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Updated: January 16, 2010 15:41 IST

An enigma called happiness

GEETA PADMANABHAN
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From the mundane to the metaphysical, it may mean different things to different people. But everyone's united in trying to crack the happiness code… So, what's your story? -GEETA PADMANABHAN

This story is worth a retell. The king is ill and the medicine men don't know why. Someone suggests that the king wear a happy man's shirt for a night. Soldiers are dispatched to find a happy man. It is a long and arduous search, no one is willing to claim he is happy. The soldiers zoom in on a guy singing happily under a tree. “Are you happy?” they ask. The man smiles and nods. “Will you give your shirt to the ailing king?” He replies, “But I don't have a shirt!”

Here is one chase in which we are united: the pursuit of happiness. Never mind it is intangible, impermanent and elusive. Never mind gurus, governments and guys in the street have different interpretations of what it is. The American Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness, along with life and liberty as an “unalienable right”, endowed by the Creator. Bhutan measures its wealth in terms of a per-capita happiness index. People fill websites discussing it.

You can't buy happiness, but you can at least inherit it, said British and Australian researchers, after studying a thousand pairs of identical and non-identical twins. Their Eureka! on happiness is: Genes control half the personality traits that make people happy, while factors such as relationships, health and careers are responsible for the rest of our well-being.

A skill?

The researchers identified common genes in identical twins that result in certain personality traits and predispose people to happiness. Sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious people tend to be happier, the researchers reported in Psychological Science. “We have a set point in our brains for happiness that is determined by genetics as well as our upbringing,” says Deepak Chopra, the digital age guru. Happiness is usually situational, he says, and can be learned, like riding a bike. Being happy is a skill anyone can acquire.

An army hospital in Arizona, US, is planning to introduce Hasya (laughter) Yoga to the veterans returning from Iraq. The project is the brainchild of Dr. Andy Weil, Director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and an Indian-American doctor Gulshan Sethi. The medicos believe that this branch of yoga has the potential to treat Iraq war veterans suffering from post-traumatic syndrome. In faraway Estonia, Internet entrepreneur Rainer Nolvak has launched an online “Happiness Bank”. Here people can earn virtual money on their accounts by doing good deeds for those in need.

So what is this thing called happiness? Is it smelling roses (personal) or making affordable wheelchairs (public)? Does it come from within or wait for external cues? Responses range from the mundane to the metaphysical, from finding solutions to finding one's calling. To top it, people whom we think should be happy, are not. Happiness seems unpredictable, inconsistent, even irrational.

Let's settle an old debate. Does money bring happiness? The answer, however, begins with the theory known as the Easterlin paradox. In 1974, Richard Easterlin, an economist, argued that economic growth didn't necessarily lead to personal satisfaction. As proof, he quoted the result of a poll done in post-World War II Japan. Between 1950 and 70, Japan saw an unprecedented boom in economy. But the percentage of people who claimed life satisfaction fell during this period. The Japanese, it seemed, were wealthier, but no happier.

Once basic necessities were met, additional income didn't make you proportionately happier, Easterlin said. Why not? Because your sense of joy doesn't always come from what you earn. Above the “necessities” mark, wealth sinks into a comparison pool. You own a Blackberry and now want a Blackberry Storm. With its vaguely spiritual undertones, this theory became an instant classic. Money can't buy happiness. But now, Easterlin's premise is being questioned.

Money does bring happiness, argue economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. There may be no guarantees, but, in the 34 years since the Easterlin paradox hit the world, public opinion surveys have shown “income does matter”. They cite Gallup polls to confirm that life satisfaction is highest in the richest countries.

But, affluence by itself doesn't guarantee a sense of well-being. Those syringe-and-scalpel-induced smiles on page three hide a multitude of uncertainties, insecurities and disappointments. High incidence of heart disease and diabetes are results of affluence as much as they are of faulty living habits. Things that make us really happy, like short commutes, time with kids, an evening with life-long friends, a book that brings joy, have nothing to do with a fat wallet. Sure, losing your job and home is not a pretty thing. You need cash to travel, for better health amenities, for research, for leisure, for a better life. But happiness, well, it could still remain elusive. Is happiness connected to contentment?

Critical balance

“Yes,” says Dr. Zareena, Asst. Professor, Madras School of Economics. “We all want economic growth, but does absolute income ensure happiness? I would say no. With a good income, you can fulfil both short-term and long-term wishes, but lasting happiness comes from a balance between professional and personal life. From being surrounded by a loving family. Happiness goes beyond planning and achieving targets.”

To a lot of us, it's simply the everyday miracle of finding the cell phone (car keys?), the file on a packed computer disc. To others it may be watching a rainstorm dance by, walking barefoot on dewy grass, helping without expecting a reward. A dad said,” Happiness is a clear MRI scan of my daughter diagnosed with brain tumour.” Question is: do you recognise the smell of first rain, the steal of morning sunshine, and the embrace of an evening breeze as happiness?

“Happiness is not a permanent state of being,” says a young mom, looking at her sleeping kid. “We can't say, now that I have achieved this, I'll be happy. All we have are happy moments. We are not primed to feel continuous satisfaction.” Happiness is also connected to the time of life you find yourself in. What makes you happy as a teen (aargh!) will look completely silly at thirty. Should we link our happiness to planning for a future?

Ok, happiness comes from within. You tap the source of happiness and use it to still the demons within. Happiness is an emotion. It does not spring from entertaining your whims. Lasting enjoyment comes from living life with zest, pursuing your career, love, friendship and hobbies with good values. Happiness is a choice. You can choose to brood and be angry or find the brighter side and be happy with what you have. To reach that place, we need more than enough faith, more than enough relationships, more than enough physical, emotional and mental resources. You are at peace with yourself and the world when mind (intent), body (action) and spirit (conscience) vibrate in unison.

Remember Randy Pausch? At 46, (wife and three pre-school kids) he learned he was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. When his “Last Lecture” was watched on the Internet by more than 10 million people, he had a few months to live. Randy decided not to be bitter or angry. Like Hrishikesh Mukerjee's Anand, he would live each moment as a gift.

Whatever you do, see that your happiness does not come from hurting others. When worries lash, say, “even this will pass away”. Approach life with a sense of humour. Recognise that bubble in you that swells when you're sharing a laugh with a kid. Then you will be the one wearing that happy man's shirt.

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