Human actions, it seems, are undertaken to attain an ultimate goal — of achieving happiness. And after having watched Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild,’ a term that remained with me was ‘happiness’. What exactly is it? Despite being aware that it is a subjective concept, I will attempt to share my understanding of it.
Happiness is the manifestation of a positive mental or emotional state, and it may be due to myriad reasons. While happiness, as I understand, is mostly extrinsic, true happiness is primarily intrinsic. However, this is not always the case.
Both external and general factors such as economic freedom, social structure, and a country’s political structure also determine happiness. To place into perspective, I am certainly happier in India than I would be in North Korea. However, measuring happiness as a metric is the neighbouring kingdom of Bhutan. Its philosophy of Gross Domestic Happiness is certainly food for thought.
I was once taught that a comedy, in former times, meant a play with a happy ending and not necessarily one that elicited laughter. It was only much later that comedies were associated with the expression of being happy — of smiles and laughter. Similarly, happiness should not be confused with its expression, which is mostly a smile or a laugh. Unlike feeling happy, which is a transient state, being happy is about doing what one wants to do, provided it is morally, legally and ethically justified. It is not just about enjoying the highs but also about accepting the lows and bouncing back with humility. Perhaps, the positive emotion is better experienced if it follows a negative one.
Try as one might, it is not possible to remain happy at all times. Philosophically speaking, there are two approaches to define happiness — the hedonistic and the eudaimonic. According to hedonists, maximising pleasure is the most important aspect of life. They believe in bringing the greatest degree of pleasure but no pain. However, this was refuted by philosopher Robert Nozick, who in his ‘experience machine’ experiment put forth the question that I will pose to you as well: “Would you like to opt for a life with no pain?”
Although it is a seemingly promising offer, it is far from reality, right? Here is an interesting example that I came across: assume that a certain Mr A and Ms B are married. Mr A then began a simultaneous romantic relationship with Ms B’s sister. If Ms B learns of it, her relationship with her sister, and her husband will fall apart, and she will be disturbed. So, is it better that she remain in the dark to avoid the pain or should she know the truth? Many will opt for the latter — a life that has afflictions. Therefore, happiness is not just about enjoying the high moments. Rather, it is also about other intrinsic values such as truth, honesty, knowledge, self-development and authenticity, among others.
A multitude of mediums
Happiness is clearly a positive effect, and just like other any emotion, it cannot always be the dominant state of mind perpetually. Although the meaning of happiness is multifarious and ambiguous, I am certain it is essentially one thing. Besides, the medium to attain it is different, for different individuals. For some, happiness may be attained when one follows their true calling, or when they get lost in their passion. It could also result from fulfilling their self-actualisation needs.
For instance, I feel happy when I have to speak. I enjoy doing so when I am with people I love, when I am able to interact with new people, or when I get to help someone or contribute to their growth. Witnessing my close ones’ efforts being acknowledged and appreciated makes me happier than the appreciation of my own efforts. Appreciation of our own achievements, I feel, is already commonplace.
Meanwhile, some experience happiness when they are in a place of worship or when they are singing or painting or perhaps while driving. I am happiest amid Nature, especially when I have been able to disassociate from negativity. Enjoying peace of mind is, after all, a rare privilege for many.
As we grow up, the definition and medium changes. As an infant, the comfort of others’ laps and arms made one happy. As a toddler, chocolates did the job. In simple terms, the parameters of happiness keep evolving. Personally, I am at this borderline age today, where I am neither child nor adult. And when viewed through my lenses, happiness is scattered like the sun’s rays; it is as difficult to grasp as fleeting ideas of truth. This makes it beautiful, yet unclear.
Happiness, as I see it, is mostly naturally occurring. The more one tries to achieve it, and chase after it, the greater the chances of it giving you the slip. When one is happy, you are intuitively aware of it.
Drawing again from the film Into The Wild, I concur that “happiness is only real when shared”. Sharing your joy with people is really what makes the experience wholesome. Furthermore, relationships in my opinion, form one of the pillars of happiness. It makes life more meaningful.
Happiness, however, is not materialistic. Satisfaction of materialistic wants delivers a sense of achievement in the guise of happiness. Such things can surely make one comfortable but not necessarily happy. Is there then great joy to be derived from the “small things”? Do gestures, acts of service or kind words hold more value than we realise? I will leave you with an insight that Rabindranath Tagore shared. He said, “It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.”