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In Search for True Happiness


Gurus like the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra with a global charisma inspire so many with their message of wellbeing and happiness as modern spirituality. At least 50 books on happiness were released in 2000, apart from hundreds on the self help shelves. The most popular class at Harvard University is about happiness and positive psychology and not the courses on economics and business as it used to be, and at least 100 other universities offer similar courses. Happiness workshops for the post-collegiate types are plenty, and many "life coaches" promise bliss to potential clients.

Both Aristotle in the Western tradition and Dalai Lama today in the East, agree that happiness is so essentially important because it is an end in itself and we pursue other goals because they can lead us to happiness which therefore should be the main purpose of life. Aristotle advocated the concept of eudemonia or flourishing, roughly translated today as happiness which was to be achieved by being virtuous and by leading a life of contemplation. Dalai Lama whose book The Art of Happiness which was on the best seller list for years and which contains conversations with a Western psychiatrist, emphasizes the power of compassion and love for all as a happiness therapy. Compassion in a world where we are all interrelated in a mutually supportive manner is twice blessed, benefiting the receiver as well as the giver.

Long time ago when the subject of economics was part of philosophy and ethics, J S Mill advocated the aim of good economics to be the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He defined happiness as fulfillment of desires but desires were to be divided into lower and higher types. The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is inscribed in the American constitution as cardinal principles, although in the American ethic and tradition sadly the pursuit of happiness sometimes tends to be reduced to the happiness of the free market. The philosopher Bertrand Russel in his book: The Conquest of Happiness proposed that a life of both social engagement and reflection was more satisfying. In his own life he found happiness in love, pursuit of knowledge and in sympathy for the poor

Recently Richard Layard professor at the London School of Economics argues in his book “Happiness: Lesson from a New Science”, that public policy should be devoted to increasing happiness rather than wealth or success. Similarly Paul Martin in his book “Making Happy People” proposes how we can bring up our children to be happy because happiness is arguably the most important thing in life. However Natasha Walker reviewing recent books on happiness in the Guardian suggests that we can increase the sum total of happiness not as an end in itself but as a side effect of other pursuits like justice, freedom and love.

Problems persist about finding cross-cultural and meaningful measures of subjective well-being which do not reduce happiness to Western hedonistic individualism or American pop psychology which lays too much stress on the romantic power of rosy affirmations. In Western culture much emphasis is laid on personal and individualist forms of happiness while in the non-western, particularly in the East, people seek happiness more as part of a collective for example in terms of family or community norms.

Some years ago the King of Bhutan suggested the idea of Gross National Happiness. It represents a general aspiration towards environmental conservation, culture promotion, equitable growth, community living and emotional well-being. The idea of National Happiness is very significant because it is transforming the discourse of development and well-being and helping in redefining priorities

The Canadian Council for Social Development describes quality of life in terms of Being, which includes physical and psychological health , spirituality including beliefs and values, secondly in terms of Belonging which includes living place, people around and community resources, and thirdly it denotes Becoming which consists of daily things to do, leisure including fun and enjoyment and coping with change.

The New Economic Foundation in London have developed a Happy Planet Index which combines measures for sustainable use of natural resources with indicators for long and happy life. On the basis of its findings the foundation argues that to live happy and long life one does not have to consume natural resources and other products extravagantly but that we can find fulfillment through non economic factors like quality relationships and community engagement.

Similarly Positive Psychology proposes good personal and social relations, doing fulfilling work through excelling in what one is good at and finding meaning through larger and altruistic purpose. Professor Martin Seligman the founder of positive psychology suggests three types of happiness. First is related to pleasure, second is concerned with social engagement and third focuses on finding meaning and purpose in life. Yet doubts and confusion persists. What happens if there is a conflict between pleasure, engagement and finding meaning? How can we have priorities in terms of the three pursuits. I asked these very questions to Professor Seligman and he replied that there is no definite answer and it depends on individual choice.

The gloss and glamour of the happiness movement has lead to a backlash. Jerome Wakefield of New York University and Allan Horwitz of Rutgers have penned The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder and Wake Forest University's Eric Wilson has written a defense of melancholy in Against Happiness. They observe that our preoccupation with happiness has come at the cost of sadness, an important feeling that we've tried to banish from our emotional repertoire.
Horwitz regrets that young people who are naturally weepy after breakups are often urged to medicate themselves instead of working through their sadness. Wilson fumes that our obsession with happiness amounts to a "craven disregard" for the melancholic perspective that has given rise to our greatest works of art. "The happy man," he writes, "is a hollow man."

Some philosophers, artists and thinkers maintain that life becomes enriched, creative and enhanced by the experience of psychological distress and challenges of life and by the pursuit of wisdom and noble values which are more important than happiness. Even though more social relationships are advised for happiness the German poet Rilke in his Letters to a Young Artist, professed a life of solitude and contemplation for any artist or a creative person

The countries of Scandinavia have consistently achieved very high ranking in terms of human development and well-being. Denmark is probably the most equal society and also the happiest according to some studies. Norway is on top of the gender equity scale. Scandinavia enjoys very high level of trust and peace in their societies. Why they score high is not only because they are homogeneous societies with little history of wars and with a high standard of income but also because they have charted a third humane and caring way trying to overcome the ills of both capitalism and socialism.

Objections that the pursuit of happiness ignores the need for justice, eradication of poverty and social and ecological responsibilities have to be seriously taken into account. Most studies agree that up to a certain level improvement in economic standards directly leads to increase in happiness which supports the idea of basic needs first for the poor as a precondition for happiness. The studies also indicate that after achieving certain comfortable economic standards, there are diminishing returns in relation to happiness. Affluence has increased hugely but no corresponding increase in happiness has taken place.

Affluence for its own sake apart from not being conducive to happiness also leads to hedonist consumerism which is destructive of the environment. Also enabling the poor so that they are empowered to define and rate their happiness levels and satisfaction with life is a positive grass roots exercise in defining well-being which has been too long left to experts and bureaucrats in a top down approach.

Economic standards particularly in the West in the last fifty years (and recently elsewhere) have grown enormously but no corresponding increase in happiness has taken place. This is partly due to ever rising expectations from life and the greater awareness and detection of mental health problems. But generally the incidence of depression, breakdown of families, the lack of a feeling of community, social-psychological dissonance and lack of meaning especially among the young which results in anomie, addiction to drugs, to electronic and cyber world, and to sex have increased manifold. Meaningless affluence for its own sake may actually lead to the disease of what has been called “affluenza”. Happiness cannot buy money but after a certain stage of material comfort money cannot buy happiness either and at that stage it is not worth buying anyway.

A consensus seems to be emerging among many shades of expert opinion against the modern tendency to apply superficial quick fixes such as extravagant purchases and tasty foods to subdue any negative feelings that overcome us. Such measures seem to hinge on a belief that constant happiness is somehow our birthright. Indeed, a body of research shows instant indulgences does calm us down at least for a while. But they leave us poorer, physically unhealthy, and generally more miserable in the long run and lacking in the real skills to get us out of our plight.

What then is happiness? The widely agreed definition agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks is closer to satisfaction or contentment than "happiness". It has depth and purpose to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your talents and your time, living with thought and purpose. The idea of well-being is a more genuine and broader term than the popular glib concept of happiness as it is used popularly.

Enhancing the sense of belonging to a community and greater social engagement and social support is a top notch condition for true happiness. Professor Putnam in his book Bowling Alone has coined the term social capital to denote the significance of social networks, attachment and trust in communities. Happiness entails dealing with stress, and crises with resilience. It involves a willingness to learn and grow, which can involve discomfort. It's not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure even though a daily dose of these also boosts wellbeing. True happiness signifies a sense of fulfillment combining joy and fun with a meaningful life.

Prahlad Singh Shekhawat
Writer& Freelance Journalist
Director, Alternative Development Centre, Jaipur(
Author of books:1 Human Development and Culture.
2 Anand Cooperative Model
M.A.,Development Studies,Institute of Social Studies,The Netherlands
Certificate in Creative Writing, University of Oxford
South Asia head: International Development Ethics Association
Lectured in Europe and Japan -**- Ex-Associate Fellow,Institute of
Development Studies,Jaipur and Research Associate,ISS,The Hague (+91)9829184468, 407 Vinayak Apartment,Chomu House Circle C-Scheme, Jaipur 302001 India.
Published: 2009-01-27

About the author or the publisher
Prahlad Singh Shekhawat
Writer& Freelance Journalist
Director, Alternative Development Centre, Jaipur(
Author of books:1 Human Development and Culture. 2 Anand Cooperative Model
M.A.,Development Studies,Institute of Social Studies,The Netherlands
Certificate in Creative Writing, University of Oxford
South Asia head: International Development Ethics Association
Lectured in Europe and Japan -**- Ex-Associate Fellow,Institute of
Development Studies,Jaipur and ISS,The Hague

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