Optimizing for Happiness (at a government level)
By Sharang Shah
(Link to article in The Daily Pioneer)
Organizations and individuals are inherently goal-driven and are consciously or unconsciously optimizing to these goals. At an organizational level, companies optimize towards particular goals such as revenue, customer acquisition or other metrics that may deem fit, based on the organization’s need at the time. To come to these conclusions, the decision-makers within the organization generally rely on data such as stage of organizational growth, market factors such as size, competition, available financing options and array of other considerations. At an individual level, people tend to focus on optimizing for productivity, contentment, or professional success; based on stage of life, state of mind and personal proclivities and preferences inter alia.
The idea of optimizing for specific outcomes one is one that permeates every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not. As students, we optimize our work towards grades (often at the expense of knowledge); as investors, we optimize for wealth maximization; as employees, we optimize based on the expectations our reporting managers; and in our personal lives, we optimize to satisfy the needs of those who depend on us, while aligning our happiness with theirs.
Though the concept of optimizing oneself towards realizing a goal has been around for a while, social media has broadened the discourse and ideas around it manifolds. 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 optimizing for success. While founders and venture capitalists focus on optimizing at an organizational level, life coaches and self-help gurus fill the Twitter-verse and LinkedIn with tips and tricks to be adopted at the individual level.
As we optimize in our personal lives and at an organizational level, the question is — what should we be optimizing for at a societal level? The Constituent Assembly mulled over and answered the key outcomes to optimized for within the Preamble to the Constitution of India — justice, liberty, equality, and promotion of fraternity; all essential components of maintaining the social fabric of the nation. But just as organizations and individuals understand the need to optimize for different outcomes based on their stage of growth, governments too, need to be mindful of the realities and prevailing narratives surrounding them, and optimize accordingly. From an economic perspective, one would not be remiss to say that last three decades have seen governments in India optimizing for growth; the average growth rate since liberalization has been about 6.5%.
And while the economic success of India in the past few decades must be celebrated, indicators of well-being in the country show that optimizing for macroeconomic success is not synonymous with optimizing for personal well-being. The National Mental Health Survey 2015–16 revealed that nearly 15% Indian adults need active intervention for one or more mental health issues and one in 20 Indians suffers from depression. It is estimated that in 2012, India had over 258,000 suicides, with the age-group of 15–49 years being most affected. According to the World Health Organization, India is the most depressed country in the world with approximately 6.5 per cent of the population suffering from some form of depression. 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 playing laggard, 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, mindfulness and the field of humanistic positive psychology are now validating what were 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 governments to reprioritize and optimize for happiness and well-being of its constituents.
The introduction of positive psychology practices such as savoring and gratitude, and socio-emotional learning into educational curriculums are seeds that are likely to give exponential returns over a generational period. By focusing on and prioritizing emotional understanding and regulation early on, schools can equip children with the tools needed to create a comfort with thoughts and emotions, rather than view them antagonistically.
In the short to medium run, linking administrative outcomes to improvements in India’s ranking on the World Happiness Report, which currently stands at 144 out of 156, can yield expedited 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 a priority, and his prioritization resulted in administrative optimization 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 optimize for it. While the first may not change, the route to optimization is now clearer and backed by science. For the ruling dispensation, the shift to this optimization would not be seismic, but a logical expansion of their own philosophy, which too, is uniquely indigenous.
While Buddhism gave us mindfulness practices and spoke of enlightenment in the abstract, psychology has been able to analyze and break down the causes of success of these methods. By optimizing for the science based on an Indian philosophy, the government can show its commitment to empirical methods while boasting its cultural past.