The Govt must now consider indicators that are laggards, especially those that can help contribute to greater levels of well-being
Organisations and individuals are inherently goal-driven and are consciously or unconsciously optimising towards these targets. At an institutional level, companies work towards particular targets such as revenue, customer acquisition or other metrics that they may deem fit, based on each firm’s need at the time. To come to these conclusions, the decision-makers within the organisation generally rely on data, such as the stage of institutional growth, market factors such as size, competition, available financing options and an array of other considerations.
At an individual level, people tend to focus on enhancing productivity, contentment, or professional success based on the stage of life, state of mind and personal proclivities and preferences inter alia.
The idea of pushing for specific outcomes is one that permeates every aspect of our lives, whether we realise it or not. As students, we focus on grades (often at the expense of knowledge); as investors, we push for wealth maximisation; as employees we optimise based on the expectations of our reporting managers; and in our personal lives, we make strides to satisfy the needs of those who depend on us, while aligning our happiness with the same.
Though the concept of optimising oneself towards realising a goal has been around for a while, social media has broadened the discourse and ideas around it manifold. One would not have to look beyond Twitter and LinkedIn, where high performing business leaders, investors, life coaches, spiritual gurus, constantly add to the discourse of optimising for success.
While founders and venture capitalists focus on advancement at an organisational level, life coaches and self-help gurus fill the Twitter-verse and LinkedIn space with tips and tricks to be adopted at the individual level.
As we progress in our personal lives and at an organisational level, the question is, what should we be optimising for at a societal level? The answer lies within the Preamble to the Constitution of India — justice, liberty, equality and promotion of fraternity. All are essential components of maintaining the social fabric of the nation. But just as institutions and individuals understand the need to progress for different outcomes based on their stage of growth, Governments too, need to be mindful of the realities and prevailing narratives surrounding them, and advance accordingly.
From an economic perspective, one would not be remiss to say that the last three decades have seen governments in India pushing for development and the average growth rate since liberalisation has been about 6.5 per cent. And while the economic success of India in the past few decades must be celebrated, indicators of well-being in the country show that making strides for macroeconomic success is not synonymous with personal well-being. The National Mental Health Survey 2015-16 revealed that nearly 15 per cent Indian adults need active intervention for one or more mental health issue and one in 20 of our citizens suffer from depression. It is estimated that in 2012, India had over 2,58,000 suicides, with the age group of 15-49 years being the worst affected.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), India is the most depressed country in the world with approximately 6.5 per cent of the population suffering from some form of a serious mental disorder, with no discernible rural-urban differences. Though figures may vary, based on the surveying method, one thing is clear: Indians are clearly unhappy. As such, it should be clear that while the economic growth machine is running, it is now necessary for the Government to start considering indicators that are laggards, especially those that can help contribute to greater levels of well-being.
In the past, learnings from religions such as Buddhism on well-being may have been shunned because of their sectarian nature, but thankfully, modern psychology, atheistic mindfulness and the field of humanistic positive psychology are now validating what was previously considered merely religious dogma through empirical research. This, and other developments in the field of emotional intelligence, can be leveraged to create a scientific pathway for the Government to re-prioritise and optimise for happiness and the well-being of its constituents.
The introduction of positive psychology practices, such as savouring, gratitude and so on, and socio-emotional learning into educational curricula are seeds that are likely to give exponential returns over a generation. By focussing on and prioritising emotional understanding and regulation early on, schools can equip children with the tools needed to create a comfort zone with thoughts and emotions, rather than view them antagonistically.
In the short to medium-run, linking administrative outcomes to improvements in India’s ranking in the World Happiness Report, which currently stands at 144 out of 156, can yield fast results. Such expedited successes are not unheard of. Soon after coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made improving India’s ranking on the Ease of Doing Business Index a priority, and this led to administrative optimisation to this end. The result, India’s ranking on the index jumped from 139 in 2010 to 63 in 2019.
Happiness has likely never been a priority because along with being low on the voting agenda, there has been no defined method to optimise for it. While the first may not change, the route to enhancement is now clearer and backed by science. For the ruling dispensation, the shift to this would not be seismic, but a logical expansion of our own philosophy, which too, it uniquely indigenous.
While Buddhism spoke of enlightenment in the abstract, psychology has been able to track and break down the causes of success of these methods. By pushing for the science based on an Indian philosophy, the Government can show its commitment to empirical methods while boasting of its cultural past.
(The writer is a public policy consultant with Chase India)