By Jamuna Rangachari
When you pursue happiness, it eludes you. however, when you recognize that happiness is the soul’s natural state, all you need to do is eliminate all that comes between your happiness and you.
I am so unhappy. Even though I try extremely hard to bring back the happy times into our home, my children just don’t respond,” says Vrinda Kamat (name changed), a housewife who spends all her time finding and organizing functions for her children. She does not realize that they have grown up and are engrossed in their own lives. Still hankering after the old days, Vrinda cannot understand what else she needs to do.
“My mobile is so outdated. I will have to change the model again. I hope this one is good enough for a while,” says Kaustub Mehta (name changed), a media professional, who constantly needs to keep pace with gizmos at a frenetic pace in order to be happy.
In a sense, both the above scenarios are variants of the pursuit of happiness – a mantra of today’s world.
On the material front, if we have a cycle, we want a scooter, if we have a scooter, we want a car. When we get a car, we want a bigger one. The list is endless.
And so is the pursuit.
On the status front, the moment we get a promotion, we begin hankering after the next one. A pay hike is good only if nobody else has got a higher one. We want a separate cabin and privacy if the other guy has one. Again, the list is endless.
And so is the pursuit.
Even on the emotional and relationships front, our relationships are evaluated on the basis of how many visits, how many phone calls, how many invitations one gets and gives. We seek to create a perfect family of always smiling people around us, and are disappointed if things are not picture perfect. Yet again, the list is endless.
And so is the pursuit.
The fact is that the pursuit of happiness is a strange term. Like many oft-repeated phrases, one repeats it mechanically but it makes no sense whatsoever.
Happiness is not an object or person that can be pursued. It just is.
In fact, perhaps it is this very phrase that is often the seed of much discontent and unhappiness.
Gross National Happiness
Society is a reflection of the state of the individual and here, we can see that our measure of happiness is increasingly being defined by material possessions. It is also reflected in our daily language. We all have an unhealthy bias towards the material aspect of our lives. When we say things like, “he is very successful,” we mean materially successful. “She is doing well,” implies her material well-being. By “they are comfortable,” we mean materially comfortable. As we continue our march towards greater economic prosperity, our happiness doesn’t seem to be increasing. In fact, we find ourselves more discontented and unhappy. The pursuit of acquisition, status, image, and rewards has become the dominant part of our pursuit of happiness. Non-material values like personal growth, caring, trust, respect in our relationships, and community connections seem to have taken a backseat. It is time for us to realize the futility of pursuing one set of goals to the exclusion of the other, and that the pursuit of happiness is about pursuing both sets of needs, and maintaining a healthy relationship between them. When our intrinsic and extrinsic pursuits are balanced, we can realistically look forward to a happier tomorrow.
An innovative initiative in this direction is the concept of Gross National Happiness, first expressed by the King of Bhutan, His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It is rooted in the Buddhist notion that the ultimate purpose of life is inner happiness. Bhutan being a Buddhist country, its king felt the responsibility to define the nation’s development in terms of the happiness of its people, rather than in terms of an abstract economic measurement such as GNP.
Bhutan’s minister, Dasho Meghraj Gurung, put the Bhutanese philosophy succinctly: “The ideology of GNH connects Bhutan’s development goals with the pursuit of happiness. This means that the ideology reflects Bhutan’s vision on the purpose of human life, a vision that puts the individual’s self-cultivation at the centre of the nation’s developmental goals, a primary priority for Bhutanese society as a whole as well as for the individual concerned.”
Motivated to preserve its pristine nature and unique culture, Bhutan has thus far succeeded in limiting exposure to global trade, foreign capital investment, modern mass media, and tourism. GNH is an official policy of the kingdom, having been passed in Parliament, and is perhaps best illustrated by some examples from Bhutan that prove that happiness really does take precedence over economic prosperity there. The country limits the number of tourists that visit it, because the Bhutanese had complained that the environment was being affected, and sacred lands spoiled. The limiting was therefore aimed at increasing the happiness of the people. Similarly, demonstrating that the concept of GNH is inextricably connected to accountability, anyone with a grievance can go directly to the king, and get a hearing.
GNH is also intended to provoke discussion about how altruism, or spiritual and moral beliefs, can be integrated into economics. That is, it is intended to question the basis on which modern economics is founded, where well-being is judged on the acquisition of material things, consumption, and production. Economics has limited itself to things that can be measured monetarily, and this is its weakness as well as its (empirical) strength. In Buddhism, happiness is not determined by what we have and own (although this can be useful in alleviating poverty and allowing generosity), but also by our knowledge, our living skills, and our imagination: by being, not having. Compassion and co-operation are as important to achieving happiness as competition. And developing our minds could be the key to all of these changes.
We can all take a cue from this novel concept, and reprioritize our lives. Instead of being stuck with the old paradigms of production and distribution, we need to ask questions that are more inclusive and global. Questions like ‘How do I know when I have enough?’, ‘How can I make sure others have their share too?’ and so on. We need to find a way to incorporate our intrinsic needs and goals into the very definition of what it means to be successful and happy.
The Soul’s Natural State
It could be true that we are sometimes not too happy. There could be circumstances one is not comfortable with. However, this is no reason to stay unhappy. One has to find a solution to the issue. The problem is that very often, there is no real reason, and yet, we are filled with angst. So, what does one do?
While we wander frantically pursuing happiness, we must remember that happiness is the soul’s natural state. We were meant to be always happy. If we are not able to breathe properly, we would probably see a doctor. In a similar way, if we are not happy, particularly if we cannot understand any clear reason for our state of unhappiness, we should probably see what the doctors of the ‘soul’ have to say about our state. These doctors are available aplenty in life and in all wisdom traditions, be it in the form of folklore and stories, injunctions and guidelines for living.
Compassion and Empathy
“The fact that I am able to bring happiness to others makes me immensely happy,” says Dr. Kiran Modi, the founder of Udayan Ghar, a public charitable Trust, working since the last 12 years, for the quality care of disadvantaged children and women. With the mission of the Trust being ‘regeneration of the rhythm of life of the disadvantaged,’ the Trust runs various programmes to aid the disadvantaged. Actively involved with its activities all through the day, Dr. Modi has found the key to happiness. No wonder, her simple definition of happiness is the smile of a child.
“To me, happiness has always been in giving and doing for others: my family, my friends…the help you can give, the smile you can share, the shoulder you can lend,” says Anouradha Bakshi, founder of Project Why, a social empowerment initiative operating out of Giri Nagar slums in Delhi. Today she spends all her time working towards raising funds, implementing new project ideas, and fighting for the rights of her adopted community.
Anouradha has never defined any rigid guidelines for the scope of work in Project Why. Every new person who came up with a problem became an impetus for another initiative. Today, the main street of Giri Nagar throbs with energy radiating from Project Why offices.
Loud sing-alongs of children, people bustling about purposefully, and neighbors pitching in to help our everyday happenings.
“As you move along, you reach the stage where you are able to reach out beyond your realm. You can be content with yourself within your world, or view this moment as a way to repay a debt you owe; share some of what you have, bring smiles on unknown faces and hope to those who have none. And strangely it is you who feels rewarded,” she says.
Since time immemorial, masters have pointed out to us the wisdom of shifting the focus from oneself to the other to be truly happy. Albert Schweitzer said ages ago, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” Likewise, the Dalai Lama says today, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
For compassion to blossom, one must empathize. This is an essential life skill, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Recognizing its importance, a Canadian non-profit association, Roots of Empathy, has formed a unique way of teaching it to children. The heart of the programme is a neighborhood infant and parent, who visit the classroom once a month for the full school year. Throughout the school year, Roots of Empathy instructors conduct 27 visits, nine of which are family visits. The rationale is that when children understand how others feel, they are less likely to victimize them through bullying and further, by observing the primal bond between a young baby and its parents, learn how to recognize others’ feelings and empathize with others. The programme has met with remarkable success. There has been a significant decrease in aggression and bullying behavior in schools that bring in ‘empathy babies’ for students to observe. According to a recent study, 88 percent of children who had shown aggressive tendencies became more polite after taking a Roots of Empathy course. Here is an innovative and creative way to nurture happy individuals.
“What more do I need?” Sona Bai, a poor, visually challenged lady, had asked, returning the 1000 rupees I had given her, as she was now housed in an ashram, that provided her with two meals a day. Her definition of need had astounded me then and still jolts me into realizing how money has nothing to do with the quality of one’s life.
Most simple folk of India are tuned into the wisdom of contentment. “I earn enough to provide for my family. Isn’t this more than enough?” Ram Singh, the auto-driver who brought me home, had responded when I asked him what he felt about the impending increase in auto fares. He did not take a penny more than the meter fare, though I knew there had been a lot of delay due to the traffic jam, saying that it would be ‘haraam ki kamai’ (an illegal earning). “I am able to sleep peacefully every day following these simple rules of life,” he said wisely.
Of course, masters over the ages have pointed this out to us. For instance, Swami Sivananda said, “There is no end to craving. Hence, contentment is absolutely essential to remain happy.”
Acceptance and Equanimity
“The transience of life struck me when I was engaged in stringing parijaat flowers every day for my son’s portrait,” recollects Kiran Modi, who lost her son in a tragic death many years ago. “I realized that just as some flowers wither away very early, and some stay fresh for longer, human life too is of different durations for each individual,” she says, recounting the day of her epiphany. With a change in perspective, she felt more settled with life and empowered to move on. On coming to terms with reality, her whole life turned around. As mentioned earlier, she plunged herself into Udayan Care, a home for the disadvantaged, giving both the children and herself a fresh lease of life.
“I learned that letting him go on his next journey was the best I could do for him,” said Anuradha Pandit (name changed) after the death of her husband, who succumbed to a sudden heart attack. She began working earnestly, involving herself in the family business, at first to divert her mind, and ultimately finding personal happiness. Again, it was only after complete acceptance of her circumstances that she was able to move on.
Acceptance is often confused with fatalism when actually, it is totally different. Acceptance is an appreciative look at what life still has to offer to us. As we can see, in both the above cases, one can see how it was this acceptance that became the trigger to greater growth.
This is true in serious issues as well as existential day-to-day ones. While most of us crib about our bad luck whenever something goes wrong, some enterprising souls choose to look at the brighter side. R P Jairam, a gifted Hong Kong-based musician of Indian origin, is a living testimony of the fact. He remembers, “Through the 20 years of learning the various forms of Indian music in Kolkata, I capitalized on the power cuts that stretched to 14 hours daily, to hone my vocal and harmonium skills. I figured out how to play the harmonium all by myself in the dark – literally. Learning music that way helped me to visualize the emotion – a key aspect of music I still use on a daily basis. I also sensed that my teachers could perceive this personal achievement of mine when they taught me in class. And all of them polished this aspect in their own ways. To them and the power cuts, I am eternally indebted!”
Today Jairam, a banker by day and composer by night, juggles his multiple roles with ease. Since 2002, he has been running Tharangini, a non-profit society in Hong Kong, which features an Indian choir. Almost all of Tharangini’s presentations consist of Jairam’s original musical compositions, with help from other members. Characteristically, he chooses to always look at the brighter side of life, capitalizing on every opportunity he gets, including bus rides: “Most of my recent compositions have been conceived in the bus, as I travel to office and back home. My mind has never been on the bus, though, and has chosen to ignore the people staring at me as they find me humming!”
Essentially, as long as we fight with life, it seems to be an enemy to be conquered. The moment we befriend it and go with it on its ups and downs, life becomes much easier, and we become much happier.
“He is truly my tatush (an affectionate term that means father in Polish) now,” says Baby Halder, speaking of her employer, Dr. Prabodh Kumar, an academician with Delhi University. It was Dr. Kumar who helped her resume her learning when she worked for him as a maid. Baby, a renowned author now, is more than happy to continue being his housekeeper as she realizes that such a relationship is more precious than the many options that have opened up to her now.
Despite having been through several therapy sessions, seven-year-old Pramodini, an autistic child, had never spoken a word until she met Bruno, a golden retriever, who handed her a paw in greeting during their first meeting. Ten ball-throwing sessions with Bruno later, therapists had managed to teach Pramodini her first word – ball. At Parel’s Kshitij Rehabilitation Centre, which runs a daycare center for schizophrenia patients, Angel, another golden retriever, is a big hit. Patients with this disorder can’t express their emotions or relate to their families, but they connect with dogs.
Therapy dogs like Angel and Bruno form a special bond with patients. Animals never judge according to deeds or financial status. A dog’s unconditional acceptance fulfills our primal requirement for love and acceptance, generating a positive psychological impact on affected people. Any pet owner will vouch for that. Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar’s therapy dog, Sukhi, accompanies him everywhere. “At concerts, Sukhi sits with me for three hours without making a sound, and takes curtain calls with me if I bring her on stage,” he says. His wife Sukanya says, “Sukhi is essentially a therapy dog, and has worked wonders for Raviji’s health. The moment he carries her in his arms, his BP normalizes.”
Sometimes a relationship dares to break free of all bonds of convention and tradition, resting snugly in the purity of loving hearts. The love story of Sufi saint Khwaja Nizamuddin and Amir Khusro is one such tale. Khusro was introduced to Khwaja Nizamuddin at an early age. There are endless anecdotes – in oral tradition as well as documented history – as to how passionately the two loved each other, right from their first meeting till the moment of their death. Nizamuddin Aulia, who was visited in his monastery by thousands of people every day, used to say, “I often get fed up with everyone including sometimes myself – but with Khusro? Never!” The death of the two was also a peculiar event. It is said that when Nizamuddin Aulia breathed his last, Khusro was away in Bengal on Mohammad Tughlaq’s royal mission. When he heard the sad news, he couldn’t control himself and rushed back to Delhi. On seeing his pir’s grave he is supposed to have uttered the following Hindi Doha impromptu, Gori sovay sej pay, mukh par daray kes; Chal Khusro ghar aapnay, saanjh bhaee chahu des.
[The fair maiden rests on the bed (of roses), her face covered with a lock of hair; let us, oh Khusro, return home now, the dark dusk settles in the four corners of the world].
Exactly six months later, he expired, or rather his love met with the ultimate consummation. For the last seven centuries, every year, the Urs of both saints is celebrated with a gap of exactly six months, and on both occasions, qawwals begin by reciting the above doha, before singing any other qawwali.
It would help all of us to remember that our life is not defined by our job, our wealth, or possessions, but by our valuable relationships, which are our true assets.
However, we also need to keep in mind that relationships can cause us pain if bridled with expectations. We should have the grace to accept that like life, relationships to go through several phases, each of which could make different demands on us. When a friend counseled Vrinda Kamat (mentioned at the beginning of the article), she began exploring her childhood interest in music again. As a result, she began to cling less to her children and their relationship began to blossom. For sure, rekindling our passion and interests is certainly a Sureshot antidote to unhappiness.
Interests and Hobbies
“I have to complete this chart,” said the octogenarian Mr. I P Behl, when I went to interview him for an article on reflexology, a skill he has mastered on his own. “This is happiness,” I thought, watching him painstakingly complete the chart he was currently working on, amazed at his energy and zest for life. In reel life, Munnabhai MBBS shows this wonderfully through the character of Rustom’s father, whose passion for playing carrom even drives out his illness.
Keeping the same aspect in mind, Dignity Foundation, an organization that caters to the needs of the elderly, initiated The Dignity Enrichment Centres, also popularly known as the Chai Masti Clubs. Each day around 60 to 70 senior citizens come together to share, interact, and learn from each other. The essential idea is to enjoy life over a cup of tea. It is a platform for seniors to showcase their talent and share their joys and sorrows. It offers varied activities like hobby and craft classes, quizzes, games, lectures, movie screenings and exercise sessions.
Jairam, mentioned earlier in the article, finds joy and contentment when he pours himself into his music, “Practising, playing and listening to music have always given me a special sense of fulfillment because I have to put everything in me at its disposal,” he avers.
This could be said to be true for all art. “Being a mental health professional I realized early on that for me and the likes of me, the paper serves as an excellent sounding board, and at the same time is a safe channel for catharsis. After all, who says a doctor of hearts cannot have a heart that needs repair?” says Malti Naidu, a psychologist from Pune, who dabbles in poetry. A positive reception to one’s efforts is a bonus. She adds, “Catharsis apart, my poems have brought me appreciation, and often been pronounced as being thought-provoking.”
“Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” Nietzsche had said, ages ago. We have many gizmos, many options for entertainment today, but very often, these become yet another source of ennui. For we miss the crucial factor for a complete life – passion. If we haven’t already done so, it is time to begin. Whatever our age, we can surely rediscover the spark that interests and inspires us.
I remember the time I tried to chase a butterfly as a child. Try as I might, I could not hold it. When I gave up and started playing elsewhere, it came closer and sat on my shoulder. Such is the case with happiness.
It’s high time, then, that we move away from pursuing happiness to just being happy.
Inputs by Faraaz Tanveer
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