Almost twenty years ago, we were attending the famous Art of Living course.
On the last day of the course, the guru asked the audience – “What will make you happy?” Even as attendees began to rattle their wish list spanning across new jobs, relationships, businesses, marriage, children, bank balances etc. we felt the discourse was heading towards a direction that seemed quite misaligned to the tenets of happy living. My wife wasn’t comfortable with the implicit assumption that there were (any) unhappy people in the group. She believed that happiness was a state of mind – and it was inappropriate to qualify a group into happy people or unhappy people. Speaking for myself, I rather balked at the idea of “making” of happiness. Could happiness be manufactured?
Happiness is relative
Happiness is uniquely vested in each person. Similar situation may not offer similar level of happiness to two different people. What may be happiness to one may be misery to other. To a person that feels less happy in a given situation, than the other does, the happiness deficit cannot be made or made good. It can only be developed over a period of time.
One of the happiest person I know of includes a close relative of mine who was born a healthy child, but turned spastic at an infant age due to an accident. He has never walked in his life, never held an object to his hand and has never moved a limb without an external support. But Boy-Oh-Boy, what a gem of a person, bundle of energy and source of inspiration he has been for the entire family! His famous quote is etched in my memory – “there is nothing like deficiency in life”. Coming from him, these words carry profound wisdom and insight into how we interpret happiness. That he found an equally energetic, optimistic, uniquely gifted life partner a few years ago offers an opportunity to re-imagine happiness for all of us.
Equally inspiring is the radiance emanating from Mother Teresa who found happiness in serving poorest of the poor, sickest of the sick and most lifeless of the living. Where others saw disease, desperation and dying – she saw the love of God.
And of course, there are millions who are blessed with fully functional limbs, great pedigrees, best of qualifications, august companies of the rich and the famous – yet seeking happiness that eludes them.
The fallacy of “what will make you happy”
When we ask “what will make you happy”, we actually mean what would light up our mood? Which activity, event or experience would we enjoy? What moments would we feel good about or what relationships would we endear? Happiness goes much deeper. It stretches beyond our pleasures, delights or moods. Events, relationships, activities or assets do not define happiness. They merely define boundaries of the same. We feel an end of happiness when we hit that boundary. If we do not fix the process of deriving happiness from the basket we already hold, then adding more events, actions or relationships in the arena will not automatically ensure more happiness for us. We often discount the un-mined happiness within our environs, if only we changed our tools and mechanism to hook the same. A lot more exists in the offing, if only we pushed the boundaries. Happiness lies not in the scene, but what we see in it. Believing that something that would makes us happy in fact limits our capacity to be happy.
If Italian food makes us happy, we will ignore what Thai cuisine could offer. If we prefer to spend time with our (favorite?) brother, we exclude the joys our sister could offer. If we are happy going to Hollywood films, we lose out on global content. If we continue walking to our bank branch, we can never realize the benefits of mobile banking. If we are plain happy being a couch potato, how can we ever build those six-packs? The better question to ask, therefore, is – what is our capacity to be happy? How can we enhance the same?
Happiness vs. Joy
Happiness is often misunderstood with joy. We presume that if a person is joyful, he or she must be happy. However, a person cannot be expected to be joyful all the time. It will therefore be wrong to suggest that if a person is not joyful then he or she is not a happy person.
Life presents its own share of high and low moments. We earn money, yet we also incur losses. We form new relations but we also suffer hard ones. We run marathons and we fall prey to flu. We cannot be giggling away at a funeral, gloating at losing a job or grinning when our pocket is picked on the go. We are bound to be angry, sad, frustrated, disappointed according to the situation. At times, the aftermath of the situation may manifest in our behavior long after the happening. What if such phases transcend from major life events like loss of a loved one, natural calamity or global recession. Something that the world around easily recognizes as us not being happy. Such incidents can affect us for a long time, genuinely falling into an unhappy phase in life. So if there is a distraction, an investment, a trip or a break from the routine that can pull us out of that zone and make us happy, then what is wrong with that?
Research has shown that breaking away from one’s routine, going on a shopping spree, travelling to a distant location, initiating a fitness regime, reaching out to friends, volunteering in community etc. is key to moving out of the blues and leveraging the positivity around us. While it may seem that these changes did make us happy, all they offered was an alternate choice of inputs where we did not have to make comparable effort to be happy. By default, these inputs offer the distraction, immunity and insulation from the agony of painful events in our lives. However, such additional inputs are usually not sustainable or scalable. Once they pass, our inherent capability to mine happiness from our eco-system resurfaces – leaving us as exposed and vulnerable as before. Did the distraction make us happy? Not really.
Such distractions can save us from being run over by the train (and sometimes that can be crucial, especially in cases of mental health). But the flip side is that they also keep putting us back on the same track. To face yet another train. Without empowering us how to. Think of them as pain killers. The sensation of pain has disappeared, but not the underlying cause. The pain returns when the effect of the pill is gone. The path to happiness, therefore, lies not in the “what will make you happy” pill – but in enhancing our capacity to be happy in our current basket of situation, events, relationships etc.
Think of happiness as a ladder you may use to pluck fruits from the tree of life.
The ladder wears off or even breaks over a period of time. It may no longer be able to fetch the same quantity or quality of fruits. Remember, the tree is still laden with juiciest of fruits. Disappointed, you turn to the “what will make you happy” theory in discovering newer trees. You add new trees of relationships, travels, degrees, businesses, food, clothing, cruises, assets etc. But with your broken ladder, you will be only able to pluck the lowest hanging fruits from those trees. Your ability to pluck high hanging fruits is impaired. Soon you discover that the lowest hanging fruits are all gone. No amount of tree hopping will ensure you a sustainable supply of fruits.
In the long run, the broken ladder could actually turn into a liability and you may even struggle to hop trees. The frustration multiplies when you walk away from a tree, only to see it laden with fruits. To your disdain, you see others happily plucking away the very same fruits that went beyond your reach. The only way for you to avail the fruits is to fix your ladder. Doing this will not only deliver the fruits that were beyond your reach earlier, but also empower you to pluck fruit from a variety of trees, including taller ones. Being happy requires continuously working at the ladder.
Add rungs. Add wheels. Add a basket. Add a telescope. Add a torch. Add an umbrella. Add a hammock. Add a radio. add a power bank. Add first aide. Add friends. Add tools. Add defenses (what if there is a python on the tree). Pluck during day. Pluck during night. Pluck during rain, Pluck heavy or Pluck light. Pluck solo. Pluck with a team. Pluck until the last fruit on the tree.
A change in our attitude, behavior or perspective can deliver lot more happiness on our doorsteps, from the same basket. One that we thought was dormant, saturated or had run dry. In doing so, we are not “making ourselves happy”. We are making ourselves more resilient, capable, lovable, potent, energetic, productive, employable and efficient.
(This piece is categorized under Om as it purports to harness all our resources in being happy, quite like the philosophy of Om that requires us to leverage all resources at our disposal)