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The geography of joy

By B S Prakash
March 18, 2013 13:18 IST
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If only our roads were less congested, metros less crowded, markets a little more cleaner and air and water purer; our happiness would be greater... feels B S Prakash, India's former ambassador to Brazil.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Some time ago, Rediff carried a feature listing the ten happiest countries in the world.

I read it with interest and thereafter went to the original sources on which this survey was based. The list was a surprise. Seven countries from Latin America and Caribbean figured in the first ten 'happy nations' with Panama topping the list.

It was followed by Paraguay, Venezuela and similar South American countries. Thailand and Philippines figured high, but not Singapore with the highest per capita GDP in Asia.

India was at a respectable 57 among the 192 countries in the world. What was at work here?

Most of us look at these lists with curiosity, but are also somewhat sceptical about their objectivity. Much depends on how the question is framed, who is asking it and what is the target audience.

'Who is the most beautiful star of all times in Indian cinema?' Depending on your age, inclination, and idea of the ideal female form it can be Aishwarya or Zeenat or Jayalalithaa. 'Who is the most powerful person in India?' Some would hold Neera Radia and others Robert Vadra!

Measuring wealth, however, is quantitative and therefore more definitive. Mukesh Ambani is wealthier than Anil, whatever you may think about the two of them. I am talking of known wealth. Karunanidhi is likely to be wealthier than A Raja, but this we will never know for certain.

But we also know that the relationship between wealth and happiness is not straightforward, whether in individuals or nations.

Qatar is the wealthiest nation in the world in terms of per capita GDP and for some years now it has overtaken other small nations with small populations like Switzerland or Luxemburg which used to have that distinction.

But Qatar as the happiest nation? Or even Switzerland? We know instinctively that they do not qualify. They are austere for starters, albeit in different ways: no liquor in one, no laughter in the other.

This is an era in which we are slowly internalising the notion that well-being is different from wealth. It is common sense and there is also enough evidence in psychological and sociological research to show that not having to worry about money is a necessary condition for happiness for the majority.

(Not true for Yogis, Sufis, or other such elevated and esoteric individuals who have transcended desires, but we are talking of people like you and me.)

But we also know that money is not a sufficient condition for happiness. Was Ponty Chadha happy? Too late to ask.

Tiny and tranquil Bhutan should be credited for having raised these ideas from the individual to the national level.

Bhutan started talking some years ago about the concept of Gross National Happiness, GNH, as a more significant idea than Gross Domestic product, the beloved GDP of the economists. Profound and relevant.

So many social aspects go into making a nation happier: Health care, education, employment, environment, quality of social networks, freedom.

If you are a city dweller in Bengaluru or Mumbai, the distance between your home and workplace may be the single biggest factor in keeping you happy or miserable.

Recognising these realities, many other nations have started looking at the idea of GNH including France, always sensitive to qualitative aspects of life.

With all these thoughts churning in my head, I was curious about how Latin America had figured so high in the survey. Having lived there, I know a bit about Latin America but had not thought that they would top countries like Denmark or Norway which have traditionally featured as among the best for the quality of life.

So I looked at the methodology and the questions asked in the survey. The people who had been interviewed in the surveys had been asked: 'Were they well rested, treated with respect, smiled or laughed a lot, did something of interest and/or enjoyed the previous day?' This offered a clue.

I believe that I have lived in enough countries and know something about the lifestyle of different cultures to be able to guess how differently they may react to such a question.

In my experience, the average Swede or Norwegian is healthy, reasonably well off -- if not outright wealthy, pays high taxes but is looked after from cradle to grave by the State, is well educated with great schools without fees, secure in his employment or even in unemployment, and is part of a model society with high levels of safety and sanity.

But ask him if he was happy and laughed a lot the previous day and the answer in the unlikely event that you get one is not likely to be exuberant. That it is not his or her nature.

'It was OK,' she may say, if at all she gets down from her cycle as the surveyor puts his question. You do not go and ask Schopenhauer or Kierkegaard with their rigorously constructed pessimism about the human condition on whether they were well rested and had a ball the previous day.

It is like asking Buddha whether desires were not the root of all the happiness in the world.

The Latinos, I know, are different. "How was your weekend?" I used to ask our Brazilian employees in the embassy, as a matter of both curiosity and courtesy. My question itself was a routine from my years earlier in the West, in Austria and North America, before Brazil.

In the West, the answers to this ritual discussion about the weekend were: 'Good. Me and my boyfriend went cycling on the Danube' or 'Fine. We had this lovely barbeque in the yard with totally organic food.' or 'OK, I guess. Just hung out with some friends and took in a movie.'

Shall we say descriptions of moderate happiness? As a broad generalisation in Latin America as in the Philippines the answers tend to be different.

'We had such fun,' was the answer in Brazil most of the time, with a big smile and at the same time a long sigh of reminiscence about the previous day and to indicate what a big bore coming back to the office was.

'Oh, we had this big, boisterous, birthday party, all the cousins and nieces came, thirty in all. This cake that we baked together and the ice sculptures on it and the tiny, tiny, embedded chocolates,' and so on and so forth.  Or, 'We were all together at the church, all of us from our old school, singing in the choir together. It was glorious!'

Simple pleasures, sometimes simple but abundant food, but a joyous day spent in a crowd. A bit like India you would say, family, festivals and frolic. And so it is no surprise that will all our shortages and hassles we figured at a respectable 57 on the Happiness Index.

If only our roads were less congested, metros less crowded, markets a little more cleaner and air and water purer -- our happiness would be greater, at least for those of us who may be answering questions in such surveys.

BS Prakash is India's former Ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at

For Ambassador Prakash's earlier columns, please click here.

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