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Religion, Poverty and the Indices of Happiness

Happiness indices may yet have values as a measure when one probes under their surfaces, and perhaps being unhappy isn't such a bad thing...

Tanzeel Merchant
Published: 30, Jan 2014

Follow Tanzeel on twitter: @tanzeelio and via the "+ Follow" option on this page. Tanzeel Merchant relishes complexity. Based in Toronto, Merchant has proven expertise in long-range growth and infrastructure management, strategic planning and implementation, and stakeholder engagement in the private, public, and non-profit sector. Tanzeel is also an architect, urban designer, writer, financial advisor, and flâneur. He was the founding Executive Director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, a multi-disciplinary centre focused on urban issues relevant to city regions globally. Prior to that, he played a key role in working with governments and the energy Industry to plan for a better, more sustainable future in the Athabasca Oil Sands region in Alberta, Canada, home to the world’s third-largest oil reserve. Since 2003, he has also worked on the implementation of Ontario’s award-winning Places to Grow initiatives in Canada's largest province and one of North America's fastest-growing urban regions. Tanzeel has journeyed with his professional, academic and community-building interests through five cities on three continents. He likes that the days in his life have meaning, and no two days are the same.

Politicians across the globe have been toying for a few years now with the idea of using 'happiness indices' to better gauge the well being of their citizens. Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index leads the pack, having surveyed its citizens in 2010. China, perturbed by the increasing alienation its billion+ residents have begun to act out, is contemplating a similar index. The upstart Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index tries to provide some statistical credibility to this emerging measure of our discontent.

happiness

What is the meaning of "happy" then? Is it measure of mind-numbing ignorance? Does religion really make us better human beings, or does it give us a supernatural cop-out to make mediocrity, inequity and injustice acceptable?

Andrew Gelman of Columbia University, noticeably "unhappy" with Brooks' scholarship in the New York Times, responds with his own analysis titled No, Arthur Brooks: Conservative women are not ‘particularly blissful’ in the Washington Post. In it he carefully unpacks the very same source data Brooks used, to prove him wrong. Conservative women are not really happier than liberal ones after all.

Happiness indices may yet have values as a measure when one probes under their surfaces. 70 per cent of Bhutanese women surveyed for the Gross National Happiness Index believed their husbands had the right to beat them if they accidentally burned dinner. This finding caused an uproar on the state of women in that country and caused the government to start tackling the problem.

Perhaps being "happy" lulls us into a false sense of societal complacency that does us more harm than good... and perhaps being unhappy isn't such a bad thing if it keeps us searching for answers, seeking equity and justice, and asking more questions of ourselves.

  • Wahed

    Beautifully written Tanzeel. I think there is value in measuring happiness from the standpoint of "we can't improve what we can't measure". Perhaps we don't necessarily need to maximize happiness, given the tensions between happiness and complacency. We have measures for the products of complacency such as poverty, injustice and inequality, so I do think there is merit in also measuring happiness.

    on Feb 4, 2014
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for the comment Wahed (and apologies for the very delayed reply). You make some very important points. You're right, there is value in measuring, and even more value in what we infer and do with what we find. Thanks for reading, and commenting.

      on Mar 8, 2014
  • Religion, Poverty and the Indices of Happiness – Forbes India (blog) | Carbonificator

    [...] Forbes India (blog) [...]

    on Feb 3, 2014
  • Jarrett Barrios

    Gelman's point, perhaps, that "acceptance" of one's role in a pecking order (say, Bhutanese women's acceptance of society-wide spousal abuse) is not happiness is useful to go deeper in this very interesting area. To extend the idea, perhaps "happier" in this case (the Brooks sense) is actually something of a false consciousness--those that say they are happy are simply saying they are accepting the hand dealt to them...and those that are unhappy, are more prepared to engage in the mechanics of change. Either way, well done post--and thought provoking!

    on Jan 31, 2014
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for your comment Jarrett Barrios (and apologies for a belated reply). The points you make explain why the poor in countries like India often identify as being "happy". In "accepting the hand dealt to them", they have so much in common with the conservative American that Brooks identifies as "happy". Perhaps both should get together since they have so much in common and see how they get along, especially on issues like the minimum wage and immigration. ;-)

      on Mar 8, 2014
  • Religion, Poverty and the Indices of Happiness ...

    [...] Forbes India (blog) Religion, Poverty and the Indices of Happiness Forbes India (blog) Politicians across the globe have been toying for a few years now with the idea of using 'happiness indices' to better gauge the well being of their citizens.  [...]

    on Jan 30, 2014
  • Aiman

    i think main difference is about you belong to Rich Family or poor family rather than lower-caste poor under the crushing thumbs of the upper-caste elite. i agree caste system still exists but if lower caste people have power and money hardly it is matter

    on Jan 30, 2014
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for your comment Aiman. That point is worth exploring i.e. that once someone has money things don't matter. I don't believe that's true, but perhaps for some people it is.

      on Mar 8, 2014
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