In a gloomy India, an IIT and a state government have set out in pursuit of happiness

Smile a little more.
Smile a little more.
Image: Reuters/Babu
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India isn’t the happiest of places on earth.

The country ranks a dismal 118 among 156 according to The World Happiness Report 2016—a United Nations initiative. This is below Somalia (76), China (83), Pakistan (92), Iran (105), Palestinian Territories (108) and Bangladesh (110).

In contrast, India’s neighbour Bhutan has often topped the charts when it comes to countrywide happiness. In fact, in this Himalayan country gross national happiness beats gross national product, when it comes to measuring economic progress.

Given this sate of affairs, there is a newfound enthusiasm in India to institutionalise the pursuit of happiness.

In April, the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) announced that it planned to set up a “happiness ministry.“ This ministry, the state government said, would “inculcate a happier lifestyle” and “infuse positivity” into the lives of its 73 million citizens.

“We will make a ‘happiness ministry’ to track our growth,” MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan said on April 1. “The state will be responsible for happiness and tolerance (sic) of its citizens and will rope in psychologists to counsel people (on) how to be always happy.”

Three months later, on July 4, the oldest among the country’s elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), IIT-Kharagpur, said it was setting up a centre within its campus to teach students how to stay happy.

The 65-year-old institute, located in the eastern state of West Bengal, plans to invest $1 million on the new centre that will mould “happy technocrats.” The institute also plans to start research activities on the science of happiness.

“The upcoming centre is a unique initiative that will research and help develop an ecosystem of happy and successful KGPians (IIT-Kharagpur alumni) who become effective leaders, innovative engineers, caring employers, smarter and creative employees,” Satinder Singh Rekhi, an alumnus who is helping set up the centre, said.

There are at least three benefits to being happy, said Raj Raghunathan, a professor at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, and author of the book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy.

“First, happier people are healthier. So, happier citizens means, among other things, lower healthcare costs. Second, happier people are more altruistic and compassionate. So, everyone benefits when the happiness of a country increases. Finally, happier people are more productive. For example, happier people are more creative,” Raghunathan said.

Besides, the initiatives by the MP government and IIT-Kharagpur are trying to address a crisis that doesn’t often get the attention it deserves.

Why is India unhappy?

Over the past few decades, Asia’s third-largest economy has been wracked by issues such as growing religious intolerance and communal clashes, besides widening economic inequality. India has also been struggling to improve its human development index, particularly on fronts such as literacy and healthcare.

The report published by the United Nations measures happiness based on real GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

“The single biggest thing that a country can do to increase happiness levels is to give as many people as possible access to basic resources—like food, clothing, education, basic medical attention,” Raghunathan said. “In a nutshell, the more we make sure that basic needs are met for a critical mass of people, the happier the country will be.”

However, what is moot is a top-down approach to overall happiness, as planned by the MP government and IIT-Kharagpur. Indeed, there are those who are sceptical about plans for a happiness ministry.

“I don’t think you can train people to be happy,” Ashis Nandy, sociologist and clinical psychologist said. “This idea of chasing happiness is a worldwide trend and is based on the belief that you can pursue happiness like any other goal. You believe that happiness can be chased like an Olympic gold medal. Sadly, that is not the case. My suspicion is that the concept is flawed.”