By Leher Kala
A new global study by Nielsen on consumer confidence suggests that despite the alarming economic and political uncertainties besieging India, it is the second most optimistic country in the world. The survey was conducted to gauge how urban citizens feel about their future. Right now we’re at the top of the cheeriness scale, several points happier since 2012, only after Indonesia in the positive thinking department. One can only marvel at the collective tenacity of Indians that we can still find things to be hopeful about. As I write this, the electricity has been gone for the last eight hours and my generator just packed up. And it would be fully correct to see this utterly unremarkable issue as trivial since I’m one of the lucky ones who actually has legal power to begin with. Dare I mention it’s 44 degrees today? And will be till July, after which we cannot count on respite from rain, since there’s the looming threat of a tepid monsoon. There’s absolutely nothing to be cheerful about. The reality is that life is an unrelenting struggle for almost all Indians, enough to turn the most die hard optimist into a cynic. So what explains our unfathomable high spirits?
The classical definition of optimism is that negative events are temporary setbacks bound to be overcome and a conviction that everything will eventually be okay. Rather, great! It’s from where those aggravating existential questions have surfaced — Do you see the glass half empty or half full? Or the eternally buoyant (or cynical) if you choose to read it that way, “Umeed par duniya kaayam hai.” It’s unbridled optimism that makes people buy into the self-help philosophy of The Secret, Rhonda Byrne’s bestseller, that claims whatever you experience in life is a result of your thoughts that can magically change your destiny. It can’t be a crazy coincidence — maybe Byrne just willed her book to sell 20 million copies? But the appeal of simplistic solutions like the ones peddled by The Secret illustrates our rather naive belief that cause and effect will play out as it should, and the universe really always intended joy for
Logic and academic research suggests poverty and unhappiness go hand in hand. Still, both Dominique Lapierre in his book City of Joy and more recently Danny Boyle while making Slumdog Millionaire observed remarkable optimism in slums in Kolkata and Mumbai, despite heartbreaking poverty. In fact, a 2011 BVA Gallup poll came up with data that indicated the French are the saddest people in the world. Their economy may be in the doldrums but they’re still way better off than their counterparts here. In the same poll, China and Brazil matched India in levels of optimism. The best explanation for our enthusiastic positivity is that it’s an evolutionary tactic for survival. Or if one must take a romantic view, the indomitable human spirit.
Despite the evident benefits of money and the pitfalls of poverty, our discourse on it isn’t honest. We are forever cautioned by popular culture that expensive possessions will make us unhappier. It’s almost like there is a worldwide conspiracy to separate money from happiness, as consolation for not having enough of it. The truth is, acquisitions contribute greatly to our joy. People wouldn’t be spending millions on Rolls Royces’ or Rolex’s if it wasn’t making them deliriously happy. At any rate, they’d be happier with the possessions than without. But cheesey stereotypes of broke and happy endure. In the music video of Madonna’s song from the ’80s, Material Girl, she chooses the poor guy in the end while mouthing: “We are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” The Beatles famously proclaimed money Can’t Buy Me Love, but Paul McCartney commented later that the song should have been called “Can buy me love”, when reflecting on the perks that money and fame had brought him. Pink Floyd phrased it best in the album The Dark Side of the Moon: Grab That Cash, and make