In pursuit of happiness | columns | Hindustan Times
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In pursuit of happiness

Politicians must not get taken in by happy headlines. Read the fine print; address the simmering discontent, Chanakya writes.

columns Updated: Jan 20, 2013 00:13 IST

I must confess that I’m a little surprised by the results of the ‘Hindustan Times-MaRS Happiness Survey’. The verdict — that India is, by and large, a happy nation — seems to go against the drift of our lived experience. So, I analysed the survey results in greater detail, dived deep into the fine print and reviewed the nuances and voila, the whole thing, as Hercule Poirot would have said, was suddenly clear to me. The survey, the most extensive, rigourous and definitive study ever conducted in the country, has thrown up findings that, at first reading, were a paradox. They seemed to suggest that Indians are happy and stressed out at the same time.

On one plane, it reaffirmed the oft-repeated truism that Indians manage contradictions very well — that we seem have an in-built mechanism to accept opposing points of views, reconcile conflicting belief systems and harmonise sharp ideological differences. Does it indicate confusion? Not at all! It was the ancient Indians who, in the 2nd millennium BCE, first postulated the idea of dualism — that the universe was a fine balance between binary opposites — day and night, male and female, right and wrong, light and shadow, left and right… the list can go on forever. They called it Purush and Prakriti. The idea travelled from the banks of the Indus and the Ganga to China, where, in the 4th century BCE, it became a defining principle of Taoism as Yin and Yang. From there, this philosophy was disseminated to the rest of the world.

In essence, this belief system — call it by whatever name you want — proposes that the apparent contradiction between the binary opposites does not indicate conflict. Depending on your point of view, one part of the equation may seem more dominant than the other. But overall, they indicate a dynamic state where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Seen from this perspective, the survey findings show that we can separate the issues that worry us in the here and now from the more existential bigger picture with which we are quite satisfied.

But at another level, the findings also shed light on some inherent contradictions that have arisen in our society, especially over the past two decades. Just look at the findings. The smaller state capitals are much happier than the metros, and by a fair distance at that. The economic and other opportunities available in big cities (better, higher-paying jobs, greater prospects for economic, educational and personal growth and more avenues to socialise and entertain) now come as part of an often deadly cocktail where greater competition, stark social and financial class divides, exposure to sometimes progressive but often alien value systems and the absence of comforting family and (even caste) networks are leading to increasing alienation and dehumanisation. This is leading to greater strife and conflict.

I strongly urge our leaders and sociologists to study the HT-MaRS survey in detail and ponder over the facts:

*Why is a country that professes to be happy being torn apart by a million conflicts within?

*Why are young women being molested, raped and subjugated in both urban and rural India every day?

*Why have we become so blasé about the sufferings of others?

The survey conclusively debunks the theory, repeated ad nauseam by adherents of a particular political line, that the beneficiaries of economic liberalisation (just as an aside: wouldn’t economic liberation be a better description?) are a selfish and uncaring bunch of philistines who care only for themselves and their own class. All of India is extremely unhappy with the levels of their own charitable contributions. The shame comes through starkly in the numbers. Then why aren’t we a more giving nation? Maybe we don’t save enough. Maybe we don’t trust the organisations that work as conduits to the poor. Maybe we’re being hypocritical about it. Maybe there are other reasons. I don’t know. But these numbers can be an additional important input for deeper studies on the subject.

And finally, a careful reading between the lines shows that this survey should serve as a warning bell to politicians of all hues. Why? Because the generally happy Indian is dissatisfied with all the deliverables he/she expects from the state. Almost without exception, urban India has given a thumbs down to the law and order situation across the country. He/she has told the city administrators that the public transport system sucks. He has said quite unambiguously that the civic authorities responsible for keeping our cities clean are drawing their salaries for doing nothing.

My advice to politicians: don’t get taken in by the happy headlines. Read the fine print; recognise the simmering discontent; address the suppressed anger. Otherwise, the dualism ingrained in our psyche, which feeds our chalta hai attitude to many things, will come back to haunt them as citizens’ activism.