The curious case of happiness

What good is happiness if it cannot buy you money!

                                 – Attributed to Zsa Zsa Gabor

In 2008, New Scientists, summarized the results of a survey covering 65 nations to show the largest proportion of happy people lived in, of all places, in Nigeria, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. Last year, some other survey identified Bangladesh as the happiest country in the world, and perhaps a year or two before that, it was Vanuatu (heard the name before?). Going by Human Development Index, one can argue that they should be among the least happy nations on the planet. They say that money does not make people happy and they also seem to say that poverty does not make anyone sad; perhaps it makes them happier. What are those ingredients these surveyors thought essentials for happy life? These Ingredients can be measured, compared and contrasted!

It wont be a very successful endeavor to write about what does it mean to be happy. Bertrand Russel have tried it many times and has given us a ‘soul-less’ conception of it. [4] Many people, especially Homo Economicus – a self-proclaimed rational and accumulating individual, believe that it is a state of not being ‘unhappy’. And since unhappiness shows itself in various ways such as loss of sleep, increase in the level of aggression, abnormal blood pressure and other measurable psychological parameters, they believe that one can really measure the extent of one’s  unhappiness. Large amount of literature available today claims to measure the level of happiness, if not of individual, then at least of community.

There is a little doubt among them that happiness is a measurable quantity. The happiness industry can contributed a lot towards this belief. How would you sell happiness to people if you can’t even measure it? At least one nation, Bhutan, measure its gross domestic product in happiness. Happiness is also seen as ‘an autonomous, manageable and psychological variables in global culture’ of middle class which can think in abstract terms. Usually these people takes pride in calling themselves happy and like to think of, or at least speak of, happiness as the ultimate aim of life. With such belief, any indication of unhappiness in their life has the potential to strain them psychologically and socially. Perhaps this is why the idea of being unhappy affect financially secure people more than poor people. I have not come across many poor people in my life who wondered about their happiness for a very long time. Perhaps they do not have capabilities to articulate such feelings ‘abstractly’ to themselves as a problem. Or even if they can, they can not hold to it for a long time or they do not have time for such pursuits vis a vis pursuit of livelihood.

If one is confident that one can measure unhappiness then it takes little imagination to argue that one can also remove or enhance it. A lot of intellectuals have contributed towards  developing  this school of thought that happiness is a linear quantity which follows some rules of algebra. If you remove unhappiness one by one, what is left must be happiness. Ashis Nandy gives examples of how scholars have consolidated these ideas. In the post-war era, there were a number of best-sellers by respected scholars, such as Bertrand Russell, Erich Fromm and Eric Berne, which sought to guide us through this troublesome, unhealthy state called unhappiness and to help us “conquer happiness” (as Russell put it). Indeed, words such as ‘conquer’ and ‘pursuit’ are greatly used in the context of happiness which shows that there is new confidence these days in the ability of human agency, rationality and will of an individual. The belief that one can scientifically fashion a happy life is supported by such belief.

Can  one ‘conquer’ hostile environmental factors and what we call random interventions of probability or chance – our ‘ill-educated’ Indians call them conspiracies of fate – no matter how much con­fidence one has in human agency, rationality and individual will? For instance, one can not conquer death and accidents. The possibility of being happy, in such circumstances, requires denial of death. There is ‘a certain amount of death-denial in all society but it takes a special form in fully secular and successful capitalist societies’. Indeed, the search for happiness consolidated itself with the industrial revolution. The constitution of the United States (US) was the first constitution to sanction the demand for and the pursuit of happiness. But it was a very specific kind of happiness that Thomas Jefferson had in mind. Hanna Arendt says that in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson personally substituted the term happiness for pro­perty. She adds that American usage, ­especially in the 18th century, spoke of “public happiness” where the French spoke of “public freedom”.[3]

Ashis Nandy comments further on these trends of happiness. ‘Both the disease called unhappiness and its adjunct, the determined search for happiness, seem to afflict more the developed, prosperous, modern societies’. Which seems to be true because these societies do not usually come off very well in many happiness surveys. One then guesses that ‘only after one’s basic needs have been met, following the likes of Abraham Maslow, one can afford to have the luxury of worrying about vague, subjective states like happiness and unhappiness’. While some others, alternatively, like Ivan Illich,  imply that ‘only those who have lost their moorings in conviviality and the normal algorithm of community life can hope to learn to be happy from professionals.’

There is another school of thought, equally prominent in our society, which believes that ‘one can learn to be happy’. They argue that religion and/or spirituality have ideas by which one can learn to be happy (prerequisite : if one really wish so). Those who like to assert that happiness is a teachable discipline also suggest that in some part of the world happiness is a realm of training, guidance and expertise. By saying it they only reaffirms the ancient belief, perhaps self-consoling, the you can not always be happy just by virtue of having wealthy, secure or occupied. You have to learn to be happy. This philosophy could be very attractive to low-income groups. By adhering to this philosophy, they can easily console their lack of wealth or lack of ambition and abilities for acquiring wealth. Why should they care about wealth when they have acquired or in the process of acquiring the ultimate wealth – ‘the happiness’?

Before the 18th century, Nandy tells us that ‘the predominant mode of seeking happiness was aligned to, and intertwined with, theories of transcendence’ – an ability to rise above well marked limits. This idea seems to be  alive outside West to some extent. ‘Both the Buddhist concept of ananda, which later seeped into the Vedantic world view, and the Christian concept of bliss had little to do with the new idea of happiness in the modernising west’ which is ‘buffeted by institutional forces’ and ‘internalised social norms’. The major difference between the modern idea of happiness and these ancient idea of happiness is that while the modern world believes in ‘pursuit of happiness’ – like an athlete pursue victory with professional help and training, – ‘Ananda or bliss happened’. It rarely came to those who searched for it. You could, of course, says clinical psychologist, ‘hasten or precipitate it, without actually striving for it, through correct rites and rituals, mystic experiences, meditation or other forms of exercises in self-transcendence’. Forced to choose between this modern idea of happiness and Ananda, many Indians will surely accept the later because the former is associated with individualism and the juridical self – two ideas Indian are never comfortable with. They will give more weightage to Ananda than to ‘pursuit of modern happiness’ simply because some of the major civilisations of the world, such as the Chinese and the Indian, locate their utopia in the past. For them, the past is an infinite repository of wisdom. They contend that to find solutions to problems, even if they are by-product of modern life, one should look into their great-past which has hidden treasures of wisdom. There are some advantages in having die-hard traditionalist around. It is due to them why the past, like the future, often serves as a social and moral critique of the present.


The Indian thought lack universalism.  It matters a lot to know who did what, and to whom. A. K. Ramanujan has drawn our attention to this. ‘One only has to read Manu after a little bit of Kant’, wrote Ramanujan, ‘and one can see this lack of universality’. Manu (VIII.267)  has the following: A Kshatriya,  having defamed a  Brahmana, shall be fined one hundred (panas); a Vaisya one  hundred and fifty or  two hundred; a Sudra shall suffer corporal punishment. Different rule for different  kind of people. Even truth telling is not an unconditional imperative, as Muller  correspondents discovered, ‘An untruth spoken by people under the influence of  anger, excessive joy, fear, pain, or grief, by infants, by very old men, by persons  labouring under a delusion, being under the influence of drink, or by mad men, does  not cause the speaker to fall, or as we should say, is a venial not a mortal sin (Gautama, paraphrased by Muller).’ Compare with  ethical decree like  ‘Man shall not kill’, or ‘Man shall not tell an untruth.’ Now Manu also says, ‘At the time of marriage, during dalliance, when life is in danger, when the loss of property  is threatened, and for the sake of a Brahmana …whenever the death of a man of any  of the four castes would be occasioned by true evidence, falsehood was even better  than truth.’ To be is moral for an Indian is to particularise — to ask who did what, to whom and when. Hegel shrewdly noted this Indian slant: ‘While we say, “Bravery is a virtue of man” the Hindoos say, on the contrary, “Bravery is a virtue of the Cshatriyas”.

Does Indian idea of happiness also lack universalism? In Indian villages, the most celebrated poem is Ramayana which is often sung by masses. The opening stanzas of Ramayana tells us that the benefits of reading the epic are different for different castes. The Brahmins who read it get gyana (knowledge), the martial kshatriyas kirti (fame/glory), the business-minded vaishyas money, and the lowly shudras get happiness. Did the great composer think that happiness is not a universal wealth and can only be appreciated by a lowly shudra. According to him, for the upper section of populace, knowledge, fame and money are more important? Now wheel seems to have taken a full turn and the most celebrated seller of happiness find their customer in upper echelons of society. Modern equivalents of brahmins, kshatriyas and vaishya are racing to ‘pursue’ happiness like never before while the shudra seems to be least concerned about it. Perhaps he is to poor to matter in the market of happiness where pursuit is not only costly but also time consuming.

A parallel can be drawn between preaching of happiness and the practice of medicine these days. Surveying recent literature on the subject, Toby Miller and Pal Ahluwalia draw attention to the way the British Medical Journal derides modern medicine for fighting “…an unwinnable battle against death, pain and sickness” at the price of adequate education, culture, food, and travel, in a world where the more you pay for health, the sicker you feel, and “social construction of illness is being replaced by the corporate construction of disease”. The determined pursuit of happiness is now seen as a cure of the disease called unhappiness. Once the unhappiness was declared a disease, only way to acquire happiness was by its elimination. To be happy, one now requires therapy, counselling or expert guidance – from a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst or professional counsellor or, alternatively, from a personal philosopher, wise man or woman, or a guru.


These modern idea of happiness  has always found great support in authoritative regime. There was a growing confidence in psychological engineering that a new man can be built from scratch better suited to human potentiality. Universities and schools have been successful to some extent in such psychological engineering. The role of family and society has always been highly rated in building or destroying one’s human agency and character.  In the novel ‘1984’,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.

Nandy puts is very well what does it mean to be happy in authoritative regime.

In such regimes, if anyone claimed to be unhappy, it became a confession of delinquency and his or her normal place remained, officially, outside society. Happiness, like school uniforms, became compulsory. For, not to be happy in a utopia is, by definition, a criticism of the utopia and unforgivable dissent. In the 20th century, in many societies such dissenters have filled psychiatric clinics and jails. The Soviet Union, for instance, was never secretive about this tacit component of its ideology of the state. The Soviet psychiatrists were mobilised to give teeth to the state’s official vision of an ideal society. Nazi Germany did even better. It liquidated such delinquents as enemies of the state.

Orwell’s ‘1984’ draws a picture which fits well with Nandy observations. If socialists made happiness an essential byproduct of their rule, capitalist corporates are using individual happiness to profit.  They advertise that their product has the potential of increasing a person happiness or of removing some of unhappiness. Cadbury and McDonald, both born in Western world, have been at the forefront in increasing people happiness. A mining company no longer mines and ruins environment, it is mining happiness now. People no longer open a soft drink bottle, they open  happiness. Nothing sells like happiness these days. A great many self-help books are in market teaching to be happy. Even traditional Indian spiritual market opened its gate to these happiness reapers.

Still some other simple and modest ideas of happiness have survived in this world. Lin Yutang interpret Confucius as  saying that to find happiness you need to find a comfortable chair to sit it. Panchatantra, a old collections of Indian fables, is really modest. It recommends finding one or two good friends to be happy. In a society like ours, ‘most individuals in these cultures tend to believe that happiness cannot come to one when one functions only as an individual competing aggressively with everyone else and, hence, it is probably pointless to ignore the codes of social conduct to run for individual gains only’. They assert that one must learn to wait for such gains. Which is probably another way of saying that happiness comes mostly from within a form of inter-subjectivity that has something to do with, what Illich calls conviviality in addition to accumulating, possessing or becoming.’ Some likes to call it the ability to connect with and relate to other people.


Work is often seen as the biggest killer of happiness. Work has been an integral part of human life since the beginning of social life. It has taken a tremendous importance after industrial revolution. Before it, it was usually the lower strata of society which did all the work while the ruling class disdained it. It is not to say that all work is equally esteemed these days but there have been a significant change in attitude towards work in modern society. Everyone puts a higher value of his work but it is no longer an accepted social behaviour to call someone else work, at least at his face, inferior or degrading. In a philosophical novel ‘Candide’, its protagonist seek question why life of men is so miserable. He approaches an philosopher for an answer who finds his metaphysical discussion useless  and slam the door at his face. On the way back he founds a cheerful but poor farmer. During his conversation with farmer, he reveals his secret of not being unhappy, ‘Boredom is the worst evil in Human life and work banishes three great evils : boredom, vice and poverty.’ Works also give meaning to a man life and more so a sense of transcendence whenever one excels at work. George Orwell’s penetrating observation that the imperfect kind of man should have more ‘freedom, bacon, and proper work’ is highly illuminating. All great people did a lot of work. There is no great man without great work.

Japan is often presented as a pinnacle of society which really works. Some argue that religion plays an important role in shaping individual’s morality towards is work. In Buddhism, the function of work is three-fold : (a) To enable a person to develop himself, (b) to make him aware of the need to help and assist others and thus to satisfy the social instinct. It is through the work a man bind himself to society, and (c) to produce goods and services needed for a meaningful existence. Human life needs to be organized around meaningful work. Zen Buddhism has refined these ideas further. It holds that all work is sacred, all tasks important; ‘If you have eaten your rice porridge, you had better wash your bowl’ and ‘a day of no work is a day of no food.’. Work gives a sense of satisfaction, which induce happiness. There are great many, however, who see work as antithesis of happiness. To them, it seems, happiness is an outcome of leisure, lack of work. [2]


There survives another concept of happiness which does not see happiness and unhappiness as antithesis to each other. It affirms that healthy, robust, authentic happiness must have a place for unhappiness. Aoki talks about the sadness of unrealised hope and the struggle to acquire a language in which to talk about happiness. ‘In such instances, the presence of the unpleasant does not necessarily mean the diminution of happiness. It becomes part of a happy life that oscillates between the pleasant and the unpleasant, achievement and failure, being and becoming, work and play. In such a life, work becomes vocation and leisure need not be reinvented as the antithesis of work. Vocation includes leisure, exactly as a pleasurable pastime may comprise some amount of work. The idea of perfect happiness is consigned either to the domain of the momentary or the transient or to the mythic or the legendary. It cannot be achieved in life, but may be realised in exceptional moments.’ [1]

The state of being happy is definitely is also a state of being healthy. But what make a body healthy? Is it the one which has never become sick by the virtue of living in hygienic environment or is it the one which has strength and immunity to keep diseases at bay? Same can be asked about relationships. Is a strength of a human relationship is to be judged by the absence of quarrels? Or by how much quarrel the relationship could take? ‘This argument’, argues Nandy, ‘has a parallel definition of happiness built into it – a happy person should be able to bear larger doses of unhappiness’. This is not oriental wisdom. To Freud, the sense of well-being of a mentally healthy person shows its robustness by being able to live with some amount of unhappiness and what is commonly seen as ill-health. This is probably what Freud meant in his famous letter to a patient’s mother, in which the intrepid healer advised the worried mother to reconcile herself to the “normal” unhappiness in her son’s life. [3]


[1] A huge number of arguments are taken from works of Ashis Nandy. See his ‘Bonfire of Creed’.
[2] The joy of work, S. A. Sapre, National Book Trust.
[3] Hanna Arendt, On Revolution (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), See particularly Chapter 3: “The Pursuit of Happiness”
[4] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness.
[5] The idea of happiness, Ashis Nandy.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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