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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Economics of Happiness - III

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”– that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. That’s all what one need to know even to be in 'ananda'. 

One summer evening, as I was ambling down a lonely road, a song“anandame jeevita makarandam” (joy is the nectar of life)wafted over from a distance. It was like the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the ordinary noise of wind or rain on window panels – all in gay abandon. Walking along with it was like an unquenched thirst suddenly getting miraculously fulfilled. As the time ticked, the fading song posed a question: “where to find ananda and how to possess it?” Searching for ananda has been eternally haunting man. This eternal search could have prompted Erich Fromm to say: “man is the only animal for whom his own life is a problem which he has to solve”. And the greatest hurdle that is coming in the way of finding a solution is the very thinking process that we apply and the set of values that we have evolved to guide our reasoning. Is it our over-emphasis on finding a single solution exclusive of all others that is defeating our very purpose of pursuit of happiness and ananda?

As the world is increasingly moving towards industrialization, the Western protagonists of capitalism perceived economic progress as the lynch pin of happiness. It’s their belief that economic progress builds a fairer and better ordered society. It is supposed to facilitate a sensible and decent living. But it has not turned out to be so nor would it in the future. The capitalism-driven search for ‘excellence’ and ‘efficiency’ in every walk of life has only divided the society into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ They have positioned the pursuit of ‘efficiency’ and ‘economic growth’ on a high pedestal that has resulted in pricing every work either very highly or simply at zero. Is it not what echoes from what Thoreau once said: the silent poor who built the pyramids to be the tombs of the Pharaohs were fed on garlic, and it may be also that they were not decently buried themselves?

Does it mean that this difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is the only constant to remain eternally unchanged amidst Epicures’ eternal ‘change’? This singular pursuit for economic excellence to the exclusion of all else, which was the hallmark of laissez-faire capitalism could have made John Maynard Keynes to lament: “There must be no mercy or protection for those who embark their capital or their labour in the wrong direction. It is a method of bringing the most successful profit-makers to the top by a ruthless struggle for survival, which selects the most efficient. It does not count the cost of struggle, but looks only to the benefits of the final result which are assumed to be lasting and permanent, once it has been attained. The object of life being to crop the leaves off the branches up to the greatest possible height, the likeliest way of achieving this end is to leave the giraffes with the longest necks to starve out those whose necks are shorter.”

Apart from these economic thoughts, there are wide-eyed poets who had something else to romanticize on happiness. There is John Oldham, England’s favorite satirist of 17th century, who wrote: “Music’s the cordial of a troubled breast, / The softest remedy that grief can find / The gentle spell that charms our care to rest / And calms the raffled passions of the mind.” “I feel physically refreshed and strengthened by it”, said Coleridge about music. Even Goethe said that music has made him unfold “like the fingers of a threatening fist which straighten, amicable.” A. E. Housman had a different poem (that captures the mood of industrial revolution well): “And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man. / Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think.” There was that Saint-Composer, Sri Thyagaraja from South India for whom the ‘economics of happiness’ squarely rested on his commune with God through his kritis (compositions) – "Marugelara O! Raghava…” and such other 500 and odd compositions. A noted Telugu poet of 20th century sang his longing for someone who can: “love you for what you are / and to say ‘here I am’ to pop tear-filled eyes for thee / that alone is wealth/ that alone is swarg - heaven.”

So, we had economists on the one hand who said “economic progress” leads to happiness and on the other hand we had poets for whom right from ‘music’ to, ‘tear-filled’ eyes to relationships, to malt, is the source of happiness. These conflicts relating to happiness made people to aver: “there is more to human happiness than can be encompassed in terms of economic measures alone.” This could not however last long for with the advancement in the tools for economic studies, a new breed of economists engaged themselves in examining the empirical determinants of happiness. Intriguingly, today there is a copious literature on the ‘economics of happiness’.

David G. Blanchflower – of Dartmouth College, Hanover and Andrew J. Oswald of Warwick University have taken it to further (bizarre?) heights by attempting to estimate econometric happiness, factoring ‘sexual activity’ as an independent variable. Here, they conceptualized ‘happiness’ relying on the definition given by Veenhoven: “the degree to which an individual judges the overall quality of his or her life as favorable”, while ignoring the psychologist’s understanding of happiness in terms of ‘context-free happiness’–well-being from life as a whole, and ‘context-specific happiness’–well-being associated with a single area of life. Their conceptualization of ‘happiness’ indeed has the support of literature which reveals that self-reported happiness is a mere reflection of four factors: circumstances, aspirations, comparisons with others, and a person’s baseline happiness or disposition outlook. Interestingly, much of the literature suggests (ridicules?) that one “should think of people as getting utility from a comparison of themselves with others.” They took off from this platform to construct an econometric happiness equation with sexual activity as independent variable to find out the links between money, sex, and happiness. The study revealed a positive association between frequency of sexual activity and happiness. Indeed, “it was statistically well determined, monotonic and large.”

That is the ever-mounting conflict between the happiness and its attainment! Let us for a while look at it from an ancient Indian perspective: Nanda in Sanskrit means “that which can reduce in quantity”. Ananda means that which cannot reduce in quantity. Simply put, ananda mean joy/bliss! Ananda is not joy, for it comes without a reason. It just is or is not, while joy is something that we feel through senses and hence we need to have an external object such as ‘sex’ in the case of econometric happiness or ‘music’ or ‘relationship’ as in the case of poets. When, one feels joy without these external objects/sensory inputs, it becomes bliss. Ananda simply comes from within and thus is independent, unlike the ‘happiness’ in the econometric equation of David and Andrew. It otherwise means that very living becomes a bliss when it is not attached to ‘externalities’. It is by stopping to seek that one finds bliss, and if that is accepted and cultivated every other economic good becomes irrelevant for being happy – for being in bliss. This raises a new question: How is it that some retained that intrinsic capacity to be happy, to be in bliss; while others lament about its absence? The answer perhaps lies in the axiom: “a man is nothing but his mind; if that be out of order, all’s amiss and if that be well, the rest is at ease.” Mind can be in order when there is coherence in our thought process. Our knowledge of happiness and ananda, as Paul Thagard observed elsewhere, is not like a house that sits on a foundation of solid stones, but is more like a raft that floats on the sea while all the pieces of the raft fit together and support each other. A belief cannot be justified merely because it is indubitable, but because it coheres well with other beliefs and support each other. As Rawls said, we must adjust our whole set of beliefs, practices, and principles until we reach a coherent state called ‘reflective equilibrium’.

Now the question is how to achieve it? We all know that from music to rainbow, beautiful objects produce pleasure and happiness which means ‘beauty’ has a large emotional component. But as many philosophers observed, it also has a large component of ‘coherence’. “Beauty is the unity or coherence of the imaginary object; ugliness its lack of unity, its incoherence”, said R.G. Collingwood. The human mind, by configuring such coherence amongst its various beliefs, values, and expectations can generate beautiful experiences, which means happiness, which means ananda. For that matter the very knowledge of it, as an Ancient Indian seer said, is ananda. No wonder, in that configuration, you hum those undying lines, all in gay abandon —"andame anandam / anandame jeevitha makarandam"  (Beauty is joy and joy is the elixir of life). 



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