The Caste System in India: No Guarantee of Happiness

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In India's rural region's, the caste you are relegated to at birth is an important determinant for opportunities in life. But less clear is its impact on happiness.

Sure, it's easy to be happy when you're always winning -just ask President Trump.

But coming in second or third? The impact on one's happiness can be very different.

A new study by the IZA - Institute of Labor Economics used sample audiences in India to remove the variable about how one self-identifies about their social status (called "subjective well-being"). India seemed a good place to remove some of the subjectivity because its 2,000-year-old caste system is still in place, and it still determines how far in life one may go, particularly in the rural two-thirds of the nation.

The results of the study suggest that when one knows one's status is immutable, it removes some of the pressure of trying to fit in, and that can add to one's happiness.

The study looked at very different hierarchies in two states - Andhra Pradesh, in the southeastern part of the country along the Bay of Bengal, and Punjab, way up in the northwest near Pakistan.

In both states, we find that people who are higher up in the caste hierarchy are generally better off. However, while the highest castes are clearly more satisfied with their lives than the others, the middle castes are not happier than the lower castes. In Punjab, we even see a V-shaped pattern: not the lower castes, but the middle castes are the least happy. When we have a closer look at the data, we see that in Punjab, middle and higher castes are relatively similar to each other in terms of educational attainment. In spite of this, the income gap between middle and high castes is striking. In Andhra Pradesh, on the other hand, educational attainment is significantly lower for middle castes, while income disparities are less pronounced. We therefore believe that the V-shape pattern in Punjab could derive from middle castes comparing themselves to higher castes, and aspiring to beat the same income level, while this is much less the case in Andhra Pradesh. ...Our results also align with earlier findings from social psychology research that middle status groups tend to be more insecure and behave more conforming than those with lower or higher status, as they are more subject to the fear of status loss (Kelley and Shapiro, 1954; Dittes and Kelley, 1956; Duguid and Goncalo, 2015). The reasoning behind this “middle status conservatism" hypothesis is that high-status individuals may be more self-confident and therefor more willing to take on risks while low-status individuals may consider they have less to lose (Phillips and Zuckerman, 2001). An alternative hypothesis with similar implications is that social status behaves as a "luxury good", for which demand increases more than proportionally with income growth. ...It seems that the same mechanisms are at work for Indian rural dwellers than for Olympic medalists: being higher up in the hierarchy does not necessarily make you happier, if you tend to focus on the rung of the ladder above yours.

Obviously, no one is suggesting that being relegated to a caste system is the way to go to find happiness. A certain level of discomfort may be a good motivator, but the unhappiness we feel about unmet goals is easier to live with when we know the chance still exists to fulfill them.

What do you think?