Happiness is something apparently so simple yet so elusive to those who strive so hard after that. People want to be and often are happy as often as not so. What is it that makes one happy or happier? Is it wealth or things one possess? Is it love, compassion or contentment? Is happiness something measurable, quantifiable, or comparable? If so, what is the index of happiness?
uSuch questions have been asked because happiness has been perceived and enjoyed with no relation to things which are presumed to make one happier; in fact the opposite has been observed; wealth did not necessarily bring joy and being poor did not make one miserable or green with envy.
Happiness has been universally sought after, throughout the ages, by people everywhere the wandering nomads and settled population, the rich or poor, the old and young alike. Like most other things, the perception and description of happiness differed as widely as the diversity of humanity itself.
The quest for happiness is universal. The Americans have included in their Constitution the ‘right to pursue happiness’ as one of the fundamental rights of its citizens. They chase happiness with great effort and energy and single-minded preoccupation. That pursuit can and does become so intense and demanding it makes the pursuit of happiness into work and pleasure into pain. How ironic yet true!
Happiness has been equated with wealth in common belief. Making more money to buy more things and thus more happiness is accepted way of life in modern industrialised societies; the modern consumerist industries produce and sell numerous goods and services for consumption and enjoyment without relation to need or improving the quality of life. More goods and services generate a growing demand for yet more; advertising fuels the demand for necessary as well as things not necessary. Are consumerist societies happy?
With so much effort going into earning more and buying more leaves even less time to put the wealth acquired into enjoyment of leisure and happiness. Physical and mental stress breeds even more stress and anguish due to often unfulfilled promise of happiness; the pursuit itself becomes a compulsive neurosis — an obsession by itself which has no relief other than denouncing material things. That is perhaps the hardest thing to do in a modern industrial society that is conditioned to consumption and gratification of physical requirements — essential or invented.
Most of the world’s rich people live in Europe, America, and Japan; measured by per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), their income (and consumption) is ten or twenty times or even more than in most other countries. Yet are the people who have more wealth happier? Are they all content and satisfied? Evidently not. Look at the suicide rate in rich countries; Sweden for example has probably the highest rate of suicide — an indicator of misery, loneliness and terrible unhappiness. Or number of people living restless and stressful lives filled unhappiness and misery. Unhappy people are not just in poor India, Pakistan or Bangladesh but also in Europe or America and other rich or middle-income countries.
The axiom that wealth creates happiness is thus not seen by evidence, certainly not universally anyway. That does not mean one has to become poor in order to be happy; it means that happiness is neither conditioned upon wealth nor on lack of it. So happiness might be the function of something independent of or at least unrelated to wealth or poverty as such.
So what is it that makes people happy? Can one be hungry yet happy? Perversely, one could buy unhappiness with wealth, worrying to keep it hidden, fearful of theft, craven to accumulate even more.
First of all, happiness seems to be more a state of mind, a perception and an appreciation of things around one’s environment and more importantly perhaps things within oneself, an attitude and sense of value and fulfillment of purpose of life; a capacity to bring balance and harmony between forces or urges, perfectly natural, that drive life and living. Getting rich satisfies the craving for possessions of things and enjoyment of creature comforts. But then there is something beyond the physical being and the worship of material things to enhance and adorn the body and gratify its sensory urges. Human mind also craves for spiritual fulfillment, a meaning of life and living beyond the physical and sensual, a search for meaning and reason for being, an ephemeral desire.
Material consumption and the search involved leave one exhausted and empty. One looks for things like joy and pride or contentment and inner tranquility to overcome stress and turmoil within, which are the things that money or power that often comes with it, cannot buy or command.
Spiritual fulfillment is hard to visualise in physical form or measured by units of quantity; yet that does not make it irrelevant or redundant. That is why, the many devotees of spiritualism and disciples of moral revivalism consciously or desperately try to find meaning to life and discard material enrichment. Happiness is not necessarily, perhaps never, the function of asceticism — denial of here and now, of things temporal.
Far from it, material progress and enjoyment of the material bounties of the Earth is enjoined upon all humans, by scripture particularly in Islamic teachings by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). So denying or deprivation of the pleasures of life here on earth is not a virtue to be redeemed by reward in the after life. But excessive preoccupation with gratification of the body and sensual urges is to be controlled in favour of moderation and balance such that harmony is attained. That might be the reason why finding a happiness index has been so hard or not seriously examined so far.
How does this disconnect between matter and mind (to put it simply) come about? Why is it that the most recent study using some indexes of happiness found that people of Vanuatu, a remote Pacific Island are the happiest? Why not Japan or Sweden or Norway or America?
People in all materialistic societies are highly individualistic who have been weaned away from non-material things like spiritual and moral faculties; these have become redundant and irrelevant, as these are not measurable or tangible. Instant gratification of the senses is highly pleasing and empowering but then such gratifications have no defining limits and offer or entice individuals to perpetually seek even more instant and sensational experiences to be satisfied by ever more ‘things’ to acquire and enjoy. But satisfaction remains unrealised and the happiness becomes a mirage ever elusive and frustrating. How can preoccupation with consuming that is fueled by consumer societies be fulfilled for by definition? It is a continuous process that demands more and more effort?
On the other hand, spiritual and moral concept of happiness relies upon non-tangible non- material experience and rewards. For example, the climbing of the Mount Everest and planting the flag on the peak might be an achievement at great physical and material satisfaction entailing much material cost, and acclaimed as an enviable success; it makes the climber proud and the spectators elated with joy.
But pause for a moment. The Mount Everest — a great wonder and majesty of Nature — could equally evoke great admiration, joy and ecstasy in a spiritually endowed mind, could arouse great humility and modesty, and submission or surrender, if you like, to the immense power of Nature and wonder at the work of the Creator.
The conquest of Nature, as we advertise by many discoveries and inventions, become a shallow and transient claim. On the other hand, conquest can be an entirely different experience; shunning assault and violence upon Nature brings mutual respect and harmony within the eternal relationship between Man and Nature — not a relationship of domination of one by the other, not a shame of defeat of one before the other.
It must be admitted however grudgingly that the pursuit of happiness follows the path of balance and harmony between the material and spiritual, between the physical and, mental without conflict or competition. When that realisation leads to belief in harmony and conquest by surrender, less becomes more (and more becomes ever less than what greed drives to).
So happiness is not a function of GDP per capita. Nor is it one of quantity of goods and services acquired. What matters is the state of balance that reconciles matter with mind without one destroying the other.
Above all, the profound philosophical underpinning of happiness is in the taming of ‘craving’ that, by definition, fuels ever increasing craving for more — a consuming passion that destroys calm and contentment in a perpetual imbalance between urge and need. The Buddhist philosophy and teaching urge humans to suppress craving and struggle to attain Nirvana, which literally means extinguishing the consuming fire of craving. That might be too much to demand from most mortals who have natural biological needs. Those needs cannot be denied entirely. Freedom and spiritual elevation can be attained even within the thousand yearnings for biological and material pleasure in this world by disciplined balancing between the material/biological and spiritual/mental. That might be the essence of happiness.
Happiness is not a commodity either acquired by the highest bidder or presented on a platter to the mightiest emperor. Happiness is not a destination to be discovered and reached/invaded by physical travel; it is above all these trivial banalities. Happiness is more (if not entirely) a state of mind that masters matter by taming material craving, and puts corporeal needs in balance with the inner spiritual craving of mind.