All human beings ~ men and women, young and old, rich and poor, well and unwell, want to be happy, so much so that happiness has been equated with the meaning and essence of life, reason of our existence, our ultimate destiny.
“The purpose of our lives is to be happy”, as the Dalai Lama has said. The idea of power and wealth, fame and recognition, position and status, all become meaningless before that supreme state of being called happiness, even though these very things often bring happiness to the minds of ordinary mortals.
But many also believe, like Marcus Aurelius that, “Remember this, that very little is needed to make a happy life.” If you are happy, that is an end in itself and nothing else is needed in life.
But what is happiness, that impossible and unreachable El Dorado we all seek and strive to reach at every turn of our lives? To be able to analyse anything, we need first to define it, and here we find that it is impossible to define happiness.
There are many definitions available though, and most of these are clichéd, like the oft-quoted definition given by 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon: “It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.” Philosophers and spiritual leaders have told us that one’s happiness is derived not from material possessions, neither from sensual pleasures and nor from anything outside of oneself, but relates to one’s state of mind. William James, regarded as the founder of American psychology, wrote in 1902: “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”
But the problem is that the mind cannot be permanent in an equilibrium state ~ it is ever changing. Hence happiness cannot be a constant state of euphoria, but rather a balance of emotions that somehow brings a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfilment. It is not an end or a goal, but only a state of “being”. Happiness is often equated or confused with “well-being” which is produced by interplay of a number of extraneous factors like income, health, education, basic liberties, choices available, relationships, physical and social security, etc. But even then, it is a subjective sense of well-being, which is neither measurable nor quantifiable.
Yet some Western international agencies bring out annual indices of happiness to rank different countries according to parameters devised by them. These rankings only reflect their own cultural, racial or civilisational bias without bearing an iota of truth, and are intended to generally demonstrate the socalled superiority of the West ~ which is now slowly decaying politically, morally and also economically ~ over the rest of the world.
A New York-based agency called Sustainable Development Solutions Network brings out an annual World Happiness Report, whose 2023 version has ranked India at 126th position out of 136 countries, much below strife-torn countries like Palestine (ranked 99), Iran (101), Sri Lanka (112), Myanmar (117) or Ethiopia (124), many of which ruthlessly suppress the civil liberties of their people. Their rankings depend on six parameters: per capita income, social support, life expectancy at birth, freedom to make life choices, charity, and perceptions of corruption.
It does not require superlative intelligence to divine that all these parameters are derivatives of a single parameter, i.e., wealth of a nation, and hence will always favour rich nations over poor ones. So, the richer you are, the happier you are; in other words, income is synonymous with happiness, an assumption not validated by facts, just as happiness cannot be equated with success in material terms. Happiness research is primarily based on people’s perception which can be assessed through surveys.
The mind is influenced by social and cultural factors; hence how we perceive happiness also depends on these factors. In collectivist societies like Japan, people reckon happiness more as a shared experience rather than individual satisfaction with life, whereas in individualistic societies, people perceive happiness more in terms of individual satisfaction, and also in comparison to others. Happy people increase the happiness of others around them; hence bonding within social groups and families contributes positively to happiness. But is happiness a choice in the sense that we can exercise control over it?
Buddhists believe mediation gives one control over one’s mind and hence over happiness. There are infinite websites that tell us how to be happy through mindfulness, feeling of gratitude towards “universe”, focusing on the “inner self”, replacing negative thoughts, etc., none of which sounds practically very convincing. Sociologists, scientists and economists bring another paradigm ~ they believe happiness is more the outcome of institutional and economic forces shaped by power differences between groups rather than a matter individual choice.
Thus, black people in America are less likely than whites to feel happy, a fact corroborated by studies. Groups with lesser power, income, wealth or influence are generally less happy than those who have more of these. Studies have found that income inequality is one major cause of unhappiness of people at the lower end of distribution.
A 2011 US study found that as income inequality grew, people in the lower half of the income range felt less happy. In recent times a movement called positive psychology, which treats happiness as “subjective well-being”, is gaining ground by focussing on the positive events and influences in life, rather than the negative and dysfunctional ones.
It lays emphasis on positive experiences like joy, inspiration or love, positive traits like gratitude or compassion, and positive institutions that apply and encourage these principles. But positivity has its own negativity too, as Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz explored in their book “Manufacturing Happy Citizens:
How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives”. They showed how happiness has been woven into the very fabric of power by a neoliberal alliance of psychologists, economists and self-help gurus.
Propped by influential institutions and multinational corporations, these “experts” often force governments to use oppressive policies and interventions to change people’s behaviour for what they believe are more successful, meaningful and healthier lives. In her 2007 book “The How of Happiness”, the positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” Each of the terms here lends itself to varying interpretations.
To avoid such possible confusion, Aristotle had said much earlier, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” Without trying to define, the British-American anthropologist Ashley-Montagu had said, “The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.” It is perhaps a functional definition, because we all experience such “surprise” moments that bring happiness.
Thomas Hardy has said, “Happiness is only an occasional episode in the general drama of pain” surrounding us, like tiny islands of hope in a vast, dark and desolate ocean. There are many who think that happiness consists in having a stream of small joys and pleasures to fill our days, and that happiness can be understood only on a daily basis, because there is no enduring, permanent, everlasting happiness.
“And they lived happily ever afterwards” is only a cliché, much too overused and meaningless. Most of us have everything we need to live happily ~ a nice family, successful kids, a good home, maybe a car too, a reasonable income, a reasonably good professional career ~ yet we are very unhappy at times. Events outside our control, like natural calamities, disruptive technologies, global financial crises, mental health issues etc. can completely overtake us, ejecting us out of our orbit of happiness. There is no linear pathway to happiness that can insure against all insecurities, and, in fact, it has ceased to be an individual choice.
Happiness is today measured by society, not by the individual. Society measures happiness by one’s ability to achieve more, accumulate more, hoard more, consume more, display more. In this unknown and enchanting land of “ever mores”, there is no rulebook, no ethics, no morality, no bounds whatsoever.
The brave new world equates happiness with success and success with happiness, and success is equated with limitless “more”, to keep pace with a restless world that is changing too fast ~ indeed, much faster than our ability to adapt and find peace in its swirl of uncertainty. Penny Locaso, an Australian entrepreneur and author of the book “Hacking Happiness: How to Intentionally Adapt and Shape the Future You Want” said, “Happiness is not a destination. It’s a state of mind, and you don’t need to be in it every moment of every day. Not only is that impossible, but it’s also unhealthy. Life is complex and uncertain. Ups and downs are normal….
How do you experience happiness if you don’t know sadness and pain?” Is sadness and pain, then, integral to happiness? It would be the ultimate incongruity if to understand happiness, first you have to go through pain and suffering, despair and frustration.
But the reality is that many people who have suffered devastating financial or emotional catharsis, have overcome their losses and their fears of uncertainty, and learnt to live simpler, balanced and fulfilling lives.
Psychologists refer to this as “emodiversity” ~ the ability to experience a diverse range of emotions in equal measures. But it is always the human connections that play a definitive role in human happiness
(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are personal)