Dec 4, 2010
If solid happiness we pride,
Within our breast this jewel lies,
And they are fools who roam;
The world has nothing to bestow,
From our own selves our bliss must flow,
And that dear hut – our home.
- Nathaniel Cotton, English poet and physician (1707-1788).
Cotton implies that happiness is a personal thing. But, there is also a community, societal and wider angle to happiness as reflected by Alexander Pope, English poet and critic (1688-1744):
Heaven to mankind impartial we confess,
If all are equal in their happiness;
But mutual wants this happiness increase,
All nature’s difference keeps all nature’s peace.
Now the concept of happiness takes a global spotlight with the development of national happiness index to supplement or substitute the traditional GDP (Gross National Product) or its derivative, per capita income, obtained by dividing GDP by the total population of the country. Britain is the latest to join the expanding bandwagon of countries getting hitched to the happiness index.
On November 15, 2010 British officials said that they will start measuring national wellbeing in addition to gauging more traditional data like income levels and fear of crime. This new approach is part of an attempt to measure national happiness levels that had been proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron during the general election campaign earlier in 2010.
It is part of a "science of happiness" movement that has taken root in several other countries, including France and Canada, as officials and academics study the failure of rising living standards in recent decades to be accompanied by a similar rise in personal contentment. Incidentally, according to World Database of Happiness 2000-09, Britain records 7.1 on a scale of 1 to 10, with Denmark leading with 8.3, followed by US, 7.4 and India 5.5.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan coined the term Gross National Happiness in 1972. While we await an impending announcement in Britain on the timing of the national survey to measure "emotional prosperity", the issues involved are highlighted in a crisp editorial on the subject, commenting on the British initiative, in The Times of India (18-11-10) under the title Are You Satisfied?:
"..the UK could soon be one of the few countries to officially gauge general psychological well-being. The Brits didn’t think of it first. Bhutan has long championed the promotion of "gross national happiness'' (GNH). France too wants to measure "quality of life". Like laughter, the "science of happiness" bug is infectious. So, it is catching on. Not least because surveys in Europe suggest deeper pockets don’t always mean deeper contentment. A US economist has said rich countries are happier than poor ones, but their northbound economic growth doesn’t cause a corresponding rise in general happiness.
Moods and feelings being neither collective nor quantifiable, governments must treat material and psychological welfare as mutually reinforcing. Fuzzy concepts like ‘sense of well-being’ can be manipulated to avoid delivering inclusive growth. Yes, man doesn’t live by bread alone. But try living without bread. Money can’t buy happiness. But it sure can buy things that make you happy."
As for inclusive growth, Francis Hutcheson, Irish metaphysician (1694-1747) had said: "That action is best which procures the greatest Happiness of the greatest Numbers; and the worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery". It was one of the cornerstones of Gandhiji’s welfare philosophy.
There is a popular song which says that money can’t buy happiness or love. The ability of money – or its equivalence like property, gold or credit card – to deliver happiness has not been conclusively established, though the subject has been in focus for two millennia. The good old Bible says: "Wine maketh merry – but money answereth all things". Even more ancient Quitqas Horace, Roman Italy) poet (BC65-8) said: "Money, make money; by honest means if you can, if not, by any means make money". (Did he anticipate today’s Rajas, Chavans and Yeddyurappas?).
Milton said that money brings honour, friends, conquest and realm; but he said nothing about happiness. Another writer, Hosea Ballau, has a different take on the subject: "Happiness is cheap enough, yet how dearly we pay for its counterfeit". That brings us to the proposition that money (or wealth), and the greedy quest for it, can be self destructive as reflected in the following two instances.
A courtier was constantly pestering the king to give him land. One morning the king called the courtier and told him that he could have as much land as he could cover, running or walking, from sunrise to sunset, starting from the palace and ending there. The courtier started running along a distant periphery and found himself far away from the palace as the sun was sinking on the western horizon. He started running faster and faster to make it to the palace before sunset. Exhausted and dehydrated (there were no plastic mineral water bottles then), he dropped dead about hundred yards from the palace. He was buried in a grave 6ft x 3ft.
In the second instance, a boon was offered to a man, who opted for the grace of turning anything he touched to gold (equivalent to money, as noted earlier). He was happy that everything he touched turned to gold (Midas touch). Then he sat for his meal. As he went for his first morsel from the plate, the plate and the food turned to gold which he could not eat. So, this man died of starvation (don’t ask why he was not fed by his wife or children).
That is why English writer Francis Bacon (1561-1626) said: "Money is like muck, not good except it be spread". By itself money cannot deliver happiness. Recent surveys have given contrary signals on the subject. Ed Diener, University of Illinois psychologists, says that the connection between money and happiness is complex. "Very rich people rate substantially higher in satisfaction with life than very poor people do". According to Andrew Oswald, University of Warwick economist, "There is overwhelming evidence that money buys happiness". He reported a study of Britons who won between $ 2,000 to $ 250,000 in a lottery. As a group, they showed a boost in happiness.
On the other hand, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and Princeton economist, declared that the notion that making a lot of money will produce good overall mood (happiness) is mostly illusory. One study noted that people with household income of $ 90,000 or more were only slightly more "very happy" (43%) compared to those with income of $ 50,000 to $ 89,999 (42%).
Another psychologist, Richard Lucas of Michigan University, while admitting a relationship between money and happiness, does not know why. In the context of salaries, he asks: does money make you happier? Or, does being happier in the first place allows you to earn more money later, maybe by way of creativity or energy? Or, does some other factor produce both money and happiness? Lucas says that people exaggerate how much happiness is bought by an extra few thousands. His parting shot is: "The quality of relationships has a far bigger effect than quite large rises in salary…It is much better advice, if you are looking for happiness in life, to try and find the right husband or wife rather than doubling your salary".
There is context or setting for benchmarking happiness. According to a Kannada folk story related to me by a rustic, there was a rich Brahmin who called his only son to his death-bed. He told his son that after his impending death, he would be reborn as a pig. He could not bear this prospect and told his son that he should shoot him dead as he would approach his house. Sure enough, a few weeks after his death, a pig approached the house grunting loudly - with a brood of twelve piglets in tow. The son brought out his loaded gun and aimed at the pig. Then the pig told his son not to shoot. (Andige ade sukha; indige ide sukha). It was joy to be human then; it is a joy to be a pig now. (Perhaps it also the thought about protecting and nurturing the piglets). Relevant to note the English expression: Happy as a pig in shit.
Finally, our religions preach us to discount our present happiness for happiness hereafter – and goad us on to suffer pain, sacrifice and live for others. Look at the Sermon of the Mount:
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Elsewhere in the Bible we are told that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to enter heaven.
Ancient Hindu rishis (sages) meditated disregarding the naked nymphs (Apsaras) that surrounded them. So, the standard or benchmarks were set differently – discounting present joys in favour of eternal moksha or nirvana (Eternal salvation). As John Milton, English writer (1608-1677) said, it is all in the mind:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
So, can wealth assure happiness or can one be happy despite wealth? Which should weigh higher: wealth or happiness? Chew on this!
John B Monteiro, author and journalist, is the editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).
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