“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” ― Abraham Lincoln

Happiness is a state of being! It has been in existence as long as humans have but is there a way to measure or define happiness?

Aristotle said it beautifully, Happiness depends on ourselves.” 

He enshrines happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. As per his ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, he believed ‘Happiness is the highest good’ because we choose happiness as an ‘end goal’, sufficient in itself. As per him, even intelligence and virtue are not good in themselves, but good also because they make us happy.

It is an important aspect to consider. Does intelligence by itself make us happy or do we feel happy when there is a measurable outcome of our being intelligent? Similarly, does just being virtuous make us happy or helping someone in need (because we are virtuous) makes us happy?

If happiness is the optimal state of being, then elements like intelligence, virtue, success, money, etc. would be sub optimal levels.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi’s approach was way different. He evangelized that our “thoughts, words and actions” need to be in complete sync for us to be happy. 

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

Dalai Lama stresses on the aspect of ‘action’. He believes that if we do the right things, we’ll be automatically happy but happiness by itself will not come in a package.

“There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path,” said Gautam Buddha. 

Gautam Buddha laid emphasis on the point that happiness is not the end goal, but the means to reach some other destination.

Each thinker has a different recipe to reach a state of happiness. However, it can be derived that happiness is an aspiration that everyone strives for. Factors like a person’s economic status, perception of success, relationships, physical environment, health, intelligence, education, work, etc. can easily influence their feeling of happiness. 

From the moment that we wake up to the time we sleep, we’re only directing our thoughts, words and deeds towards an ultimate aim for happiness. But more often than not, we get caught in the cross-roads of life and believe that transitory states like wealth, recognition, fame and materialistic things are itself the embodiment’s of happiness.

Last year, our family went to Bhutan for a holiday. Needless to say, we had a superb time. People there are simple, honest and have a perpetual smile on their face. It reminded me of Bertie Wooster describing to Jeeves about his State of Happiness in ‘The Jeeves Omnibus’, “You might say I’m sitting on top of the world with a rainbow round my shoulders”.

It was a revelation that a small, relatively hidden country, tucked away among the beautiful Himalayan clouds, which depends significantly on other countries to provide development aid, gives scant regard to their Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Whoa! Come again! Rather than a monetary measure like the GDP, Bhutan adopted Gross National Happiness (GNH) in their constitution (as early as 2008) to measure the growth of their nation?

GDP is one of THE crucial financial indicators to measure the health of a country. It drives all other nations around the world (at a very very nano-level, I am equally guilty of trying to make sense of it every now and then) and where even a micro shift in the 3rd decimal point can set a country on high-alert and many hearts aflutter. 

It set off a train of thought – what if India were to adopt the same benchmark to measure the growth of our country – rather than rely on some number crunching, would things change drastically for us?

What was all the hullabaloo by all the parties in the recent Lok Sabha elections? Did they speak of the economy of the country or was it more of a focus on all the unhappy issues in the nation and how each of them would fix it if they were to come to power? It is not trivializing our nation’s core and deep-rooted issues but trying to better understand the driving factor behind the loquacious and expansive promises. Although none of them may have mentioned the misunderstood word, ‘Happiness” explicitly, all their Manifestos and Vision statements point the citizens to this very sublime condition. 

“Happiness” is often used to describe both measures of positive affect and life evaluation. Broadly, there are 3 main types of measure for happiness: measures of positive emotions (positive affect), measures of negative emotions (negative affect) and evaluations of life as a whole. Together, these three types of report are considered the subjective criterion of well-being, or ‘happiness’ in short.

As expressed by Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in a World Economic Forum (WEC) article, UNDP is equally focused on measuring what matters – a complex, ambitious list of targets captured in 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to which the world, including Bhutan, have agreed. The interpretation of happiness is more complex than the indicators behind the Human Development Index (HDI) but Bhutan has taken the first step to decrypt Happiness. 

Bhutan first defined happiness: creating 9 domains – psychological well being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards – and 33 indicators.

The Components of Gross National Happiness
Image Courtesy:
Gross National Happiness (GNH)

The Centre for Bhutan Studies, a think tank was able to quantitatively carry out a national census-like Gross National Happiness Survey (both in 2010 and 2015) to measure the quality and depth of each person’s happiness over time. This dataset has helped the country drive forward-looking policy and decision-making around programs like basic education, healthcare, power and environment.

Based on the GDP 2019 projections by the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook Database, October-2018, India’s GDP (Billions of $) nominal will be 2,957.720 (5th rank) and PPP will be 11,412.970 (3rd rank) whereas GDP Growth will be at 7.436% (7th rank). 

Per this report, as on January 4, 2019, in nominal ranking, India which was at the 7th place in 2018, is projected to surpass the United Kingdom and France in 2019 to become the 5th largest economy of the world. Our country is expected to be the 3rd largest in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). Very positive and encouraging figures!

The same data set also projects a 2019 GDP per capita (PPP) at 8,443 $ (placing us at the 126th rank), so what are the signals we should be really looking at? 

Bhutan with a projected 2019 GDP per capita (PPP) of 10,056 $ places the country at 115th rank among the 193 indexed countries.

India seems to be painting a relatively rosy picture in terms of GDP, both nominal and PPP, but the interesting question is where would India rank in terms of GNH?

Some of the key determinants for human happiness are also central to the human development concept. Work on happiness and human development are both driven partly by an interest in understanding and measuring human progress and well being. This goes beyond economic and fiscal touchstones like the GDP.

As per the ‘Happiness and Human Development’, Jon Hall & John F. Helliwell, UNDP Human Development Report Office OCCASIONAL PAPER, USA (2014), human development can be broadly defined as endowing people with opportunities to lead lives ‘they have reason to value’.

Simon Smith Kuznets, Russian-born American economist and statistician, who was awarded the 1971 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics stated, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” 

As beautifully encapsulated in the remarks of Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968, “Gross National Product (GNP) does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” 

As attributed to an Indian proverb, “It is better to be blind than to see things only from one point of view.” And so it is with looking at people’s development through only the country’s economy or the citizen’s happiness lenses – with the new world, what is required is a judicious mix of the two models. 

Some countries like the UK, Costa Rica, Sweden, Slovenia, New Zealand, etc. are increasingly veering towards developing a “wellbeing” metric, rather than just a Human Development Index (HDI), in the measurement of what makes life worthwhile for their citizens. New Zealand has gone a step further by allocating a ‘wellbeing’ budget. Can India too follow suit and extend beyond mere economic and fiscal policies to boost its citizens’ “Gross Happiness Quotient”


“A diligent citizen, nature enthusiast, occasional blogger, avid reader, sporadic photographer and social commentator; Kolla Krishna Madhavi likes to express her personal views with a dash of mirchi ka tadka. With 20+ years of corporate WEX, including the more recent stints at IIIT-H and Google, Madhavi has opted to ‘right till-fume’. She can be reached on [email protected] and followed @mirchikatadka.””