Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What is Happiness? Understanding Happiness

I was about to start out writing: "As Aristotle said, " and realised that nearly everyone is tickling him in his grave (but then he was cremated, wasn't he?) when they start talking about happiness. Tonnes of people define happiness as this or that. Some try to measure it, some brush it off as incapable of measure. The gurus and priests define happiness as the complete surrender to this or that deity. A successful businessman calls it achieving ones ambitions. A sportsperson thinks it is winning races and setting records. A writer thinks it is winning the Nobel Prize and being featured in every list of the "Best Books for...". Artists are mostly narcissists so they will always want to get more. Then there are the feel-good guys who live off self-help books and cliches making statements like "being able to do something for someone and not expect something in return." Excuse me? How about loaning all your money to the slums of Bombay? No tax benefit! No citation! No mention in any newspaper! Forgotten and un-thanked! Yeah, right! And what if there is no one around you wanting your assistance? You'll never be happy? Aristotle had his views on happiness and so did Epicurus, but then, so does everybody.

Happiness, unlike calculus, doesn't require a foundation in order to be vivisected. Everyone in their first class of psychology has some answer to "What is happiness?" while everyone in their first class in operating systems has little to no appreciation of the LRU algorithm. We all think that we are entitled to an opinion about such a commonly existing facet of life. The problem lies in getting lost in the various forms of human response and the various states of being human which seem to confuse happiness with satisfaction, solace, adapting etc. Hence, the responses to "What is happiness?" which talk about achievement and attaining something are less about happiness and more about satisfaction and sense of worth.

Satisfaction is primarily an instance of stimulus-response. I see pizza, I want, I get and I am happy. There is always a want underlying the possibility of satisfaction. When the great monks of Mystic Mountain say that want (and its more determined cousin: desire) is the root of all unhappiness, they probably were being too strict, but there is a grain of truth. For instance, I want a lifetime membership to Mystic Mountain, but membership is not available in the manner we can understand so that leaves me anxious (or maybe not, because I am still trying to understand anxiety). Once I get it, I am satisfied or maybe not like the chef of a famous French restaurant who wanted to desperately get a Michelin star and slogged day and night but once he got it, he didn't feel the elation he thought he would because he started wondering "If I could get it then perhaps most others can too. Hence, this is not something worth seeking in the first place." Hence, my advice to people: Never say "The food was wonderful" to a French chef; always keep frowning in a French restaurant.

Here are two thoughts that I am going to elaborate on (and I am notorious for the elaboration bit):

  1. Happiness is that whole-bodied state of being which raises us to our higher Self through an experience or realisation which is timeless.
  2. Happiness is inversely proportional to the distance between our expectations and what life deals out to us.

The sharp-eyed reader would immediately note that these are two levels of what is conceived as happiness. Well, yes. (2) addresses what the unconscious man perceives as happiness and once he is conscious and fully aware (not just of himself) then there are no expectations and hence the distance becomes zero and therefore the possibility of a "whole-bodied state of being which raises us to our higher Self through an experience or realisation which is timeless" is higher.

I say "higher" and not permanent because the whole notion of always being in a state of happiness is, I think, an Utopian ideal which causes greatest unhappiness. As the human beings we are, we cannot always be happy (hence, Ugway was not a human being but a turtle). We shall soon evolve to understanding the notion of permanence in happiness.

In a later post, I will reflect on the question of "How can I be happy?". I will restrict my thoughts, in this post, to the understanding of happiness itself. Perhaps in that understanding the aforementioned question is laid redundant and pointless?

Momentary joy or convenience is like a puff of asthma medicine: it doesn't cure but provides a relief. Relief is an escape though not all escape is bad (like in the case of asthma). Psychological escape is nearly always shallow. Our inability to enter a state of happiness and joy is the reason why we need American Idol and drugs and Deepak Chopra. We fill our minutes with entertainment and intoxicants (of various kinds) because we do not know how to be happy. A person who is happy will not seek out entertainment. A person who is happy with himself or his family will not be club-hopping. So pleasures, entertainment, ephemeral joys etc. are not indicators of what makes one happy. They are indicators of what we employ to escape the need to recognise that we are unhappy.

People often believe that helping others, forgiving others, reaching out to others or as the quote at the outset said "being able to do something for someone and not expect something in return" are similar sources of "high"s. They aren't what make people happy. They are what make an individual satisfied or pleased with themselves. Why is it that no one recommends seeking help and donations as a source of happiness? Because it creates a sense of being at the mercy of others or being dependent on others. Hence, the opposite is better, viz. bringing other people to your mercy and generosity. To me these are parasitical entertainment: entertainment which requires the existence of a less privileged person whom I can shine on and implicitly establish that I am holier than thou.

Several people say that happiness is about having a good family, good health, good wealth and the like. The problem is in defining "good". No man is ever without a disease. No man has ever had a family where the wife has had no problems or the children, difficulties. Setting our expectations really low seems to be a trick solution but that assumes that we think we can trick Fate. Even if you do not believe in Fate, you have to accept that your definition of good which said "no uncommon illness" takes a massive beating when you are suddenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. There are no causes per se. You have nothing to blame. But you still have it in your pancreas.

Reconciling or seeing the silver lining is our response to the lack of fulfilment of our expectations. You wouldn't search for a silver lining in a silver bowl filled with diamonds! I think this simply keeps us comfortable in our state of having expectations and then tricking the "system" by finding alternate explanations with a smug grin which says "Gotcha! You can't make me unhappy!" This is the worst form of ignorance and stupidity and is frankly no different from the drugs people take. Damn! I failed my exams, let me sniff some dope, Aaaaah! feels so much better. I am happy. See? You can't make me unhappy! Hence, I hate the Chicken Soup Chronicles.

But we are human. We will always have expectations and wants and desires. Do you think we should all become robots wanting only to be charged occasionally and maybe given an extra jab of memory once in a while? Well, no! Unless you fancy moving around with jerks and swivels. I really loved those dance moves of several years ago with forearm going up followed by a bend at the hip and then back up and a twist and the next arm going up and... no, not the usual Sunny Deol dance routine!

Expectations spring from our sense of what should be. We are here and we should be there so let us get there. The expectation is to reach there. I earn $3000 a month - I think $10000 is a respectable number - I set expectations of earning $10000 someday. As one might note, such expectations keep shifting which motivational gurus call "setting the bar higher" and what I call chasing a moving truck's tail-light. Perhaps that is what makes a writer want to be popular, win awards, win international fame, the Nobel Prize, more fame, etc. This route implies that happiness is never attained as the place where you thought you would find it has now moved to Miami.

But isn't expectation the foundation of all progress? Isn't it the bedrock of all industry and technological advancement? If we recognise the difference between need and expectation we can brush off most of that. We need some way to preserve our food from decay, hence we invent the refrigerator and manufacture it on assembly lines: not expectation. Expectation is primarily a psychological driver.

Ok, then isn't personal growth the result of expectation? Isn't all individual advancement based on expectation? Should we drop expectations and stagnate where we are? Dropping expectations as a intellectual decision is bound to lead to stagnation. Not so if we understand how progress can be achieved without expectations. Here is where I would turn to Nature. No tree grew out of expectations, no beautiful cherry blossom became so out of expectation and no cat elegant from a pining to be so. Predators are not powerful because they expect to become so and preys are not alert because they expect to be so. Nature grows and progresses organically and effortlessly and that is a powerful foundation for growth. A man who can organically perfect his trade and develop it will grow too. Great poets have lived and walked this Earth without expecting to become poets. Emily Dickenson is one such example. I have personally known artists who simply enjoyed their art and "grew" in their own style.

It is when our sense of growth is derived from outside that our expectations morph into what others expect of us or of the ideal person as defined by others. To learn from the world is not inappropriate but to hitch our wagon to the motivations of the world is a definite recipe for being unhappy. The flip side is an adamance to refuse all rightness and goodness that should percolate into our bubble of focus and growth.

Which brings me to my buzzword of this year (and I think the rest of my life): Rightness. Happiness is essentially impossible in the life of a self which hasn't understood and realised Rightness. Let me create a life (in words) to understand how Rightness is vital.

A young man qualifies himself based on what he thinks the market wants. He gets himself a good job. He seems to be happy before he starts getting bored. He engages in his hobbies, going to movies and CCD with his friends. He hopes to get a girlfriend to fill the emptiness in his life. He decides to buy a car for convenience and as a symbol of growing. He switches jobs, moves cities, makes new friends, thinks he is in love and loves his new 42" plasma TV.

All the while he feels that he is happy before he realises that he is not and "something is missing". He joins the Art of Living course (and this is where I begin to avoid him) and thinks it is ok. He reads Deepak Chopra and other great gurus (and I am beginning to avoid him more). He talks to his friends and is fine when he seems to have achieved all that they have or more and is immediately disappointed when he learns that his junior in college is already married with a swanky pad in uptown Delhi (if there are such parts). He is still living on rent in a 1BHK (because living with other boys is not what people at his level of growth do). He meets people who seem to have found their perfect job. He reads about those guys who quit their PhD and became a mechanic or a guy who had a great job as a writer before leaving it all and going off to Japan (and also finding his love) and feels miserable for not having anything like that in his life. He meets an old friend who has a similar job and a decent wife and 2 playful kids and wonders why he didn't get that (hint: he didn't marry). He returns home and receives news about his bonus and is happy. He take a few friends out for dinner at the new Chinese restaurant and the meal is great. He calls home and his folks are happy and his mother suggests that they can now conduct his sister's marriage with some more style. He is happy and says "Of course, anything for Guddi." He is happy now and sleeps well.

A few days later he Skypes with a friend who tells him how much fun it is working in Vienna and how he should get out of stuffy India and explore the world. He opens his trunk full of pictures and news clippings of various places in the world and sighs deeply. He realises that he is bored with his work (as in, who wouldn't be entering data and filling out forms and conducting meetings?). He speaks to his sweetheart who sympathises with him and he feels better. He decides to apply abroad, does so and eventually reaches London where he has a similar job. The environment is different. He makes new friends, buys a lot of cool stuff (which you don't get back home) and is enjoying himself. After a few months, he misses home, is bored with his job, goes to pubs with his friends and comes back home to his wife (oh! yes, he is married now).

I could go on but it wouldn't help beyond this point. This is pretty much how life is for nearly 80-90% of people whom I have met. Some go on achieving whatever they plan for and everyone assumes they are hence, happier. Some don't and everyone assumes they are less happy.

Compare this to a guy who goes through the usual college and job days and one day realises that all that he has is a bunch of activities, some nice and pleasurable, some not so nice and not so pleasurable. So he sits down under a mango tree (because the chance of something nasty falling down from great heights is lesser and usually whatever falls is tasty) and puts things in front of him. He starts looking at his life and wonders what is he doing. What is his real self in all of this? What is it that makes him happy (or makes him think so)? What are the things that he cannot stand? He watches his entire life (so far) and looks deep within. As he grows And people still wonder what's happiness?familiar with himself, he recognises the truth of things and his actions. He recognises how much he let the outside world influence him and how much he avoided meeting his inner self. He is more comfortable with his individual self and is able to listen better. No, this is not something that can be done in 10 minutes of your lunch break. Once he is more comfortable with his self, he is guided by it and hence, proceeds on a life which is in tune with his entire being. As he lives this visceral truth he begins understanding the way of life itself and the illusory nature of wanting Happiness forever at all times. He starts recognising the inevitability of mishaps and annoying incidents. When someone cuts through the queue and buys a ticket out of turn he does get angry. When someone cheats in an exam and passes, he is annoyed. Over time he recognises it is unfairness and deception and cruelty and indecency that annoy him and not the individuals per se. When someone uproots his saplings and runs away he builds a better fence. He doesn't allow for such incidents to bother him for long. Gradually he faces the part of his self that is annoyed and disturbed by such incidents around him and understand what in him causes that reaction. He begins to connect more with the Divine and in the process is able to realise the wholeness of things. He is still doing work that he enjoys (be it by giving up his PhD or shifting to Japan). He is still connected to people of all kinds but he is no longer dependent on them and hence, their actions leave lesser imprint on his mind and life. When someone cheats him and gets away with it, he is able to see how this piece fits into the entirety of things and is able to act accordingly (lodge a complaint with the police or not bother). When he finds a job unsatisfactory he is able to realise it, drop it and accept another job which is in tune with his being (might be a mechanic's job or a writer's or a banker's). When he find a person poisonous he is aware as he is with an ingenuous person. In being like water, he is not cut by any sword.

People ask him whether he is happy and he says "I am" and they think he meant "I am happy". He probably meant "I, simply, am".

For it is impossible to be happy (as we commonly define it) for long. We keep altering that definition based on circumstances and knowledge. With such a shifting definition of happiness, it is impossible to realise it as a permanent fixture because it is in our frame of ignorance and inadequate knowledge.

The only way to be is either in ignorance or in union with the Tao. To others, being one with the Tao might mean being happy (though the cynical few might scoff and feel that such a man is without a car or delicious caviar or has never been to Vegas, which is true). The sage is neither happy nor unhappy as they are not qualities that exist in that realm. Ignorance breeds a sense of happiness or unhappiness and we might find means to escape from one for a long period of time. He can keep frowning all the time but still be one with the Tao and hence neither happy nor unhappy or both. He could well be smiling. He approves of nothing nor disapproves of anything because he is aware. He is useless and in that, he useful to the Tao. He tills the soil and takes the grain to the market. He doesn't cease to wash himself or his clothes. He eats his meals as per the needs of the body and not in need for an experience.

All this is fine you say (actually, I say) but we are not sages. We don't wish to be sages. We wish to enjoy the possibility of this world. Why shouldn't we? We wish to eat at the best restaurants and wear the finest threads and ensure that our money is not stolen. We do not wish to be paupers just to avoid being thieved. We do not wish to remain clerks in an office. We want to become officers and more because we are capable of it. We want to have children because we are virile.

But that is not what I say (though you say it). A sage is not one without experience and growth but one whose experience and growth stems from a source which is not a mere decision. In building his foundation on the Tao he is without reaction (which is creating expectations based on one's capabilities), whereas those who base their life on wants and desires will perhaps get it (and be satisfied) or not (and hence, feel dejected). He is in the flow of the Universe and hence has nothing to gain or lose. You, on the contrary, will have a lot to lose and gain and hence, be happy or sad in varying proportions. In standing up against Fate you have greater disappointments and agony. By walking with Fate, the sage has nothing to feel disappointed about. You have memories to recall when you were happy. He has none. You have moments in your life you wish you could wipe out. He has none. No, he doesn't have amnesia, too.

For everyone who is not a sage, happiness is a random occurrence. You might think that you are currently happy because you planned on all the things in your life which led to this happiness (you slogged in college, worked hard, invested wisely, bought conveniences which help make life simpler and so much more better) but the lack of any disruption during the course of your life is what makes your happiness random. There are thousands of people in the US today who can claim the same energy and effort but their wealth is all gone now. They aren't happy. There is no difference between their lives and yours except for the chance timing of misfortune. You might find happiness in walking along a lake or through the woods, but what happens when you return home? What happens when you return to work the next day? What happens when your child meets with an accident? As long as happiness is the absence of misfortune and mishaps, so long it will continue to be a random occurence. The minute one is comfortable with that, a search for happiness is futile in its intent. One can only look inwards and that would (possibly) lead you to becoming a sage which you are not interested in.

Hence, happiness boils down to the prolonged recurrence of convenient events and incidents, not requiring us to face challenges which do not give us a high or sense of achievement, not to mention the absence of misfortune and mishaps. To some it is good family, good health and good wealth (convenience), to some it is leading organisations to making more profit(convenience + achievement), to some it is building a railroad system (yes, I am referring to you Ms. Taggart). Given that it is so random, pinning our entire purpose of being on it seems wasteful. Still we do.

Even for those who wish to remain non-sages, the answer to the question of "What is happiness?" is personal and hence, has to be framed based on one's own wants and desires. In order to make that longer lasting, those wants and desires would need to be based on a better understanding of our motive forces which requires introspection and a deeper understanding of oneself.

How, then, can one expect a generic answer (except for the one I gave in the previous paragraphy which sounds cynical)? Still, we ask ourselves that and we discuss it with others. We would like to be happy now and not in 30 years from now. We want to check-in to great hotels and buy tickets to that rock concert (seriously? And you still wonder why you aren't happy?). We still want to be rich and famous. Honestly, so do I. Well, all the best.


  1. thats fascinating but very long post! will have to come back to finish. was writing about something vaguely similar today. strange

  2. That was a wonderful post.You have touched upon all kind of discussions that can go through one's mind when thinking "what is happiness"?
    I liked this para especially:
    "All the while he feels that he is happy before he realises that he is not and "something is missing". He joins the Art of Living course (and this is where I begin to avoid him) and thinks it is ok. He reads Deepak Chopra and other great gurus (and I am beginning to avoid him more)."

    I think there cannot be a post better than this.

  3. Dear R,
    You bet it is long. Somehow I forgot to have my breakfast and sternly warned my mother to keep off my room while I was writing this (she thought it was serious official work!). Poor lady! I later explained to her and she didn't understand why I lost my happiness over a post!! :-D I try really hard to keep my posts short (and manage to do them only for the haikus) but somehow thoughts creep in and bounce around my head: The only way to put them to rest is stuff the head with words!

    Dear S (and you come alphabetically after R too!!)
    Long time! How are you? Glad you liked the post. I am sure there are other posts on this blog which might interest you too! :-)

  4. yup. it was long but well worth the read! well done :)

  5. Parvati10:28 AM

    As always logically presented covering all aspects of the said topic.

    Hope your this extensive, comprehensive and complicated analysis of happiness enabled you to live it only because it is intrinsic of very existence, as your kitten does easily enough without all the mental acrobatics that man may require to even reach a state where happiness is experienced as a quotidian of life itself, as breathing in and breathing out is for all life.

  6. Dear R,
    Merci :-)

    Dear P,
    I wonder... :-)