Today the topic of happiness is vitally important. What is happiness? What is it that makes people happy? Pleasure seems to be one answer. The use or abuse of opioids has swept the country on an epidemic scale that is plaguing the society more than ever. Clearly, individuals are abusing opioids in the name of seeking happiness–or at the very least to avoid pain. Some individuals who can’t cope with real pain of life must use it to mask their pain. But sadly, most do it simply to get high or to be in the state of happiness and in this case, that might just be pleasure or ecstasy. That’s a real issue and I call it “Happiness at any cost,” even to the cost of one’s own life such as death. The Center for Disease Control reports that 72,000 Americans died from drug overdose in 2017. This statistic includes death from illicit drugs and prescription opioids. Sadly, this is a staggering number.
Some of the readers might be familiar with the name Dan Buettner. Buettner has made a name for himself, as well as a pretty penny by writing books and giving seminars on the topic of happiness. What are the secrets to happiness, and for whom does happiness normally tend to blossom, is the focus of his work. His fourth book, as part of a larger series, is called Blue Zones of Happiness, published in 2017 by National Geographic, has remained on the New York Times best seller’s list for months on end. Mr. Buettner also conducts speaking tours on the topic of happiness, by use of the private jet, where he travels to such exotic destinations as Bhutan, Japan, Greece, and Denmark.
Overall, the enormous popularity of Buettner’s message should demonstrate to us that the search for happiness is in high gear. We are, without doubt, hungry for happiness and willing to spend big bucks to get it. If happiness comes so easily–and it only costs money—why not go for it. In today’s society, it seems that money can buy practically everything. Can it buy love and happiness as well?
Indeed, the art of finding happiness has become a thriving business in today’s disenchanted world. If this wasn’t the case, places such as the Chopra Center in Carlsbad would have folded up a long time ago. Actually, last year my daughter and her family went to this very center in Carlsbad for three days, and she is embarrassed to tell me the cost of attendance, which I can only imagine, reached into the thousands. This is, of course, totally OK because the experience she had was pleasant and beneficial. But the happiness she derived from the visit was temporary. It didn’t last beyond one week.
Now, this is not to say either Chopra’s or Buettner’s teachings have no value to them, or that they haven’t sometimes succeeded in changing countless lives for the better. But it does, on the other hand, illustrate the radically elusive nature of happiness. Happiness—and in particular, sustained happiness—is anything but easily arrived at within life. Or perhaps we should say it is at least foolish to expect that it will be served to us on a golden platter, without our needing to work for it in some manner.
Acharya Hemchandra, a Jain monk, once said, “The main objective of all living beings is to gain happiness by getting rid of all miseries.” Isn’t happiness, then, the goal of all religions? Regardless of who we are, or what religion we practice, or what language we speak—we all want to be happy. Is this not the truth?
And yet happiness means different things to different people. What happiness means to me may not mean the same for you. For instance, for some, a sense of peace and quiet is likely to produce happiness, and yet for others, this very same sense of quietude may be experienced as colorless, boring, or perhaps even painful. This too speaks to the elusive nature of happiness. At least in terms of externals, there are no constants when it comes to its exact recipe.
Of course, in our own society, we have many restaurants and clubs that offer a “Happy Hour,” where ‘happy’ customers receiving a discount on alcoholic beverages. This may indeed generate some measure of happiness in the short-term, and yet how many of these customers remain happy long after the happy hour has ended? So the goal of yoga, as many yoga practitioners reading this article would agree with me, is to provide long-term happiness. Hence, no happy hours, or happiness tours on a private jet, or massages at the Chopra Center, can truly provide a sense of real and sustained happiness.
Now, Bhutan was the first country to actually appoint a Minister of Happiness. So kudos to Bhutan, but with that being said, Madhya Pradesh is the first and only state in India to have a full department of happiness, dedicated to boosting the wellbeing of its citizens. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government created the department in July 2016, with the aim to ensure “happiness and tolerance of its citizens,” by creating an “ecosystem that would enable people to realize their own potential of inner wellbeing.” Of course, Madhya Pradesh, India’s second largest state, is home to more than 70 million people, so it would seem natural to create such a department in order to keep its citizens happy.
Last year National Geographic Magazine devoted a special issue to “The search for Happiness.” with a lead article written by none other than our friend Dan Buettner, whom I mentioned earlier. Asking “Who’s the world’s happiest person?” he presented three individuals from Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore. The thread that tied these three notably happy individuals together was that of ease, life balance, and contentment. Let us consider the case of each of these three individuals in further detail.
Let us go to Costa Rica first: Here is the story of a middle-aged man. Alejandro Zuniga is healthy and socializes at least 6 hours a day, and has a few close friends he can count on. The author gives a laundry list of his daily activities. He sleeps at least seven hours most nights; walks to work and eats six servings of fruits and vegetables. He works no more than 40 hours a week and spends a few hours every week volunteering. On the weekends, he goes to church and fosters his passion for soccer by watching it on TV. So far this schedule roughly applies to many Indians. All we really have to do is replace the church with a temple, and the soccer with India’s national game, cricket.
Let us now visit another person in Denmark on another continent: Her name is Sidse Clemmensen and she is happily married. She and her loving husband have three well-behaved children who live in a cohousing unit with caring and supportive members. She shares family chores, meals, and child-care with the community. Staying fit by biking to work, she also likes to shop and is active in her children’s school. The family pays high taxes on their income, but they receive free healthcare, education and guaranteed retirement income.
Of course, this takes away many of the stress factors we face in the U.S. concerning our healthcare and retirement. No wonder why Buettner didn’t pick anyone from the U.S! It would seem a worry-free life is indeed a barometer of happiness, and that is anything but a sure thing here in the U.S.
Buettner then showcases another example from Singapore. Douglass Foo, a successful entrepreneur who drives a $750,000 BMW and lives in a $10 million mansion. He is married and has 4 well-behaved children who excel at school. He donates to charities and people look up to him as a philanthropist. The main takeaway here is that Buettner considers each of these diverse individuals as happy in their own unique way.
Now, while from these examples it would seem a well-balanced and relationally healthy life is a major and universal key to happiness, I am surprised that Buettner didn’t touch upon spirituality as a necessary ingredient. This may be the reason why he didn’t select anyone from India or any poor country in South Asia, where spirituality runs deep in the DNA of its citizens. And this is known even from the time of Alexander the Great, whose mindset of conquering the world became radically changed once meeting a sadhu—whether he was a Jain or a Hindu is beside the point—on a fateful day during his failed military campaign. As a side note, this was a much more pleasant surprise for him than the ferocious war elephants that he and his men encountered in India! It shows that one doesn’t have to be rich to be happy. Happiness comes from within and enjoying simple things.
At any rate, that desire is the cause of unhappiness, as postulated by the Buddha, has now been well established by modern psychology. Indeed, following a Middle Path and remaining mindful of our own desires, makes a ton of sense in a world bombarded by a never-ending series of stimuli and temptations. It is the right diagnosis of an issue that burns as intensely as ever.
From a similar time period of about 2,700 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said that the purpose of human existence is to achieve happiness. Aristotle claims that virtue is acquired when people act in accordance with reason. So happiness must be sought by the virtuous use of reason. This is indeed a foremost goal across world religions. Clearly, virtue plays a significant role in many, if not all, religions in seeking the goal of one’s life. In world religions, the agreement seems to be that happiness and suffering are both a natural part of human existence. So, we might use reason to think that suffering provides us with an opportunity to seek happiness.
Seeking happiness is not just avoiding pain. Aristotle seems to suggest that by using reason–particularly in the quest for virtue–we know that living a fulfilled life includes a goal of happiness. Certainly, we can observe that unhappiness provides an impetus to us to strive towards becoming happy—and in this sense, it is a necessary incentive for ethical and spiritual growth. Without having a strong incentive in place, human beings don’t strive for higher goals. A case in point is Prince Siddhartha, who wouldn’t have left home had it not been for the feeling of dukkha he witnessed and, in turn, felt within himself.
If money and material objects can bring happiness why did Siddhartha, the prince who grew up in opulence, leave his palace in search of happiness? What didn’t he have? He had everything: three pleasure palaces, a beautiful wife, a newly born son, and a prosperous kingdom waiting for him to rule—in essence, the opportunity to fulfill every desire he could ever wish for. And yet, he wasn’t happy. This goes to prove that wealth and material objects don’t ultimately bring happiness. Like Aristotle, perhaps, Siddhartha understood that hiding from pain was not a path to happiness. He needed to live a virtuous life and could only achieve true happiness–and we should say enlightenment–by taking some risks, particularly spiritual risks. Hence, the focus in South Asia has been on spiritual richness rather than on material richness.
So again, what is it that we human beings want? To answer this question, Hinduism points to the four Purusarthas, or aims of human life: namely Artha, Kama, Dharma, and Moksha. We must admit that Artha and Kama do provide physical comfort and happiness. But they are temporary because they last only until we enjoy their fruits. The application of Dharma, on the other hand, achieved through right living and right actions assure us happiness both here and in the hereafter. And of course, last but not least, moksha, the total liberation from rebirth, promises ultimate happiness by eliminating samsarik dukkha (pain of life).
Let us now consider another point. Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, who was a contemporary of the Buddha, once said: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk. If you want to be happy for three days, get married. If you want to be happy forever, cultivate a garden.” I have covered getting the drunk part already by mentioning happy hour, but the marriage and garden aspects are new. I wish to leave it to the audience whether you think marriage can bring happiness, or instead misery. But looking at the high rate of divorce worldwide, it would seem Confucius is right, at least to some degree.
As for the cultivating a garden part, it is not the flowers or the soil that we should focus on as being essential—although who doesn’t love having their hands in the dirt and smelling the roses—but rather the cultivation aspect that I would suggest is key. It is cultivation that makes the garden magnificent, and which brings the gardener the greatest measure of joy, for the journey itself is the reward. And as India’s religious traditions have so richly attested about the importance of cultivation, so too with spiritual growth and happiness. We must water and nurture it for it to grow, and as with gardening, a sense of perseverance and patience is key. Additionally, we must be willing to pull out whatever weeds of selfishness and disharmony that may exist in our lives. Hence, for the lotus to bloom the vitality must come from within—and this, a piece of wisdom India has made loud and clear since ancient times.
Perhaps the examples provided here are primarily from the “East” and might not resonate with every reader. However, it seems that happiness–especially happiness at any cost–is a global (or even cosmic!) issue. People want to be happy. So here are two important questions at the end of my musings: One, what is it that would bring people the most happiness? And two, what, then, are people willing to do–or to give up–to get it?
Before concluding my ramblings, I would like to leave the reader with this Sanskrit verse from a Hindu scripture:
Sarve bhanvantu sukhinah sarve santu niramaya,
Sarva bhadrani pashyantu makashichdukkha bhagbhavet
Om shantih, om shantih, om shantih
Here is a rough translation of the verse:
May everyone be happy.
May everyone be free of diseases.
May everyone find goodness and beauty in everything.
May all be happy.
Om peace, peace, peace.