly living 99 percent.


Chaos Theory explains that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Mexico can cause a typhoon halfway around the world. Perhaps it is not incorrect to assume that the grinding unhappiness of so many people is akin to the fluttering of butterflies and moths and is triggering off all manner of avalanches in diverse realms, as we speak. 

Perhaps, Williams, Spade and Bourdain found the world a really dark and depressing place that was growing worse diurnally. Their wonderful perspective and learning seemed to be of little use in changing its ugliness. Did this push them over to the other side? Or did they lose faith in the furthering of their hopes and dreams for humankind?

It is not enough to be saddened or shocked by the untimely deaths of Williams, Spade and Bourdain. Perhaps we owe it to them to sustain and extend their dreams of collective happiness.

Chaos Theory explains that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Mexico can cause a typhoon halfway around the world. Perhaps it is not incorrect to assume that the grinding unhappiness of so many people is akin to the fluttering of butterflies and moths and is triggering off all manner of avalanches in diverse realms, as we speak.   

From lives of privilege, we need to walk the talk and assist in the processes of healing and amelioration. National and Global Happiness Indices become meaningful only when the humungous majority that has so far had little access to any freedom or quality of life, can participate meaningfully. For this to happen, it requires that we learn from those men and women who dreamt of bringing happiness into the lives of ordinary people. Stellar men and women, speaking for plurality and collective celebration, have served as messiahs and prophets of our time, warning us to pay attention to how our ugly acts corrode lives.

Unless we ourselves learn and change, we run the risk of being plagued and devoured by relentless despair and nameless griefs. Humans must empathise and embrace the bonds that connect all of us. In the absence of such understanding, happiness cannot seep into the collective of shared lives, or make our world a better place. We need to pick up and assemble the scattered and broken pieces, one by one in order to put the kaleidoscope of the world together again.

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