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?
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.