Measuring the wrong quantity

Pursuit of happiness is an individual quest and not a policy matter at any rate

Farrukh Khan Pitafi April 06, 2019
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi

In 2011, in a piece titled “Per Capita Happiness”, I cited Bhutanese government’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index as an effective tool to measure citizen’s wellbeing. It was around the time the UN General Assembly also adopted resolution 65/309 titled ‘Happiness: Towards a Holistic Definition of Development’ which invited the member states to do just that and within a year World Happiness Report was born. The Gallup World Poll which now contributes to the report takes stock of 14 areas namely business and economics, citizen engagement, communications and technology, diversity, education and families, emotions (well-being), environment and energy, food and shelter, government and politics, law and order, health, religion and ethics, transportation, and work.

While convinced at the time of its efficacy, the political developments since then have shown, that at the very least, my assumption were deeply flawed. Many of us fell for the new shiny thing. The 14 elements now measured are important, many of which are already part of other indices. However, when it comes to the idea of measuring happiness for effective policy making or research purposes this turns out to be woefully inadequate and incoherent idea. Let us assume that a state learns how happy or unhappy its citizens are, what is it supposed to do next? Remember, the idea remains highly subjective to the core. We mortals have shown a plenty of times that we can often be unhappy without any visible reasons. Rich, healthy, successful people can be very unhappy too. Since the opposite of happiness is unhappiness which happens to be a negative quantity, the logical thing for the policymakers would be to do something practical to reduce it and this is where their capacity falls apart. It will be too simplistic to think that only fourteen or any given set of factors contribute to unhappiness. You cannot dispatch a court jester for each unhappy community after all. Pursuit of happiness is an individual quest and not a policy matter at any rate. But don’t fret. A better, more direct approach is possible.

And before we take a good look at the element which deserves to be measured, let us first thank President Donald J Trump for highlighting it. Before his shock victory, we have assumed that president Obama, in the aftermath of the 2008 Economic Crisis, had found a way to fix the unemployment problem and everything was hunky dory. It wasn’t. A visit to the rust belt that I reported in this space at the time revealed to me that things were far from perfect and there was considerable job distress among the displaced by the flight of capital abroad. I believe I mentioned A Hologram for the King featuring Tom Hanks based on a novel by the same name to highlight the issue. But it wasn’t until the shock victory of Trump in 2016 that many among us started paying heed. Until then we had heard the inspiring stories of CEOs who had called their charges to meeting where they were told that economic slowdown meant that they were supposed to cut jobs but if everyone including the said CEO accepted a pay cut, redundancies could be avoided and it worked. But alas things were not as simple! Consider retaining the same job for the better part of a decade at the same salary level at best.

It was after Trump’s win that people started taking his comments seriously and devouring books to know what had gone wrong. These books helped build the context. My personal favorites are Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild and Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance. Dr Hochschild has done a remarkable job by studying the worldview of the Tea Party Movement supporters in the state of Louisiana. Under its Republican governor Bobby Jindal (2008-2016), corporate greed and environmental degradation made the lives of the state’s residents a living hell. And yet these residents doubled down on their support for the conservative movements despite their appalling policies. Among many other factors one was the clergy and conservative radio’s emphasis on ephemeral nature of this world and how the well-behaving coreligionists would soon enter the kingdom of heaven. Sounds familiar? Yeah, they all are the same all over the world. But you can imagine the pain job losses, poisoned lakes and rivers and omnipresent sinkholes must have caused. The fact that we are not paying attention doesn’t mean the pain goes away. In many cases, it remains hidden even from the unsuspecting victims.

Measuring pain is more useful, simpler and can lead to various policy interventions. For one, there are markers everywhere. From people openly complaining about their pain, to anger, violence, intolerance, crime, suicide and depression there is no dearth of identifying symptoms.

While the method to measure pain in communities, cities or nations would essentially remain either voluntary or less physical pain scale, it is important to note that experts in 2013 had found a direct method to measure pain through MRI machines. Of course, such an intrusive method is neither workable on such a grand scale nor advisable. The purpose of bringing it up is to point out that unlike happiness or unhappiness, pain in all its varieties remains a measurable quantity.

Now let us talk about the utility of measuring pain. For a second, think that you are a policymaker and a large map of your constituency, your community, city or country, is spread in front of you. With steady periodical inflow of data you are aware of rising distress in any given area. You take red drawing pins and flag the area. The area with most pins is more prone to an outbreak of violence, crime or any other manifestation of underlying pain than the others. This is just for the old school policing purposes alone. Now consider the marriage of new technologies and more proactive policy approach. No, I am neither arguing for cyber spying or the use of mind-altering substances. Far from it. The only use of technology which is useful here is to process the data offered on a voluntary basis or through communities. And a policy response would particularly entail development of adequate policy tools to identify and address the underlying causes of pain. As pointed out earlier with a concerted effort the incidents of hate, anger and intolerance can be broken into smaller, simpler underlying factors and fed into such a matrix. In the age of artificial intelligence, human genome manipulation and rising xenophobia, this could easily prove to be a very effective tool.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2019.

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