Subjective well-­being: happiness and life satisfaction in India and South Africa


The idea that the subjective well-being of its citizens should play an important role in the formulation of a government’s policies needs little justification. Successive Happiness Reports from the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, starting in 2012, have emphasised that “material gain alone will not fulfil our deepest needs. Material life must be harnessed to meet these human needs, most importantly to promote the end of suffering, social justice, and the attainment of happiness” (Sachs, 2012, p. 3). Subjective well-being, as Kahneman and Deaton (2010) point out, involves two distinct concepts. The first is that of “happiness” (or, synonymously, “emotional well-being”). This refers to the emotional quality of an individual’s quotidian experiences as represented by the spectrum, and the intensity, of feelings like joy, disappointment, frustration, anger, anxiety, and sadness. The second aspect of subjective well-being is “life satisfaction” (or synonymously, “life evaluation”). This refers to individuals evaluating events in their lives - failures, achievements, losses, gains - before arriving at a judgement of how satisfied they are with life.

The distinction between emotional well-being and life evaluation is, however, amorphous with several areas of similarity punctuated by facets of difference. Some aspects of life - friendship, health, marriage - are likely to affect happiness more than evaluation. Other aspects, like education or income, might make people happy, but they are more likely to be associated with high life satisfaction. Other life features may have more than one facet, with facets affecting happiness and raising satisfaction through one another: the social aspects of religion could increase happiness by reducing loneliness, but religion’s spiritual aspects could lead to a higher life satisfaction.

Both emotional well-being and life evaluation are usually measured by simply asking people to rate their degree of happiness or level of life satisfaction - the former by asking respondents, for example, “taking all things together, would you say that you are: (i) very happy; (ii) rather happy; (iii) not very happy; (iv) not at all happy” and the latter by asking them to rate their life satisfaction (“all things considered how satisfied are you with life these days?”) on a scale of, say, 1 to 10, with 1 representing the lowest level of satisfaction (“completely dissatisfied”), and 10 the highest (“completely satisfied”).1

While people may find it difficult to define happiness or life satisfaction, they know, clearly and unambiguously, when they are happy or unhappy or satisfied or dissatisfied; moreover, people from different backgrounds could be made happy or unhappy by the same things - ill health, divorce, lack of friends, money, or social status. If we knew what these factors were, and their relative strengths, we could, in theory, fashion policy to make people happier. Although this chapter analyses subject well-being in terms of both its emotional well-being and its life evaluation aspects, its orientation is more towards the former than the latter.

Following from the increasing importance that academics and policymakers attach to subjective well-being, there have been a plethora of studies about its determinants. Some of these studies have encompassed groups of countries (e.g., Clark et al., 2018, for Australia, Britain, Germany, and the US), others have focused on single countries (e.g., Knight and Gunati- laka, 2014, for China; Moro et al., 2006, for Ireland), and yet others have focused on regions within countries (e.g., Borooah, 2006, for Northern Ireland). The general consensus from these studies is that inter alia, health, standard of living, education, friends, neighbourhood quality, and religiosity all coalesce to determine the well-being of individuals.

A feature that is, however, neglected in studies of subjective well-being is that of differences in happiness between subgroups of the population. These differences are likely to be important when, perhaps for historical or cultural reasons, a country’s population is subdivided into dominant and subordinate groups: in such situations, ceteris paribus, the happiness of persons belonging to subordinate groups may be lower than that of those in dominant groups simply by virtue of group membership.

Several examples of such countries and groups exist. To name but a few: in India, between upper and lower castes; in Sri Lanka, between Muslims and Buddhists and between Tamils and Sinhalese; in China, between Hans and Uighurs; in South Africa and the US, between Whites and Blacks; in Malaysia, between Bhumihars and Chinese/Indians; and, most recently, between Rohingyas and Bamars in Myanmar. In all these cases, one may reasonably hypothesise that the less favourable treatment - either historical or current - of persons from subordinate groups may deliver them a lower level of subjective well-being, both in terms of happiness and life satisfaction, than is available to their peers from dominant groups.

The first purpose of this chapter is to test this hypothesis for India and South Africa. For India, the comparison is between caste groups: the dominant “forward castes” and the subordinate “non-forward castes”. For South Africa, the comparison is between racial groups: Whites as a dominant group and non-Whites (Blacks, Coloured, and Asians) as a subordinate group. The second purpose of this chapter is to compare happiness levels between India and South Africa with a view to rigorously establishing where happiness is greatest and what its drivers are.

This chapter uses data from the World Values Survey (WVS) to address these issues. The WVS - covering in excess of 250,000 respondents, drawn from 90 countries, and available for the period from 1994 to 2014 - remains the most widely accessible database on well-being. It has been assembled by a group of researchers around the globe and is organised as a network of social scientists coordinated by a central body, the World Values Association. Most recently the WVS data has been released in longitudinal form encompassing six waves: 1989 to 1993, 1994 to 1998, 1999 to 2004, 2005 to 2009, and 2010 to 2014; this chapter is based on an analysis of these data (Inglehart et al., 2014). The data generated a sufficiently large number of observations of respondents in India and South Africa distinguished by dominant/subordinate group. For India, there were a total of 5,580 respondents of which 1,380 were from the Forward Castes, 1,564 from the Other Backward Classes, 1,461 Dalits, 1,023 from the Scheduled Tribes, and 256 Muslims. Similarly, for South Africa, these were a total of 11,299 respondents of which 2,405 were White, 6,772 were Black, 1,443 were Coloured, and 679 were Asians.

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