Sunday, 3 January 2016

On Happiness


I've been thinking about happiness recently, which is probably something that someone who is truly happy wouldn't do. Happy people don't think about or look for happiness. They merely live out their happy lives as normal. But over-thinking things is part of who I am, and it brings me an extreme sense of satisfaction, which I suppose is different to happiness but still important.

I meet a lot of expats in London. International working professionals here on a contract. They all come here for a change, to lead a better life, to make more money, to travel and see new places, or other reasons that they claim brings happiness. And I wonder how many of them are happy. Whether this is a useful question to ask is something I'll get to later. But lets say it is. Lets say happiness is important. Do people who move here for work end up happier than they were in their own countries? I'm not sure. A lot of them feel like they're merely chasing happiness, like they're still searching for something that they'll never find, or that they've only found temporarily until another happiness goal catches their fancy. I'm not sure.

There's this TED talk that says that happiness is the mostly the quality of our relationships with other people, and I'm inclined to agree with this from the point of view of my own personal context. I personally derive a lot of happiness from good close personal relationships and shared experiences with family and friends, though I also think that other factors help - like having low expectations about certain things, having a pragmatic view about bad things that happen to you, having a positive attitude towards everything, and not tying your ambitions and career goals to happiness. Work for money, create for love, right?

This other talk separates happiness into synthetic and real. Synthetic happiness comes from doing what you are told will bring you happiness, accepting things you cannot change, and rationalising bad things as normal and happy. Also, people like things more when they think they're going to lose them. It defines real happiness as when we get whatever we want, which is something I don't get because we never get what we want and will constantly be striving from one happiness goal to another i.e one temporary island of happiness to another temporary island of happiness. It could just be semantics, but this isn't real happiness to me, this is just temporary contentment. But I guess this is happiness to a lot of people in the western world, who feel like they need to be in control of every aspect of their lives, and that control brings happiness. I take the other view, which is that since so much is out of your control, you can only be happy by letting go of it all and just do things you enjoy without hurting people, and take everything else in your stride without imagining that the universe is conspiring against you. Which is where the synthetic happiness come in. 

Then there's 'The Geography of Bliss' by Eric Weiner. A somewhat humorous look at why people in some countries are generally happier than others. Some of Weiner's book is of course typical western narrative tropes and hyperbole - Columbus, China's greed is bad, etc., but i picked up a lot of interesting points. Weiner visits the happiest countries on Earth  to find out what makes them happy, while not confusing correlation/association with causation. Just because happy nations are characterised by certain factors doesn't mean these are causal factors, it could be the other way around. 

The happy countries - 

- The Dutch have things taken care of, and have permissive attitudes towards sex, drugs, etc.

- The Swiss are less tolerant than the Dutch, they have rules, boredom and nature. They are not ecstatic joyful, but content. They also have cleanliness, punctuality, things taken care of, they don't provoke envy in others, but suppress envy by hiding their wealth. They are surrounded by beauty and nature. They trust their neighbours, and having a sense of history and where they're from. They have fewer choices.

- The Bhutanese don't have unrealistic expectations. They don't try to be happy or try to achieve it. They don't talk about or analyse it. They don't ask themselves if they will cease to be so. Ignorance is bliss. There is also a lot of death, which gives you a different perspective on life. You develop a new way of seeing things after living with it. They are poor, but that doesn't matter. Money is only a means to an end. It is trust in people and institutions. Material wealth doesn't become so important.

- The Qataris leave everything to God. Maybe happiness come from beliefs, not necessarily religious beliefs. They belong to one tribe with many rules, that allows you to have no rules outside it because you just won a lottery and can do anything with the money. You are happy as long as you are a high ranking member of this tribe. You don't need ambition or high expectations. The money takes care of everything. If this culture-less life is to your liking, you are happy. But money isn't everything - it has diminsihing returns. You will always crave somethign else.

- The Icelanders are naive. They are free to try and to fail. They have a conection to their language. They are a small country, feel kinship to each other, protective of their well-being. Enjoy writing. Not affected by SAD. Have multiple identities, no envy of others. Suppress envy by sharing everything with others. A sense of self actualisation and the freedom to do what you want. they are free to share ideas without copyright. Self-delusion might be good - there's no one to tell you not to do somethign or express yourself. They constantly fail and create rubbish, but are happy doing so.

- The Thais have mai pen lai (never mind), jai yen (let it go), sanuk (fun). They have fun at work instead of the American work hard, play hard mentality. Their fun is interspersed throughout the day rather than regimented and taken too seriously. They don't take things too seriously. They don't think about things like happiness to much. Ignorance is bliss? They smile a lot.

The unhappy countries - 

- The Moldovans have a lot of envy, are relatively poor compared to their European neighbours - poverty breeds envy of other's riches - there's also lack of trust - if something goes wrong, it is not their responsibility to fix. There's a feeling of powerlessness, helplessness.

The somewhat happy countries - 

- The British believe in muddling through, getting by. They are reserved, not tactless, are afraid of offending people, don't hug, are a country of grumps. Does culture impede happiness? I don't think it's that simple. Having lived in England and Scotland, I think people here are definitely happy, they just don't show it (btw, don't ever introduce yourself right away in an English pub - rookie mistake). But I'm not sure why they would rank lower than the other countries. 

- The Indians are a mixed lot. The ones who are happy believe that life in an act, and don't take it too seriously. New tech cities are both the problem and the solution. People have long long work hours, poor work life balance, and then special workshops and ashrams to fix them. Calcutta's poorer are happier than America's poor - stronger family ties? (Btw, flattery can get you an interview in India, and much else). He says nothing about unhappy people in India. I guess it could be a lack on trust in your neighbour and public institutions. All the happiest people I know in India derive happiness from relationships in their communities, but not necessarily within communities. Indian diversity can be comforting, but I think people's biases and ingroup-outgroup mentality combined with their narrow-mindedness about culture can serve to increase create distrust and hate.

- The Americans are constantly searching for happiness. Their unhappiness could come from unrealistic expectations. Self help books teach them to look inwards not outwards towards relationships that really matter. Maybe you nee to commit to a place or people to be happy, you can't always have one foot out the door.

What happiness isn't - 

To quote the book, "Happiness is not feeling like you need to be somewhere else or doing something else." But I think that's your other goals, which are fleeting and constantly changing. I think it's fine to have them, we all have career and self-fulfilment goals and wants, and striving to accomplish them is fine, but our success or failure in said exercise shouldn't make a difference to our happiness, if in fact happiness is more important. 

It's not about ambition or success. Failure might happen despite your best laid plans, and while success can bring you satisfaction, I feel it's the journey, the striving for success that brings you happiness.

Knowledge doesn't necessarily make you happier, though it has other obvious advantages. So is ignorance bliss? Not necessarily, in my opinion. It's not about knowledge vs ignorance w.r.t happiness. Neither is a factor, your happiness depends on other things.

It isn't about money or material wealth. Money helps, but just a little, it doesn't guarantee lasting happiness. Law of diminishing returns.

What happiness is -  

We constantly try to synthesise happiness, we think it is something to be found. Perhaps it is more a thing to be created, or a state to be evolved into. To my understanding, it is having close personal healthy relationships with friends and family, living in a society with a lot of trust, and no envy, uncertainty or fear, and finally, having a pragmatic outlook on life, understanding that events are unpredictable, but having something to look forward to and doing your best anyway, about having a sense of not-wanting. Living among a homogenous society with reliable public institutions and like-minded people also helps. The closer knit the community the happier you are, as long as you subscribe to the cultural mores of that community. Tough luck if you don't. Perhaps that's why people move away. To me, certain environmental conditions also matter, like living in clean cool quiet surroundings with access to good food and being intellectually stimulated.


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1 comment:

Melvin Dsouza said...

Nice one Dan! Happiness is and not to be chased. Staying in good company does help, but its got more to do with being at peace in that moment, not wanting to be elsewhere whether alone or in a crowd.

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