Indian technology institute to put the art of happiness under the microscope

By Vidhi Doshi via The Guardian


Build roads, electrify villages, clean up the holy river Ganges: for the past 70 years, successive governments in India have stuck with virtually identical to-do lists for the country’s development. Now, a new item seems to have cropped up on the political agenda: make people happy.

In July, the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh announced it would open a ministry of happiness, and start a string of happiness-inducing programmes including yoga, arts, and free religious pilgrimages for the elderly. 

Now one of India’s most elite engineering and technology colleges, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, has unveiled plans to open a centre to study the science of happiness. It will be the first research facility of its kind in India.

From October, students will be able to take a 12-14 hour micro-credit course on the happiness. Within a few years, the centre will start offering longer programmes.

The drive for happiness by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development-focused government seems to have been inspired by Bhutan, India’s annoyingly cheerful next-door neighbour. Since the 1970s, the Bhutanese government has rejected traditional development indicators such as GDP, and is instead measuring its citizens’ gross national happiness.

The tiny Buddhist nation prizes the mental and spiritual wellbeing of its citizensover material growth, and the results are impressive. Between 1970 and 2000 the average life expectancy doubled and net primary school enrolment increasedfrom 23% in 1978 to 86% in 2014.

Bhutan’s achievements have piqued the interest of some of the world’s leading economists, including Jeffrey Sachs, who pioneered the idea that the satisfaction of citizens was an important part of economic development. In 2012, based on Sachs’ ideas, the UN published its first world happiness report, ranking 156 countries in order of their citizens’ happiness by analysing questionnaires of sample populations around the world. In the latest edition of the report, published in March this year, India ranked 118th, behind China, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

India’s unhappiness problem is reflected in the mental health of its citizens. Estimates vary, but it seems that between one in five and one in 10 Indians suffer from depression at some point in their lives. India’s National Crime Records Bureau estimates that 131,666 people committed suicide in 2014, the equivalent of 15 people every hour. A total of 8,068 of those were students.

India only spends 0.06% of its health budget on mental health, according to World Health Organisation figures, and has only one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people; the UK has about 60 for the same number of people. In 2014, the Modi government launched the country’s first mental health policy, which focuses on training a generation of doctors in psychiatric care and preventing suicides. But it could be years before the government’s investments into mental healthcare start paying off.

The figures alarmed Satinder Singh Rekhi, an IT entrepreneur and alumnus of IIT Kharagpur. He pitched the idea of setting up a centre which brought together experts from various fields to research the science of happiness in modern India, offering to put $1m (£770,000) of his own money behind it. The government-backed project is underpinned by the motto “happy people are successful people”, and aims to increase student happiness on campus, to create what Rekhi calls “happy technocrats”.

“I believe happiness and wellbeing are skills which can be researched and taught,” says Rekhi, after whom the centre will be named. 

“Research will be done to understand the underlying reasons that promote a more meaningful life with the help of psychologists, neuroscientists, management experts, social scientists, communication specialists and engineers who will measure different subjective and objective responses, physiological parameters and signals that may motivate or influence happiness.”

IIT Kharagpur is the oldest of a string of institutes set up in the early 1950s by former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. They were a flagship, nation-building enterprise and, for years, they have produced the country’s leading architects, engineers and scientists, who focus on material growth and development in India. The new happiness centre marks a symbolic shift in how the country takes stock of its own development.

Happiness is valuable, Rekhi argues, because it could make the country more prosperous. “In the short term, we will produce happier engineers, scientists and social scientists who are effective leaders in their fields, more innovative, productive, caring, better citizens and more successful. In the longer term, this will impact the community and society at large,” he says. 

Professor Priyadarshi Patnaik, one of the coordinators of the centre, says that in rapidly urbanising India, competition and pressure to succeed is immense. “People equate career success with happiness, and that kind of thinking extends to the entire Indian community.

“There’s a huge mismatch of expectations. Many students train in one field, but then can’t get a job in their area of interest. Also, in modern India, the financial, social and family expectations are very high.”

While the focus of the happiness project remains on economic development, Vikram Patel, professor of international mental health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, worries it will do little to tackle India’s urgent, hidden depression epidemic. “I fear it will trivialise depression. It is important to say that unhappiness and depression are not the same thing, though their determinants do overlap.”

Patel argues that Indians often suffer from depression for longer than in other countries, because of failures in the healthcare system and social stigmas around treating mental health. “Depression is a universal human medical condition, and there’s nothing terribly unique about the Indian context.” 

For Patnaik though, the happiness centre represents a step forward. “We have a clear focus, we will explore and test various causes and indicators of happiness in a scientific way. Ultimately it will benefit our students, and the wider society.”

Grant Hall