Once upon a time, there was a class full of students. Curious and precocious minds lay fortuitously distributed in a classroom on their first day of college. The professor was just beginning his class when he posed a question which would haunt the most brilliant minds of even today. “What do you all people want from life?” The nerds who had rote learned every book on the subject matter whose title was scribbled on the time table, stood dumbfounded. The tenacious back-benchers who had vowed to not to pay attention to the subject, presuming it to be irksome before anyone even introduced it, were left intrigued.
The professor paced about in front of the blackboard for a minute, hoping to get an answer. Then a voice startled everyone as a boy answered timidly, “Umm… We want to be successful in our lives.” The class looked around towards the boy who sat down feeling conscious, being stared at by 60 strangers. The professor smiled and said, “Well that doesn’t seem wrong but it can be more right. Can anyone tell me what you define as success?” And again, silence engulfed the whole classroom for a few brief moments. A girl sitting on the very front bench then said, “Success is different for every person. For me, it is making my parents proud of myself. For someone else, it may be becoming the CEO of a company.”
The professor smiled again and said, “Well I agree with you upon your statement that people perceive success differently and I believe that all you somewhere agree with the two answers given by your classmates. Let me just make one statement which I want you to muse over and see how these answers are true and yet there is more in them than what’s obvious. Shall I?”
The class nodded and a feeble “yes” with an undertone of excitement was heard in unison. The professor said,
“Everyone follows different path to it but eventually everyone wants the same thing, happiness.”
Before proceeding further on our journey of understanding happiness and setting out on the path to achieve it, shall we see how far along are we in being happy? United Nations, in 2012, published the World Happiness Index for the first time. Since then, all the countries in the world are ranked based on the score they get depending upon how happy their population is. India ranks 140th amongst 156 nations. The country’s neighbours outrank it by a margin. This sadly means that India is not a very happy country. Finland has topped the list for the second time in a row. How is happiness of a population measured? Measurement of happiness is based on many metrics which include our perception of our state of life and also our day-to-day feelings. The Cantril Ladder, developed by Hadley Cantril, is a method which is used for surveys which give a country it’s ranking in the World Happiness Index, being adopted in the Gallup World Poll. The Cantril Ladder is an imaginary ladder with three segments viz. Suffering, Struggling or Thriving. The 10 steps are sorted into these three segments. The lowest step is ‘hopeless’ and the highest is ‘prospering’. People are then asked to tell what step they perceive themselves to be on and what step do they believe they would be on after 5 years. Based on their answers, a score is formulated. Other methods such as SPANE (Scale of Positive and Negative Experiences), ESS (European Social Survey) well-being module, and some others developed across countries in the psychology departments of some of the esteemed institutes; are used, based on the objectives of the survey. Now knowing how countries are graded as happy or not, let us figure out what happiness really is and how we can do something for our own self while claiming to be patriotic.
Look around when you take a walk next time. You would see people engrossed in a lot of different activities. Professionals scuttling towards their offices or back from it, students running home after school, teen boys feigning nonchalance as they loiter behind their crush, old folks gathered around their usual spot discussing how the youth is distracted and blaming the aristocrats for the state of the country, or any other person you may see. Everyone is in pursuit of happiness in their own way. You yourself are doing the same right now. Somehow, reading this is part of your plan to seek happiness or maybe you’re a reader who is simply happy to have found new material to read. A person’s hobbies, relationships, career goals, etc. are all segues to happiness.
So does it mean that we aren’t supposed to experience other emotions? If so, then is it to experience shame, anger, sorrow, boredom, frustration or embarrassment a cardinal sin against the very nature that gave us life and is so clearly instructing us to be happy all the time?
“Getting angry is easy and everyone can do it; but doing it at the right time, and for the right end, and in the right way is no longer easy, nor everyone can do it” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.
We have been given a spectrum of emotions to choose from and over our lives, we are expected to run the gamut. Let me justify the contrast I just presented and also leave you with a paradox which will help you to be hopeful your entire life. Aren’t we all in a perpetual pursuit of happiness? If so, then whenever someone throws a tantrum, attempts to seek attention, starts a brawl, cries their heart out, acts out of jealousy, fights a petty egotistical war, or does display any emotions other than happiness and acts on it; it is still, by default, an action to directly or indirectly gain some happiness. Thus, next time when you are chagrined for having shown an emotion believed to be inappropriate; stand tall and tell yourself that it was only to seek happiness in a situation which was otherwise difficult to deal with. Happiness can originate from unhappiness. Do not burden yourself with the expectation of being unconditionally happy. It is alright to feel other emotions and pave your way to happiness instead of mocking happiness and never truly finding it; leading to disparity and a need for harmful chemical means to seek happiness.
While I audaciously condemn the use of drugs which create an ephemeral illusion of happiness, there are some chemicals which are indeed responsible for our happiness and these can be brewed naturally within our bodies only if we are mindful about some of our day-to-day activities. These chemicals also affect specific behaviors and hence we must understand their impact and the formula to manufacture them. Endorphins help cope with pain or stress and can be generated via exercise or due to laughter. Thus, exercising, and consuming humorous material on a regular basis is necessary. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which helps carry information from one neuron to the other and is known as the “happy” hormone which is responsible for our feeling happiness. It is released during pleasurable situations such as when we consume good food, get praised for our work or during sex. The third chemical which is also a neurotransmitter and plays a crucial role in regulating our mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire is Serotonin. It is found in foods like salmon, cheese, pineapples, eggs, etc. It can also be released while exercising and needs sufficient sunlight without which the serotonin production rates drop significantly. Lastly, a chemical which is literally lovely. Oxytocin. It is known as the love hormone because it is released when you are attracted to someone, be it infatuation or true love. This hormone affects our body in a lot of ways, especially in birthing or nursing phases in women. It is the hormone which determines whether we feel happy or suspicious based on the environments. It alters our behavior towards people based on our attitude towards those specific people and hence it results in the complex social behavior we exhibit based on our surroundings, social circles, and other factors. The cumulative impact of these 4 chemicals does alter our happiness levels and hence being conscious about what might stimulate their production might help us be happy when we are confused as to what we are supposed to change in our daily routines for our own well-being.
Although, this information does seem to put a more philistine perspective about happiness out there; and can be used maliciously by those expecting to synthesize happiness in a capitalist way. There is an irony associated with expecting happiness from a capitalist standpoint. While ordinarily, we all would agree that capitalists would be least likely to care about someone else’s happiness; studies suggest that happy employees are more efficient at their jobs and thus a pertinent need had emerged to ensure that employees remain happy on their jobs. The Human Resource department was burdened with the expectation to design schemes which result in an increased happiness among employees of the company but without a significant toll on the company funds. Proletarians might be reminded of the traditional day celebrations, video-making challenges, Zumba sessions in activity areas and many such small things which mostly appear as an impedance to your schedules with more effort and expense on your part than on the ones who are claiming to take effort for your happiness. Analogous to the government’s move at pushing the onus of responsibility on the citizens to reduce plastic consumption by mitigating the demand instead of simply attacking the supply which not only supplies plastic but also election campaign funds; behemoths and start-ups alike, have begun to expect that an employee must now also take efforts to be happy without a trade-off on efficiency instead of genuinely stepping up to encourage their fellow subjects. Albeit the bitter realities, the government and the businesses publish in their annual reports a morphed version of the truth which adds to their brand value. You would often see a snapshot of a group of people working happily in that company; unaware of the fact that these pictures are as candid as a selfie. This isn’t the dark side of happiness but the dark side of knowledge about happiness. Hence, we must independently synthesize our own happiness and not rely on those who aim to use even this pious emotion for personal gains.
If it is established that our happiness is only our own to create and keep, then an essential ingredient to it would be self-awareness. Daniel Goleman, a journalist, an author and a champion of the behavioral sciences, states that self-awareness is the key cornerstone of emotional intelligence. By definition, self-awareness is the conscious knowledge of one’s own character and feelings. It allows us to evaluate whether our actions, thoughts and emotions align with our internal standards and objectives or not. Understanding your own thoughts and thought-process can help you identify the triggers which eventually lead to happiness and also those which lead to misery. Only then, can we become cartographers to mark our path to happiness. How did you decide your career path? Or how you did you figure out which college to go to? You sat down, scribbled a plan, and took advice from your well-wishers. Why not do the same to become self-aware? Emotional Intelligence does seem to be gaining speed as an essential possession among the leadership of huge organizations but the trait definitely doesn’t seem like a prerogative for the specific class, and might just help anyone be in better control of their emotions if developed consciously. To quote a very wise man and a self-awareness maven,
“Happiness isn’t something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” — Dalai Lama
With so many facets now advocating happiness, might not one wonder that there might be a devil’s advocate too? Oh, do not blame the advocate for someone has to do the dirty jobs and clean up the mess if nobody else would. If our life’s purpose is to seek happiness and we forget all moral boundaries in our process to gain that, then a line comes to mind from a famous video game. “We spend our lives holding back. Imagine how quickly you can succeed if you just take what you want” — Dennis Rogers, Far Cry 3. There must be limits, for you are not alone in this world and here is where things get complicated. Your happiness is of paramount importance to you but that does not put you above everyone else. “Their” happiness matters too. Who are “they”? “They” are your friends, family, colleagues, your fellow human beings or probably even your pets or other animals. Therefore, a concept which is essential to prevent multitudes from getting agitated at once just for the sake of some chosen one’s whims, came into picture. Harmony. A concept which ensures a bare minimum of happiness for every member of an ecology to continue living peacefully at the cost of complicating our personal lives. This entails that we follow the doctrines accepted in the social circle established in a region. And thus we are introduced to the concept of compromise. It does seem to be an antagonist when we are in process of seeking happiness. It is not. It does oppose your petition to do what’s best for you but it also convinces its own client to take the deal being offered so that nobody goes home empty handed and bitter. While contemporarily you would believe it to be the devil’s advocate, it is actually a moderator which allows you to pursue your other endeavours that might make you happy instead of getting stuck with a futile and everlasting battle where egos may win but true and lasting happiness surely won’t.
Lasting happiness implies that the connotation is more vehement than the denotation of seeking happiness and is perhaps the most important thing to understand which would allow us to enter a state of tranquility. Two benefactors with their piquant styles influence our happiness in ways misconstrued to be insignificant but one who would unravel the true essence of these would experience peace even before the actual goal is met. First, that the journey is as beautiful as, or probably even more beautiful than the ultimate goal. Second, your happiness is like an archipelago where a lot of small islands together synergize and yield a more enthralling experience to the one who sees the big picture. To literalise the two metaphors; it is not merely when you actually achieve your goals that you become happy. You would also become happy when you devise a plan which you believe would lead you to the destination, and every minor achievement along that path would form a collection of memories which augment your joy when you achieve your final goal. Also, even if your plan fails; these memories would still help you console yourself because it wasn’t a total failure for you still earned a lot of happiness along the way.
Hence, I urge you to see this perspective about your pursuit of happiness. Every moment of your life is wonderful to behold as it either represents an effort or an ounce of joy which when unfurled would represent nothing but happiness. Along with the perspective, a few other things like exercising, spending quality time with friends and family, eating good healthy food, laughing, and developing self-awareness would all together compose of what will make you happy.
Wish you good luck for your journey ahead. Be happy. Be respectful. Spread joy. Share your perspective.