Updated: May 20, 2021 8:26:26 am
When fear has come to every home, when our families and friends are touched by Covid, when even a stranger’s grief resonates like never before, what does being happy mean? Is there a manual that philosophers and poets have left for us? In his poem The Pulley, George Herbert shares a fascinating interaction between God and humankind. God extends all benefits to human beings except peace or rest. For, God believes that restlessness and unhappiness will be reasons for man to remain connected with God. So, are we closer to God now? The Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita, all ascribe to happiness or ananda a quality of liberation — internal bliss comes when the jiva is freed from mundane pleasures. So, for Aurobindo, happiness was a natural state and for Vivekananda, it was freedom from misery and exercising goodness.
The West made it more about the head. Democritus describes happiness as a mental state; Socrates and Plato took happiness closer to the practice of intellectual virtue. For Aristotle, happiness is not a condition of the soul but a virtuous act. And the telos or purpose of life is attaining happiness through those virtues. For happiness, he used the term eudaimonia — activity expressing virtue. So, the citizen or the ruler is happy if she is a good person. Cut to 1776: Happiness was happily included in the US Declaration of Independence. Jeremy Bentham, through his utilitarian approach of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, argued that happiness is nothing but quantified action that can be assessed by observing the maximum pleasure and minimum pain for the population at large.
In other words, government policies can bring happiness if their benefits reach the last person. This echoes Aristotle who believed that the ruler or the state should acquire virtues that inspire citizens to remain happy. So, in the vaccination drive, after Corona warriors, the first segment chosen by the state for vaccination were those over 60. The “euphoria” of young India was ignored in the name of the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers. After senior citizens, everybody is considered for the vaccination. That vaccine stocks are running out complicates this virtue.
On almost every indicator, India is better off since Independence and yet there was massive migration at the time of lockdown and the emergent need of Atmanirbhar Bharat in almost every sphere. That puts an enormous responsibility on the government’s shoulders to maximise the happiness of an ordinary person. For the citizen, Aristotle underlined that “happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul that’s in accordance with virtue”.
So, a citizen has to be law-abiding and the state should, while creating the most significant benefit for the greatest numbers, give space for its citizens to exercise their life habits freely and fearlessly. The state must refrain from stipulating dos and don’ts with regard to people’s choices of food, clothing, and shelter. Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, writes “The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as broad as possible, and let your reactions to the thing and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile”.
What this entails, first of all, is self-inquiry. Asking ourselves — Was I happy before Covid?— will give us insight into how one should try to live happily in these harrowing times.
Covid has compelled us to be physically distant. By doing so, it has allowed us to spend more time with ourselves. But are we friends with ourselves? In the pre-Covid world, there was little time or space for self-awareness — being busy became almost a personality trait. Covid, with its intimations of mortality, has told us, even if a little harshly, that the purpose of life is life itself. We will have to re-examine our biases and prejudices as well as choices and preferences.
As a start, why not nurture life physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually? Physically, by conscious walking and breathing, eating right and taking rest; mentally, by conscious reading and writing; emotionally by consciously listening to the heartbeats of others with care and empathy and, spiritually, conscious living around reason.
Before the pandemic, we were connecting essentially with products and profiles instead of nature and beings. Product became the person and person became the product. We searched for the product, the virus hunted down the person.
So we have to choose: Are we chasing life or death? We must ask: For whom and for what do I live for? In the simplest form, answering this question is a journey that begins from the self and includes our loved ones but at the deeper level, this relates to our connection with all.
Deepening the connection with those we care for, with other beings and nature is the call of Covid too. Feeling your daughter’s heartbeat, leaving a lunch box at the door of someone isolated, making a cup of tea for your partner, calling a colleague to check on how they are coping with the lockdown — all these are small acts grounded in the daily routine but they give us a sense of purpose. Do they bring happiness? No one is sure but they certainly take our empathy beyond the walls of our home and that is a fundamental criterion for happiness.
Doing what can be done and should be done through values and finding excellence by cultivating those virtues. This is the do-good and be-good philosophy of Vivekananda, the talisman of Mahatma Gandhi, the eudaimonia of Aristotle. This is the enduring truth, the mundane is what we have and what we need to work with. That’s the pursuit of happiness.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 20, 2021 under the title ‘Looking for light in Covid dark’. Nilay is author of Being Good and Aaiye, Insaan Banaen. He teaches and trains courses on ethics, values and behaviour
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