The Thing About a Fairy Tale

Is happiness a zero-sum game?

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published: September 29, 2013 5:34:22 am

Is happiness a zero-sum game?

Happiness: An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.

The Devil’s Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce was admired for his economy as a journalist and writer but even as a lexicographer,as the ironic imagination behind The Devil’s Dictionary,he cut to the quick. How much more illuminating his definition of happiness was than that of Dr Johnson,the father of formalised English,who glossed it over with a tame entry in his 1755 dictionary: “Felicity; state in which the desires are satisfied.” In India,when the host at a feast asks his guests if they are “fed up and fulfilled”,he is asking if they have attained this state of indolent satiety. In the interest of civility,he and his guests tacitly agree to pass it off as felicity.

If game theory had been current in his time,Bierce might have classified happiness as a zero-sum game. A mug’s game in which no one can win until someone else loses. And finally,as Blaise Pascal suggested so forcefully,the house always wins. Here is a real-world instance,a story related by a friend who works on criminal psychology in the UK. His subjects include the most unusual people — serial killers,massacre-happy holy rollers,cannibals. He was telling us about a new patient,a cannibal who had acquired a victim (the unpleasant part of his hobby) and was in the kitchen (a harmless man making dinner). “But just as he had cracked the skull and put the brain in the pan,the police stormed in and took him away,” said my friend irritably. “He couldn’t eat a morsel! Cruel!”

Agreed,this is an extreme example of the zero-sum happiness game at work,but the point is to show that even at the limit of the envelope,it still works. The cannibal’s victim lost all possibility of happiness,the criminal was getting ready to gain happiness in immoderate quantities but,finally,the only happy party was the house — the government,in this case,represented by the agency of the police. So,at the risk of simplification,the growth of happiness in one part of the universe must always be accompanied by a happiness deficit elsewhere.

The frightening infallibility of this game model of happiness,even in the harshest conditions,has grim implications. It suggests that win-win happiness is an elaborate lie,that we are selfish gamers out to maximise our happiness at the expense of other beings,and then hoard that happiness. That,in turn,raises a series of uncomfortable questions.

Such as,are all those civilising theories about spreading happiness fairy tales? Is real philanthropy possible at all,in which no pleasure is anticipated from the act of giving? Doesn’t choosing your causes compromise the act? Is the trickle-down effect actually a leak which should be urgently plugged? Is it natural for the fruits of growth to be sequestered by the few? Actually,this last question doesn’t matter because there is a delightful intellectual paradox within the growth model. If reliably burgeoning growth makes everything more and more accessible for everyone,everything will eventually be valued less and less,until everyone would be quite happy to give or throw everything away.

Philanthropy,growth,redistribution… these are Western concerns. Let us turn away from the logical conundrums of the mysterious West to the simple beatitudes of the East. Specifically,let us seek the secret of happiness from someone that India has almost forgotten but the West has not — Meher Baba. Born Merwan Sherian Irani in Pune in 1894,died a living god in Meherabad,near Ahmednagar,1969. In between,travelled the world,undertook a maun vrat 44 years long,was nevertheless a benign influence on tens of thousands and coined the injunction that Bobby McFerrin and Bob Marley would make famous: “Don’t worry,be happy.” Could it get simpler than that? Or more compelling?

Actually,yes. Though it is not known if Meher Baba was an influence on his thought,the noted rhetorician Alfred E Neuman,cover boy of Mad magazine,reduced the motto to the calmly superciliously: “What,me worry?” Ambrose Bierce had taken 10 words to define the fount of happiness. Neuman had taken seven less. But our culture evolves at the speed of a motion blur and SMSese and memetalk have already overtaken the pastmasters of brevity,slashing Neuman’s secret of happiness to the querulous,“What?” And then came the ’l33t-speak improvement: “Wut?” As in: Wut next? Cool,wut?

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