Should the government make you happy?

“But why happiness’?” he asked.

It was a Saturday morning and we were in N’s car, on our way to a meeting in South Mumbai. We were discussing the mission of the Takshashila Institution, which had recently been established, and which declared, right on top, that it was set up “to study and develop public policies with a view towards promoting the well-being, prosperity, happiness and security of all Indians.”

“I was inspired by the Arthashastra,” I replied. “Kautilya pithily declares that ‘happiness is the end (of the State)’. Elsewhere he notes that people agreed—and paid taxes—to be governed so that they may be able to enjoy yogakshema, that includes well-being, prosperity, security and, yes, happiness.”

He nodded. I could see that he was not entirely convinced. “Because,” as he later explained, “happiness is inherently a subjective parameter and public policy to promote happiness could lead to an invasive state telling people what to do and not do.”

N’s scepticism is valid. Yet the idea of ensuring the yogakshema of the subjects lies at the root of the theory of the origin of the state according to ancient Indian philosophy. It is also the first tenet of rajdharma (the duty of the ruler).  The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, for instance, has a long section on political philosophy expressed as a dialogue between Bhishma, the dying senior statesman, and Yudhisthira, the soon-to-be king of Hastinapura. “The happiness of their subjects,” Bhishma counsels “…(is) the eternal duty of kings.” In his magnificent commentary  on Kautilya’s Arthashastra, R P Kangle writes:

[Yogakshema] implies something more than mere protection of person and property. As is well-known, yoga refers to the successful accomplishment of an object, while kshema refers to the peaceful, undisturbed enjoyment of that object. Security, that is, protection by the state is essential for both. But ensuring the two means something more than providing security. In fact, yogakshema implies the idea of welfare, well-being, including the idea of prosperity, happiness and so on. That is why the text asserts, ‘In the happiness of the subject lies the happiness of the king…” It is not possible to agree with [those who] think that these words are not to be taken seriously, that the pious sentiments expressed by the author are only make-believe and that of the inner piety there is very little. That by ensuring the subjects’ happiness and welfare the ruler ensures his own happiness and welfare is not a mere pious sentiment. It is the natural corollary that follows from the thesis that if the subjects are not happy and contented they might become disaffected towards the ruler, and that might be the end of his rule. [In] the last analysis the ruler… is dependent on the suffrage of the ruled.

So there appear to be two reasons why happiness ought to be the goal of the state—in principle, because that is part of a
social contract between the government and the governed; and in practice, because unhappy subjects could overthrow their government. But while the astute Kautilya offers many ways for the king to get a sense of the public mood, he is of no help for the purpose of satisfying today’s hard-nosed policy wonks.

That’s where Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness comes in.

It is a careful, helpful book. It brings together the key findings in the area of happiness research—a relatively new discipline in the social sciences that uses surveys and polls to measure wellbeing—into a cogent, well-structured volume. If it does not purport to make unequivocal, unqualified recommendations it is because, as the author says, “the policy implications…offer only a preliminary glimpse at what may eventually come to light.”

What we now know—tentatively—is already interesting: beyond a certain threshold income, more money does not lead to greater happiness; that people are poor judges of what makes them happy; that growing income inequality has not led to greater unhappiness and that social welfare programmes, paradoxically, do not necessarily make citizens happier. Leaving money and biology aside for a moment, we also know what accounts “for most of the variation in people’s well-being: marriage, social relationships, employment, perceived health, religion and quality of government.” People crave for what they have less of: in less developed countries they seek economic freedom while their counterparts in wealthier countries put a premium on political freedom. It would not be surprising if India were to challenge this finding.

Other government-related factors with significant correlation to happiness are “rule of law, efficient government  agencies, low level of violence and corruption, a high degree of trust in public officials (especially the police), and responsible encounters by citizens with public agencies and officials.” Similarly, tolerance of minorities is associated with greater overall happiness. These are highly desirable in any case, and the knowledge that they also make citizens happier adds to their desirability.

A large part of Mr Bok’s book explores many of these factors in sufficient, but not overpowering detail—unfortunately, for the international reader, it does so largely in the context of US politics. The discussion of two of the biggest questions, though, does not suffer from this handicap.

First, the link between income and happiness. The commonly held conclusion here is that once a country achieves a per capita income of around $10,000 to $15,000 per year, more growth does not lead to more happiness. This has recently been challenged by findings that a percentage increase in national income made people in richer countries as happy as in poorer ones. The jury is out.

However, since India’s per capita GDP is around $1000 at this time, it will be at least a couple of decades, at current growth rates, before the question becomes directly relevant to India (and by then, there might be a consensus among researchers). That said, there is a risk that India’s own growth might be stifled if the developed countries decide that there is no more joy in pursuing growth.

Second, should happiness trump liberty? Mr Bok does well to quote from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which is a signal warning against placing happiness over freedom. If further research confirms the findings that people usually do not know what really makes them happy, then paternalism is just one step away and authoritarianism, two.

Even without the attendant dangers of slipping into Mustapha Mond’s dictatorial regime, it can hardly be argued that it is the state’s job to ensure that its citizens are always in good cheer. To define happiness in such terms would be to miss the point. On the other hand, it is possible for the goals of freedom and happiness to be consistent if the state were to see itself as an agency that allows citizens to achieve their full potential, not least by directing policy towards the equality of opportunities.

The Politics of Happiness is not a complete answer to N’s question. It does however, add the methodology and reasoning of modern social science to the profound insights of ancient moral and political philosophy. The findings of happiness research might be inconclusive. But to the extent that they remind political leaders of the importance of yogakshema, even as they warn them of the dangers of populism, they serve a purpose.

One Reply to “Should the government make you happy?”

  1. rahulanand

    really nice article I think in India’s context we have two nations one growing at around 10% and the other at around 1%-2% so the need here is for the people growing at 10% to understand that to achieve greater happiness, they will have to try and help the Bharat lagging behind to come somewhere near to the India, not just for a humanitarian/ social cause but because of their own selfish benefits.

    if they don’t want their drivers/maids/milkman to rob/ murder their near and dear ones.

Comments are closed.