The perpetual pursuit of happiness

Happiness is a key requisite all over the world and is indeed the right of every man, woman and child. The charter of every nation needs to incorporate this prominently
Illustrations By Amit Bandre
Illustrations By Amit Bandre

Why do we live and work the way we do? Why do we do all that we do in a single day and repeat it every day? Why do we work so hard? Why do we earn money?

There will be many answers to these questions. But the one underlying theme, after the basics of living are met, seems to be a perpetual quest for happiness. The pursuit of happiness seems to be that one big thing all of us chase religiously everyday. Knowingly and unknowingly.

What is happiness then? At the very peripheral level, happiness for me is a beach bed in Goa. Happiness is my favorite Pomfret Recheado, served fresh and hot. Happiness is a cup of coffee with my favorite biscotti. Happiness is what makes me happy. And most of these are very small things.

What makes you happy? And are we happy all the time, or at least most of the time? Are there countries that are happier than others? And are there whole groups of people who are happier than everyone else? What nudges happiness really?

There are many questions. If I look around at happiness studies in the world of academics, there are many. Even the United Nations takes happiness seriously. The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes a World Happiness Report annually. Their studies across every one of the UN member nations collates measures and metrics of happiness, and lists the top 10 happy nations every year.

What are the metrics they use to measure happiness? The GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support structures, trust and corruption indices, perceived freedom to make life decisions and ultimately a big word called generosity. From every country, 1,000 people are asked to rate their “quality of life” on a 0 to 10 scale.

The latest report for 2021 lists Finland, Denmark and Switzerland as the top three happy countries. Finland with its reverence for teachers, Denmark with its respect for the planet and Switzerland a veritable “referendum nation” with a staunch belief in citizen participation in governance decisions every moment, seem to be the toppers on the happiness scale. Are these the final measures that decide which nation is happier than the other? And can happiness be measured?

Every one of us is in the pursuit of happiness, but have we discovered what it is? When I think about myself, for a long time happiness meant the wherewithal to live a good life. A life that did not have you wanting for the basics of good living. And true happiness meant earning it all honestly with hard work. Happiness was the money that bought you comfort and the savings that gave a certain sense of security for family.

And then the definition changed for me. The sad thing about what we chase materially as happiness is that the joy it gives back vanishes as soon as you have partaken of it. Money in many ways can buy happiness, but once it has been bought, the game is over. Happiness in many ways turns out to be a greed-chase. It’s quite like hunger. One satiation of hunger at breakfast does not quell hunger forever. At lunch time one is hungry again. Scriptures of every genre have said plenty on this and I will therefore not dwell on it for now.

What is true happiness then? To each of us, it will be different for sure. For me, the discovery happened quite accidentally. The money I earned tried to buy me happiness all the while. Sadly it could not. I tried and tried.

I then discovered, to my joy, that happiness is not something one can own. In fact, one must not. One must own happiness only temporarily and then pass it on to another. Happiness is therefore a cascade for me. Once you have partaken of it (and its temporary joy), it is time to pass it on to another who deserves it. The pandemic gave each one of us so many opportunities to make someone else happy.

And guess what, someone else will surely make me happy as the virtuous cycle of the spread of happiness cascades all around. The happiness that I own and want to own is a very selfish form of happiness. It never stays. If my happiness cannot make someone else happy, what’s the real use of it then?

Happiness is therefore a key requisite and indeed the right of every man, woman and child. The charter of every nation needs to incorporate this prominently.

Where does your happiness begin and mine end? What is the geography of happiness? Must my happiness touch yours? Must yours touch mine? And must we share it all more than we do today?

The pandemic has given us this great big opportunity to think. As the world continues to focus on development as a vital index that contributes to happiness, we need to think about it all over again. What is development really? And how does it create happiness? Is the relationship between ostensible development by mass consumerist society directly related to happiness? Or is it inversely related? Conversely? Perversely? Let’s think it out.

The key question remains: Is development a means to happiness? Is development more important than happiness? Or is happiness more important than development? Some of our Nordic nations seem to have got it right already. As I go through the UN list of Happy Countries, there are buzz-phrases that light up. Iceland is happy because people help one another in a crisis all the time. The Netherlands boasts of the “happiest children in the world”. Norway takes pride in the responsible management of its natural resources. Sweden talks about the ultimate standards of “social equality”.

And finally, can one measure happiness? Is GDP per capita and life expectancy a good measure of happiness? Or is the smile on the faces of the people we make happy a more perfect measure?

Harish Bijoor

Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults


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