Using happiness polls to define public policies is the rage in the Northern hemisphere. CGD has circulated an essay here. But I’m having reservations about this, firstly because it may thwart governments and businesses from the real situations of people and communities that rate themselves as happy even if the state of their water and sanitation is way below what is right and just. Because isn’t that often the case, the poor give themselves a score of perfectly happy whereas their wealthier neighbours are more stringent with their self-assessment (which explains the reports showing the wealthy as the unhappiest people on earth). This brings me to my second point against the measurement, which is happiness does not necessarily come from possession of economic goods. Look at children, they don’t own anything – they’re minors in legal speak – not even the clothes on their bodies yet they’re full of joy and cheer. Give a 7-year old one peso and she thinks she owns the whole world. Give one peso to an adult and depending on the mood he or she is in, he or she might throw it to your face. In an adult, possession of economic goods serve to heighten the level of happiness but it is not the whole source of happiness. For people who have savings in the bank, knowing they have something stashed for the future for whatever purposes helps to elevate the feeling of security but may not be a source of happiness at all, only financial security. In some cases, the more economic goods one has the more one covets for more, which makes happiness elusive.
Happiness comes from the alignment of the physical and spiritual, the conscious and unconscious, the realization of values, or in other words internally-generated, with or without development. On the other hand, development could enhance happiness, when it aligns itself with the real needs, in the form of goods or rights, of communities. With mothers, usually it is ‘healthy children’ that comes to their minds when asked about what makes them happy. If ‘development’ is to impact on mothers’ happiness, then it should go about facilitating for healthy children. Similarly, when children are asked the same question, I’ve frequently heard them say ‘parks’ but development workers would facipulate (facilitation with a tinge of manipulation) so the children would give out a politically-correct reply, say, ‘school books’ and this is the reply that gets documented, reported, budgeted, and implemented. Get back to these children one or two months after the books were distributed in their schools and ask if they’re happy; by this time they’ve caught on and tell you a politically-correct ‘yes we are’ but the expert in you could perceive glimpses of sadness and disillusionment in their eyes and body language. If the expert could read the inconsistency in adults all the more in children. Perhaps the real concern should not be measurement of development but alignment of development with what makes communities happy. And what makes communities happy may surprise us all!