yesterday on the radio there was a debate on the nature of happiness. The debate was specifically about whether governments should impose happiness on people from above. I groaned. They just don’t get it.
First of all, happiness is hard to pin down and define. I have said in the past that it means different things to different people. Now I am not so sure. I think you either have it or you don’t. I do think if you have not got happiness right now, this minute, you are then not happy. I admit at different times we drift in and out of it according to our circumstances. But generally some people are naturally happy and others aren’t. You cannot go looking for it, you cannot work for it and you cannot purchase it. And thank God! Can you imagine, if it could be purchased, the decaying rich would by now have squeezed it out of the poor and be walking around with grotesque smiles on their faces. Can you imagine the likes of Warren Buffet, George Soros and the semi-mummified king of Saudi Arabia walking around laughing like clowns? That is one wealth the world’s poor have and nobody can rob them of it.
To see real happiness, we have to take expensive plane rides to the poorest areas of the world. The girl in the photograph is abjectly poor; she is seated on the floor and talking to her mother on a borrowed phone. Her smile says it all.
The radio programme mentioned two countries where people are happiest. One was the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. There the measure of GDP is in the form of a happiness quotient. This is what gave our bright sparks the idea of imposing the damn thing from above. But in Bhutan, like the chicken and egg, which came the first, the happiness or the government measuring of it? I rather suspect because there is already happiness, the government is able to use it as a measurement. The other country mentioned was Denmark I think. According to the speaker the people there pay 70% of their income as tax and trust the government to use the money on providing adequate services. Hey, but that’s Denmark!
Can happiness be achieved?
I think it can be achieved. It takes a certain attitude of mind and a certain philosophy. I have devoted a lot of thought to this thing called happiness and there are certain unalterable rules.
1. We have to be absolutely clear about what we want out of life, whether it is
that ever bigger mortgage or satisfaction and contentment.
2. We have to be very aware of our limitations. I would like to hire Buckingham Palace
to celebrate my daughter’s wedding, but I am not going to be allowed to do that, and
no amount of striving on my part is going to get me there.
3. We have to be ruthless about limiting our choices. Choices are always going
to be there and they are going to take us ever further away from our home
and our happiness base. I have my own personal story to tell on this one.
But to develop this point further, you will find the poorest people of this world
have no choice and they do not spend all their working hours necks strained and
faces drawn, striving to satisfy all their choices.
I admit, in a progressive 21st century world where your worth is measured by your achievements, it is hard to follow the above principles, but those are non-negotiable. The Scandinavians lead a ruthlessly ordered life and can limit their choices and their dreams. The poor are in that position by default.
Now to my story. I was born and lived the first part of my life in a small farming village. My mother’s people were farmers. They would wake up at 4.30 every morning before sunrise, rouse their cattle, light their lanterns and walk the half a mile or so outside the village to the plot of land they till. The cattle would plough the land, draw water or simply graze. The rice fields would be watered, a little weeding done, the water canals maintained, the boundaries to the adjoining fields inspected and shored up. By 10 o’clock the women would bring in tea and breakfast. The men would rest a little and carry on working till noon when returned home to have lunch and a siesta. Around 3.30 in the afternoon they go back to the fields to tidy the days work up. By sundown they eat by the fading light and it was time for bed. This went on day after day year after year. There was a steady routine. In the afternoon my mother, grandmother and aunts would sit in the yard, grooming each other and pounding rice or gossiping. Life was ordered and blissful. There was no need to go on holiday.
And then the dreaded monster called ‘CHOICE’ paid me a visit. I remember I was 17 when a neighbour called on us. In the course of conversation he turned to me in a sort of righteous indignation. He said: “you know Soosaipillai’s son. He is your age. He went to America, worked in a garage as a mechanic and has just sent his father a scooter. What are you going to do to help your father”? The fact that my father could not ride a scooter or a bicycle did not come into the debate. There are choices! What are you going to do about it, was the question. In my life that was the day the rot set in.
I am well aware I live in one of the richest and one of the most well ordered countries of the world. Right now, (after much struggle and strife) I am very happy given the environment and the circumstances. But if you pin me down, now I have the wisdom of age and historical perspective, I have to admit I am utterly miserable compared to when I was seventeen. But it is too late. I have no “there” to go back to. Time and politics and revolutions have changed that space and time for ever.
So. The moral of the story is happiness is there if you can find it. And you find it by changing your attitude to life, by making the right choices and by knowing when to stop.
I shall probably come again and again to this subject. Having achieved everything else, our society is looking towards two things. How to achieve happiness and how to live long enough to enjoy our “winnings”. We have in other words replaced religion with packaged and tangible goods.