“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That is how the Declaration of Independence of the United States goes. And it figured in a movie I recently watched titled “The Pursuit of Happyness” [sic]. And all this got me thinking what exactly is the pursuit of happiness and even more fundamentally, what is happiness and why does everyone want to be happy in the first place?
First questions first, what is happiness and why do we long for it? The definition of happiness could be long-winding involving maybe psychological, neurological or emotional aspects and thus I think we should simply keep it to mean a state wherein a person is satisfied and finds pleasure. A happy person generally feels good about himself and the world around himself or herself. Then why does everyone want to be happy? Well, the answer to this as elusive as to questions like why most people choose success over failure, progress instead of regression, good over bad and light over darkness. Apart from some exceptions like the Amish who still stick to tradition and the evils of Hitler and the Nazis, most people do favour the former (I subscribe to Locke’s view of tabula rasa which contends that people are not inherently evil or god but are made so by experiences and environmental factors as opposed to Bertrand Russell who believed that all humans were by instinct evil). I must confess I have hardly ever seen a person working towards what he knew was failure and I am pretty sure so have not many of you. I suppose it’s basic human nature to wish well for oneself and try to attain pleasure and higher levels of welfare.
In the film, the protagonist, Chris Gardner played by Will Smith, struggles to make a living by trying to sell “Portable bone density scanners”. Soon his wife leaves him and he is evicted from his rented house. Along with his son, he faces hardships and on a particular desperate night he has no place to sleep except for a toilet in a San Francisco subway station. However after enduring the misery, in the end, he gets a highly coveted job at a top financial corporation. Inspiringly, the story is based on the actual life of a person by the same name who is now the owner of a stockbrokerage firm. The message of most “rags to riches” stories is that success can be achieved by anyone, no matter how bad one’s start is, and this was exemplified by the recent blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire. So is it true, does only success and wealth bring happiness? Research shows that as countries like the US and Japan have grown richer and material standards of living have increased, happiness has more or less remain unchanged. In contrast, relatively poor nations like Bhutan and Costa Rica have topped the lists for the highest levels of happiness. It seems paradoxical yet explanations do seem to make some sense. Rich people are often paranoid about their wealth getting stolen so are very reclusive and protective. Moreover, they tend to socialise less (and I do not mean the “Page 3” parties but genuine social interaction) as they prefer to stay holed up in their palaces. Also, it boils down to the economist’s concept of utility. Basically, it is cogent to argue that the happiness that a rich person derives from a brand new Ferrari beauty is perhaps tantamount to what a poor person experiences when he buys his first television set. So as we get richer our demands skyrocket and our expectations make us sad because not all of them can be fulfilled. Besides it is also human nature to long for what one cannot get easily. The new car you covet is taken for granted once you get it and the desire “upgrades” itself to “getting a new Porsche”.
The Buddhists believe that renunciation is the only key to happiness (which is arguably derived from Hindu philosophy) and the same idea resonates in the Bhagavd Gita. Even western philosophy propagates something similar. John Stuart Mill opined that “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the well-being of our neighbours, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end…”. In today’s materialistic and consumerist society, this seems implausible. Most people endure years of schooling that they find boring, then get into university to do a degree for a subject they don’t really love and just want to get a job so that the money can flow in. Personally, I find this detestable. Of course, this is not to say that we should give up everything and retire to a forest to get riddance from “Moh-Maya” but passion should be the focus of our life and not a human construct that was meant to make exchanges and transactions easier. I believe that as long as one can support one’s family and have a decent standard of living, one should follow his heart and passion and do in life what one loves because in the end, we have only one shot at life and how wasted will our lives be if all we did was to drudge and labour to increase the amount of rupees or dollars there were in our bank account. Sure one owes it to posterity to give them a decent life but then is that our only aim in life? I think it is most wonderful if one can find his passion and earn a decent living doing something that he or she loves rather than be locked in an office all day and earn money sacrificing time with one’s near and dear ones so that society can “respect” him or her and he or she can have a good “social status”. The blind pursuit of money is meaningless since it never ends and actually I have read about billionaires who grow so fed up with all the money that they gamble it all or just squander it on meaningless stuff. So, I think we should value what we have and ensure that when we are on our death beds we can look back and say to ourselves “Hey, I had a good life and I did everything I wanted to do and loved doing” rather than look at our bank account and wish we had more money because “there just is never enough”.
Of course this is a personal opinion and I am sure many of you out there disagree and I would love to hear from you guys. To conclude, the next time you take out your wallet to shell out bucks for buying McDonald’s “Happy Meal” think again whether it will actually make you happy.
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/inottawa/2899583679/]