I have been plagued with a very simple question for quite some time now: What constitutes happiness?
It might be best to begin this exploration of happiness by questioning the methods we primarily use to gain happiness in the first place. Do we search for it? Do we expect it to develop on its own? Or do we feel like happiness is a state that comes and goes or perhaps doesn’t come at all? Existentialists will argue that happiness needs to be found in detachment and neutrality of emotions. Romanticists will argue the opposite – happiness is in feeling deeply and loving madly. The company of another, a companion on the journey of life is the road to fulfillment and happiness. Materialists will argue that happiness is in material things – the collection of wealth, living a lifestyle that is grand and luxurious and having none of the qualms that the poor, disadvantaged people have. However, if that is so, then why does one sometimes see the poor living together happily with carefree laughter and the rich sitting lonely and empty? Is it true that the more you have the more there is to lose, or can one argue that in order to aim to be extraordinary one always has to face the prospect of high stakes?
Happiness might even be a deception. As they say – it is a state of mind. We might think one is happy, but we may never know. Is the confident and beautiful model happier than the plump and simple neighbor next door? Or are there a line of insecurities the model faces everyday while that neighbor is truly happy being herself? Do we weigh happiness based on looks, intelligence, wealth, connections, relationships and lifestyle? Or do we weigh happiness based on a genuine smile, be it on the face of a beggar or a king? Is happiness in ignorance like that of an innocent child? Or is happiness in wisdom, cultivated over time?
The Indian culture promotes the idea of strong, bonded families with less divorce rates and more commitment. I have always been brought up with the notion that a happy family is a close knit and complete family and an unhappy family is usually a broken family. However I recently read a surprising article that made me question my beliefs. The article stated that Icelanders were amongst the happiest people in the world as they had the highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. Surprised? So was I. Apparently Icelandic men and women though having broken marriages, still have a great family life with many kids and a supportive environment. There are no morals or judgments nor any norms. It is merely an environment that is accepting and non-hypocritical. Is that what is needed then? An environment that just allows you to be yourself? However this theory can also be contradicted with multiple examples. There are cases where broken families are not as accepting and open-minded. In those cases, children are brought up in an atmosphere filled with anger, abuse, fights and loneliness. This leads them to grow up doubting marriage and dismissing the notion of ‘family’ altogether.
This then brings to light a new question: should our happiness be dependent on other people around us or should we search for it on our own? If it is dependent on the people around us be it family, friends or partners, then it may be susceptible and prone to change. One can never give a guarantee for another person and even the people closest to us can leave us or hurt us, whether intentionally or unintentionally. However, we as humans apparently thrive on interactions with other humans and we cannot control the development of expectations, hopes, desires and attachment. An interesting video titled the ‘Innovation of Loneliness’ highlights how man is a social creature and needs to have healthy relationships and interactions in order to be happy and fulfilled. Then, on the other hand, we have beliefs that are slightly more philosophical. According to those beliefs, true and lasting happiness can only be found within us and does not need to depend upon fickle exterior elements. The term ‘self-actualization’ was coined by Abraham Maslow and refers to the path an individual takes to fulfill his/her higher needs and find the answers to larger questions such as the very meaning of life itself.
The concept of yoga, which originated in Ancient India, is the pioneer in the promotion of the idea of ‘self’. It is a tried and tested method that has lasted through the ages and has played a definite role in changing people’s lives. Yoga is known to help people survive traumas, heartbreaks, depression and anxiety by making them understand and appreciate that pain is not to be felt immensely and should be taken as a part of a larger scheme of things.
Taking the above positive examples into consideration, we must also analyze the negative aspects of excessively focusing on the ‘self’. At some point the search for deeper meanings may end up being detrimental to our emotional and mental health. Whilst focusing upon ourselves, we tend to feel lonely and isolated from the world and the constant search for life’s meaning can sometimes give us an impression that everything is actually meaningless. The moment of this realization is impactful and frightening. It brings up questions such as ‘If there is no God then is anybody looking out for me?’ and ‘Does my presence matter to anyone else?’ that shakes one’s idealistic world. The existentialist view argues that life indeed has no meaning and therefore there is no reason not to commit suicide. On the contrary, one has to strive to create some meaning and make life livable. As Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) claimed, ‘One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.’
So what can we conclude with? There are many differing views and intriguing arguments, but no way to prove a real answer. I suppose people from all walks of life around the world consider questions like this. It seems fundamental to our human nature to be curious and reflective, some more than others. Will we get answers? It depends. I think it is an individual journey, an individual perception of sorts but yet coupled with our environment and interactions with others. Neither can survive without the other: a beautifully complicated melee. The answer perhaps lies within this experience of human life itself.