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Tanzeel Merchant
Urbanist, wanderer and flâneur who relishes complexity

Religion, Poverty and the Indices of Happiness

Politicians across the globe have been toying for a few years now with the idea of using ‘happiness indices’ to better gauge the well being of their citizens. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index leads the pack, having surveyed its citizens in 2010. China, perturbed by the increasing alienation its billion+ residents have begun to act out, is contemplating a similar index. The upstart Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index tries to provide some statistical credibility to this emerging measure of our discontent.

Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener, in their paper titled Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations, posit that residents of poorer nations placed a greater value on the meaning of life than those in wealthier countries. They write: “Although life satisfaction was substantially higher in wealthy nations than in poor nations, meaning in life was higher in poor nations than in wealthy nations.” The researchers attribute this seeming contradiction to the “mediating role of religiosity”. They believe that the meaning in life is higher in poorer countries such as Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Niger, “even under objectively dire living conditions” because people in those countries are more religious.

Reading their work, I was immediately reminded of an opinion piece by Arthur Brooks in the New York Times titled A Formula for Happiness. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (an unabashedly right-wing think tank), uses data from the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey (a survey of Americans conducted since 1972) to surmise, in a paean to the political, religious right, that 40 per cent of conservative (and therefore likely religious) women are “very happy”. He writes: “That makes them slightly happier than conservative men and significantly happier than liberal women. The unhappiest of all are liberal men; only about a fifth consider themselves very happy.” While the bulk of the article is about how our choice of work determines our state of mind, Brooks makes dangerous assumptions about the role of religion in ensuring happiness when he writes “faith… is the surest path to happiness…”

I have a fraught relationship with religion. I have seen the beautiful, humbling and civilizing impact it can have on society, but more importantly, I have also seen the bloody, brutal, cowardly and dastardly ends that it is often a means to. In South Asia, it has been handily used for millennia to keep the lower-caste poor under the crushing thumbs of the upper-caste elite. Over the last decade it has been used to divide and rule both poor and rich nations, and create politically convenient and oppressive structures of power. The deleterious effects of religion are abundantly visible across the globe– in splintered remains of American and Indian politics, in the ravaged communities of South Sudan and Syria, in the tormented dreams of the dead in Rwanda… where shall I stop counting, and when will we stop bleeding?

happiness

What is the meaning of “happy” then? Is it measure of mind-numbing ignorance? Does religion really make us better human beings, or does it give us a supernatural cop-out to make mediocrity, inequity and injustice acceptable?

Andrew Gelman of Columbia University, noticeably “unhappy” with Brooks’ scholarship in the New York Times, responds with his own analysis titled No, Arthur Brooks: Conservative women are not ‘particularly blissful’ in the Washington Post. In it he carefully unpacks the very same source data Brooks used, to prove him wrong. Conservative women are not really happier than liberal ones after all.

Happiness indices may yet have values as a measure when one probes under their surfaces. 70 per cent of Bhutanese women surveyed for the Gross National Happiness Index believed their husbands had the right to beat them if they accidentally burned dinner. This finding caused an uproar on the state of women in that country and caused the government to start tackling the problem.

Perhaps being “happy” lulls us into a false sense of societal complacency that does us more harm than good… and perhaps being unhappy isn’t such a bad thing if it keeps us searching for answers, seeking equity and justice, and asking more questions of ourselves.

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Beautifully written Tanzeel. I think there is value in measuring happiness from the standpoint of "we can't improve what we can't measure". Perhaps we don't necessarily need to maximize happiness, given the tensions between happiness and complacency. We have measures for the products of complacency such as poverty, injustice and inequality, so I do think there is merit in also measuring happiness.
Thank you for the comment Wahed (and apologies for the very delayed reply). You make some very important points. You're right, there is value in measuring, and even more value in what we infer and do with what we find. Thanks for reading, and commenting.

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Jarrett Barrios
Gelman's point, perhaps, that "acceptance" of one's role in a pecking order (say, Bhutanese women's acceptance of society-wide spousal abuse) is not happiness is useful to go deeper in this very interesting area. To extend the idea, perhaps "happier" in this case (the Brooks sense) is actually something of a false consciousness--those that say they are happy are simply saying they are accepting the hand dealt to them...and those that are unhappy, are more prepared to engage in the mechanics of change. Either way, well done post--and thought provoking!
Thank you for your comment Jarrett Barrios (and apologies for a belated reply). The points you make explain why the poor in countries like India often identify as being "happy". In "accepting the hand dealt to them", they have so much in common with the conservative American that Brooks identifies as "happy". Perhaps both should get together since they have so much in common and see how they get along, especially on issues like the minimum wage and immigration. ;-)

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i think main difference is about you belong to Rich Family or poor family rather than lower-caste poor under the crushing thumbs of the upper-caste elite. i agree caste system still exists but if lower caste people have power and money hardly it is matter
Thank you for your comment Aiman. That point is worth exploring i.e. that once someone has money things don't matter. I don't believe that's true, but perhaps for some people it is.
 
 
Tanzeel Merchant
Follow Tanzeel on twitter: @tanzeelio and via the "+ Follow" option on this page.

Tanzeel Merchant relishes complexity and feels that conflict can be a constructive experience - it makes for better, more resilient outcomes. Based in Toronto, with proven expertise in long-range growth and infrastructure management, strategic planning and implementation, and stakeholder engagement private, public, and non-profit sectors, Tanzeel is also an architect, urban designer, writer, financial advisor, and flâneur.

Tanzeel has led the implementation of Ontario’s award-winning Places to Grow initiatives. He is currently on a leave of absence from the Province of Ontario, working in Alberta with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Government of Alberta, and the energy Industry to plan for a better, more sustainable future in the rapidly growing Athabasca Oil Sands region, home to the world’s third largest oil reserve.

Tanzeel has journeyed with his professional, academic and community-building interests and through five cities on three continents. He thrives on delivering on the impossible, but never at the cost of his integrity. He likes that the days in his life have meaning, and no two days are the same.

In his words, "My efforts have changed the world I live in, and will shape a better future than the one I inherited."
 
 
 
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Tanzeel Merchant
March 08, 2014 18:45 pm by Tanzeel Merchant
Thank you for your comment Aiman. That point is worth exploring i.e. that once someone has money things don't matter. I don't believe that's true, but perhaps for some people it is.
Tanzeel Merchant
Tanzeel Merchant
March 08, 2014 18:44 pm by Tanzeel Merchant
Thank you for your comment Jarrett Barrios (and apologies for a belated reply). The points you make explain why the poor in countries like India often identify as being "happy". In "accepting the hand dealt to them", they have so much in common with the conservative American that Brooks identifies a...
Tanzeel Merchant
Tanzeel Merchant
March 08, 2014 18:40 pm by Tanzeel Merchant
Thank you for the comment Wahed (and apologies for the very delayed reply). You make some very important points. You're right, there is value in measuring, and even more value in what we infer and do with what we find. Thanks for reading, and commenting.
February 04, 2014 07:02 am by Wahed
Beautifully written Tanzeel. I think there is value in measuring happiness from the standpoint of "we can't improve what we can't measure". Perhaps we don't necessarily need to maximize happiness, given the tensions between happiness and complacency. We have measures for the products of complacency ...
February 03, 2014 21:47 pm by Religion, Poverty and the Indices of Happiness – Forbes India (blog) | Carbonificator
[...] Forbes India (blog) [...]