What has made finding happiness so hard; how and where can we find it once and for all, and keep it safe in our pockets? Is it in top jobs, the cars we drive, the size of our homes or cash in the bank? Is it in acquiring knowledge, making winning arguments, in success, relationships or stardom? Where lies this elixir of life, good health, enough food, a loving family, promise of a long life, maybe? Many evolved humans would say, compassion, giving or learning. We know that all of the above add fleeting cheer, not eternal joy. Some fortunate ones have all of the above, yet happiness eludes them.
Much research has been done on happiness, from centuries-old wise philosophical declarations to psychological theories; from sociology to literature, religious studies, to important people-centered-corporate strategies, happiness has been spoken of as the ultimate quest for human life.
A basic universal human emotion, after years of research and funds spent on it, has a tentative, contextual definition as a mental or emotional state, ranging from pleasant emotions like contentment and joy to life satisfaction, well-being and cheer. This subjectivity and lack of clarity was the loophole that has now become a cavernous crater.
Commercialisation of happiness was inevitable. Our biggest error, I suppose, has been to externalise happiness. From buying beauty products leading to confidence and happiness, to vacuum cleaners that partners use together to indicate happiness in partnership, from coffee to sanitary pads, all products are manufactured with the sole purpose of making us happy.
Whether it be the experience of it during holidays tucked away in exotic locations, being flown first class for a work trip, a surprise event planned by your partner for your birthday, a few hundred likes on a picture you posted, luxury possessions or drugs (prescription or otherwise), we allowed it to become contingent on the outside.
With us chasing it in seemingly brighter spots outside of us, describing happiness has become very complicated and experiencing it, more expensive.
I am not getting into details of the trillions of dollars spent every year in buying happiness, but I do want to state that every year with an increase in revenue via happiness sales, the incidences of mental health concerns are only increasing. This does not tally.
Industry, commerce, market strategy and commercials that promise “buy this and be happy” are not holding true to their promise. In fact, it works like a mirage, disappearing just as we think we were close enough to touch, adorn, consume, leaving us exhausted, thirsty and yearning even more.
Historically speaking, this man-made myth around finding joys in unseen lands, digging and drudging endlessly elsewhere, in winning invasions and wars, to millennials waiting with bated breath for clicks on subscriptions and followers, despite the progress through discoveries of new horizons, has led us into dark depths of depression, addictions, anxiety, suicide among uncountable other personal, inter-personal and social challenges. Again, it does not add up.
The joke is on us. It exists for free and not far, within each one of us, elicited, perceived and experienced within the realm of each one’s biology, psychology and spirituality.
The world is changing. We are looking for answers.
The Danes are the happiest people in the world, can boast of a Happiness Research Institute with a remarkable volume of work done to find their “hygge”, help define and spread the elusive emotion. Bhutan measures people’s quality of life and makes sure that “material and spiritual development happen together” to achieve a happiness index.
Happiness courses have been some of the most coveted courses in recent times. The knowledge of “how to be happy” now has the highest regard and selling price to it.
Aristotle concluded “The Ethics” by talking of the highest form of happiness, a life of intellectual contemplation. Since it is the reason that separates humans from animals, its exercise leads man to this highest virtue. In that case, applying reason is what we shall do for a whole different perspective.
1. Are we overrating happiness? There are so many other emotions. Why not invest in choosing enthusiasm, inspiration, amusement or even curiosity? Recognise and embrace those too. It is this insatiable hunger and blind hunt for happiness alone which creates the demand and supply imbalance gives birth to many pathologies, and can be the very cause of unhappiness.
2. We cannot be happy “at all times”. That would account for manic and grandiose behaviour, a probable diagnosis of abnormal mood and potential prescription of drugs to calm us down. This one out of hundreds of emotions, glamorised and thus coveted, is not our ultimate purpose and prize. Being okay with both the troughs and crests, not demanding highs alone, is part of the purpose and process. Halting this hectic chase to want it and preserve it forever can be very relieving and restful.
3. Biologically speaking, happiness is associated with activation in certain parts of the brain, leading to the release of certain “happy hormones”. While the cause of activation may be subjective and psychological since it is inside our brain, we can conclude that happiness is a neurobiological process not contingent on the outside alone, as we are made to believe. We have been systematically conditioned to believe that those external stimuli cause the sensation of happiness. Well, saying gratitude, exercising, learning something new or simply resolving to choose happiness are also known to stimulate the amygdala and release dopamine just as well as the long list of “must-haves” we assume we need to experience happiness.
It is not in things but in the “meaning” we put to things, that we find or miss this emotion. The more we see it in “what we have”, appreciate “what is”, the easier it is to find it.
(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)
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