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Friday, June 29, 2012

Economics of Happiness - II

Once his hunger is satiated, man usually starts hunting for happiness. But the hard question is: What is this happiness? According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, happiness is “a state of wellbeing and contentment”; “a pleasurable or satisfying experience”. 

According to Aristotle, “Happiness is the meaning and the very purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” . For Mahatma Gandhi, it is something that manifests “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” while Ayn Rand considers it as “that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Happiness of life is made up of minute fractions—the little, soon-forgotten charities of a kiss, a smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment, and the countless infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feeling.” Victor Hugo had an altogether different opinion: “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

By and large, many people consider happiness as simply a “positive emotion” of feeling good. But Sessila Bok, a moral philosopher, wonders if one would be ‘happy’ simply because one is ‘good’. According to her, the first step towards being happy is to understand who you are, and two, “to be grateful”—keep questioning yourself: “Am I grateful for the things that I have and other people don’t have?” 

As we all perceive in general, psychological studies too reveal that things like money, education, or weather do not affect happiness. Psychologist  Martin Seligman ascribes happiness to certain feelings: human beings seem happiest when they have ‘pleasure’—tasty foods, warm baths, etc.; ‘engagement’—the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity; ‘relationships’—social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicators of happiness; ‘meaning’—a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger; and finally, ‘accomplishments’—having realized tangible goals.

Here it is interesting to note what Sophocles said about happiness way back in 400 BC: “Where wisdom is, there happiness will crown.” His successor, Euripides too expresses similar views in one of his plays: “Happy is he who hath won deep learning. He setteth himself neither to hurt his fellow citizens nor towards works of inequity, but fixeth his gaze upon the ageless order of immortal Nature, the laws and methods of its creation. Unto such a man never doth there cling the plotting of base deeds.” Euripides thus appears to be elaborating on what Sophocles said abstractly.   

Intriguingly, we also have people who do not relish the idea of being too happy, for they believe that all joy and no strife makes one a dullard. It is this kind of feeling that raises questions such as: “What is the right mix of happiness?” “How much happiness is right happiness?” 

Thus, different people hold different views regarding ‘happiness’. Indeed, Alexander Pope well expounds the enigma associated with this simple word when he says: “Who thus define it, say they more or less / Than this, that happiness is happiness?”

Yet the enigmatic ‘happiness’ is being constantly chased by man. That is perhaps the cause for all the unhappiness in the world.  

That said, there is a general agreement, of course based on research evidence, that people can improve their happiness. John Zeisel, an Alzheimer’s specialist, who later took interest in architecture, says that “When our brains are happy, a certain endorphin gets released, so we need to design homes in order to release that neuro-transmitter.” According to this school of thought, our responses to some features of the home are, perhaps, innate: “We are born with genetically developed instincts that make us feel relaxed around flowers, the hearth, food and water.” Similarly, when people preparing food in the kitchen has to face away from his/her family, brain is known to produce adrenalin and cortisol, the hormones that are known to cause fear and anxiety, and hence architects say that kitchens must be designed in such a way that the cook “faces the family in the living room,” so that oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and serotonin, associated with relaxation and enjoyment, are released—which ultimately leads to happy living. 

A survey— designed to elicit insights into happiness and meaning at work and home as well —carried out by Marshall and Kelly Goldsmith among well-educated managers, entrepreneurs, and professionals, numbering about 3000, revealed a categorical correlation between people’s happiness and meaning at work and at home. In other words, those who are unhappy with their jobs are usually miserable at home. The study gave certain hints as to how people can improve their happiness: “one, do as few chores as you can; two, spend time exercising and with people you love; and three, feeling challenged is linked to greater satisfaction, so be challenged yourself.” They also aver that professionals “don’t gain satisfaction at work either by being ‘martyrs’ or by ‘just having fun’.”

Economists too have started evaluating the influence of various economic factors on the happiness of people and societies. Way back in the 1970s, Richard Easterlin, an economist from University of Southern California, hypothesized: “Happiness of nations’ inhabitants did not necessarily rise with its GDP.”

It is a well-known fact that after World War II, the Japanese economy had grown phenomenally: Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the economy’s output per person grew more than sevenfold. Yet, a poll conducted revealed that the life satisfaction levels had indeed fallen from the late 1950s to the early 1970s—people became richer but apparently no happier. This contrast became the oft-quoted example for the Easterlin paradox, according to which: one, within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people; two, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies; and three, as countries get richer, they do not get happier. 

Then in 2008, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, economists from University of Pennsylvania, rebutted the Easterlin paradox. Based on their study, they argued that “income does matter”—absolute income seems to matter more than relative income.

So, where does all this leave us? Does it leave one puzzled? Perhaps, yes, for the Indian seers of yore say, life cannot be reduced to a few simple intellectual formulations. They—the Vedic scholars from India—have, however, something interesting to tell us: so long as the “I”-ness is identified with the body and “mine”-ness is identified with the surroundings, man cannot attain happiness, for man can never be satisfied with material possessions—the more he gets, the more he craves for. Swami Vivekananda says: “When you think you are a body, you are apart from the universe; when you think you are a soul, you are a spark from the Eternal Fire; when you think you are the Atman, you are All.”  Therefore, as the Vedic seers say, it is one’s identification with the ‘Brahman’ that gives one permanent and unalloyed joy. This state, according to the Vedic scholars, cannot be explained explicitly; it can only be experienced. 

So, love to switch over to the Indian way of happiness? Call is yours.
grk murty


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