NOT widely noticed internationally, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in July declaring “happiness was critical in advancing economic growth and social progress”. The “pursuit of happiness” was described as a “fundamental (universal) human goal”.

Psychologists have for long admitted that a happy person is a productive worker. Medical science has found a happy person a healthier person too. But can you measure a person’s happiness to determine the level of his health and development?

This quest for a perfect yardstick to measure and compare the prosperity and poverty of nations has been unending. One would, however, agree with the basic principle incorporated in the July resolution that a “balanced approach” to economic growth can alone lead to sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of the planet”. That at least implies that economic growth has to come first to lead man to happiness.

The economists’ penchant to devise a perfect yardstick to measure the development and prosperity of humankind is now reaching ridiculous extremes. Initially, the Gross Domestic Product was considered enough to determine the prosperity of nations. But it was soon realised that wealth by itself did not translate into prosperity. After all, resources could be unequally distributed and its benefits could be skewed. Inequality could be the biggest barrier to progress.

Hence other factors were explored that could give a better assessment of the quality of life of the people and the development of society. In the 1980s, the PQLI (Physical Quality of Life Index) was devised that looked into life expectancy at age one, literacy and infant mortality to evaluate the progress and well-being of a population.

This was followed by the Human Development Index developed 20 years ago by the Pakistani economist Mahbubul Haq and the Nobel Prize-winning professor of economics at Cambridge Amartya Sen to factorise literacy, life expectancy and income into prosperity.

Two years ago came the Multidimensional Poverty Index, a creation of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, to determine the extent of poverty at the household level taking into account education, health and living standards. The UNDP that produces the HDI every year incorporated this in its index.

In the 20th report, published in 2010, the UNDP introduced another innovation — the index for happiness. This should make many sit up. The Human Development Report states that happiness is an important factor in development. It claims that happiness is experienced along a good-bad continuum and can be measured. But isn’t that too subjective? How can you compare the happiness of one individual with that of another when the two are worlds apart temperamentally, environmentally and in terms of access to opportunities?

To evaluate happiness, the HDR’s happiness table measures Overall Life Satisfaction (0 being least satisfied and 10 most satisfied) in terms of satisfaction with personal well-being (job, health and standard of living). Elements of happiness are measured under three heads, namely, purposeful life, respect and social support network.

The findings for Pakistan that ranks 125 out of 169 in HDI are quite interesting. Its happiness score is 5.4 (in a scale of 0-10) which is pretty high, 77 per cent of the people are happy with their jobs (when many are unemployed), 75 per cent with their health and 53 per cent with their standard of living. Meanwhile, 72/73 per cent (men/women) said they have a purposeful life and 89/81 per cent said they are treated with respect.

This would obviously be good news for the government. If our citizens are that pleased with their life then there is little for our rulers to feel concerned about. If you look at the table measuring the satisfaction level of people in specific areas of their lives, the report tells a different story altogether. We are told that the perception of safety is only 44 per cent (much lower than many other countries in our region), only 36 per cent are satisfied with the healthcare system and 54 per cent with education.

It is plain that happiness and satisfaction are not easy to measure and even more difficult to compare. In our own case, surveys and statistics pose a challenge because of their subjective nature and the general inability and unwillingness of people to record information accurately. This was confirmed by a functionary of the Federal Bureau of Statistics whose responsibility it is to collect data for household surveys and inflation. He told me that people are reluctant to talk to his staff and tend to be very vague when recording figures. This lack of precision is a national trait.

Then there is also the reliability of the data collectors most of whom are not always credible. This is the case with most Third World countries. Is it then worth spending so much time, effort and resources on such an exercise which would not really help in the formulation of economic and social policies?

The information such surveys yield can be misleading and result in the distortion of policies. Steven Levitt, an economist and author (with Stephen Dubner) of Freakonomics points out that Adam Smith, the founder of classical economics, was “entranced by the sweeping changes wrought by this new force (modern capitalism)”. Yet Smith was not interested only in the number game. “It was the human effect, the fact that economic forces were vastly changing the way a person thought and behaved in a given situation” that fascinated him. There is need for such analysis today.


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