Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy Nation

As posted on

Many CEOs and HR folk will tell you that happy people make for more productive employees. In fact there are even studies that demonstrate that when you are happy you are more productive. Therefore, the reasoning goes, it is important for companies to make employees happy so that they will be productive. Some even go so far as to say employees first, customers second. An article in the recent issue of Outlook on happiness made me wonder if they haven’t got it all backwards.

The article reported on a survey of happiness among some 2000 people across India. In it they asked people questions about whether they were happy, what made them happy, and who they thought were the happiest people. What made people happiest was optimism about the future, followed by feeling fit and work success. Also, a sense of purpose. According to people’s perception, the happiest people were successful industrialists, doctors and politicians while the least happy were people doing nothing followed by housewives and bureaucrats. And the top three ways to get happy according to these folks were getting together with friends, meditating and working hard. Yes, working hard. So if we put all this together it is saying something. That at least here, today in India, presumably among English speaking folk, we are deriving our happiness from purposeful accomplishment, and that staying fit and working hard are paths to this. This is good news and bad news for the country.

The good news is that happiness is not at cross purposes with productivity and progress but rather can be deeply connected to it. The excitement that we are as a country accomplishing something has been palpable in India the last decade and this is not surprising. There is headiness about being able to declare yourself globally competitive in different areas, about being able to be part of something growing and changing in a positive direction. That headiness is happiness. So it seems to be that it is not happiness that makes you productive but productive accomplishment that makes you happy.

The bad news is that only 100 million Indians are employed in the formal economy and even have a shot at being part of this heady wave of growth and progress and the happiness that follows it. We are a country where almost a billion people fall into the category of not doing much beyond a subsistence context, and as Ruchir Joshi says in his article in Outlook, we used to think that rural people were happy because of their ‘pure’ and ‘simple life’, but today only the insane think that. This would suggest that we are probably a pretty unhappy nation in the aggregate and the rapidly rising crime statistics seem to support this. Across the country violent crime has grown about three fold since the 1950s, that’s way faster than the population. And this is by no means an urban phenomenon. In my own work we constantly encounter rural violence and have had to abandon field activities at least a few times in the past year due to village fights and murders.

There is a lesson in this though. If we are aiming to be a really happy nation, then the solution is not in redistributing or distributing money but in creating frameworks that enable more people to experience productive accomplishment. To be happy we need to focus on enabling productivity rather than alleviating poverty.

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