Feeling thirsty? Here, take a sip. This water bottle, by the way, is made of the finest crystal glass, decorated with pure gold and studded with 113 diamonds. The water that you just wiped off your chin is the purest spring water from the artesian source in St Leonhard, Germany, and has been refined with 24-carat edible gold flakes. After sipping from the world’s costliest bottle of water, you must be feeling hydrated and high, we hope.
Aurum 79, a water bottle worth nearly 50 million rupees, was one of the exhibits at the recent Big Boys Toys expo in Dubai. Aristippus of Cyrene, the ancient student of Socrates would have loved to be in Dubai for this event. After all, he did preach that the goal of life was to seek external pleasure.
One question that has been haunting minds ranging from the profound Greek to the Internet-jaded modern is, “What makes people happy?” The answer depends on who is asking whom and is more likely to confuse than thrill.
Abraham Lincoln probably got it right when he said, “People are as happy as they decide to be.”
Studies of twins have revealed that half of “happiness traits” are genetic. That means it is up to us to control the remaining half. We may not be able to control all events that affect our life, but we can certainly decide how we react to those events.
How we perceive a bad situation regulates the presence of hormones in our body. Think “this too shall pass” and you are likely to be full of feel-good endorphins than bad cortisol. Mizuta Mashide, the 17th century Japanese poet and samurai, must have been feeling very good when he wrote this haiku: “Since my house burned down/I now own a better view/of the rising moon.”
Scientists say one effective way to train ourselves to tone down our reactions and be happy is to practice meditation. Experiences are likely to give more lasting happiness than acquisitions, though the Dubai expo brochure is not likely to mention this.
World Happiness Report
Moving up from individuals, can we measure a nation by how happy its people are? According to the World Happiness Report, commissioned for the United Nations Conference on Happiness held last year, “Happiness seems far too subjective, too vague, to serve as a touchstone for a nation’s goals, much less its policy content. That indeed has been the traditional view. Yet the evidence is changing this view rapidly.”
The report argues, “Happiness can be objectively measured, assessed, correlated with observable brain functions, and related to the characteristics of an individual and the society.”
Experts divide the measurements of happiness into two broad categories—affective and evaluative.
“Affective happiness captures the day-to-day joys of friendship, time with family, and sex, or the downsides of long work commutes and sessions with one’s boss,” the report notes. On the other hand, “evaluative happiness measures very different dimensions of life, those that lead to overall satisfaction or frustration with one’s place in society.”
Like the authors of World Happiness Report, those in academic pursuit of happiness have been very happy with Bhutan, the country that gave the world a new indicator of growth.
Gross National Happiness
In 1972, Bhutan’s king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, gave the world, brought up on the popular gross domestic product (GDP), a new yardstick—gross national happiness (GNH). Though it is based on Buddhist spiritual values, cynics do not dare to dismiss it as mumbo jumbo.
Today, it is the vision that drives Bhutan’s planning process. Every proposed policy must pass the GNH test. The world is scrambling up the Himalayas and taking notice.
GNH is based on four principles—promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and the establishment of good governance. Working with an international group of scholars and researchers, the Centre for Bhutan Studies refined these into eight factors—physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. That should hold good not just for a nation, but also for every individual.
If the idea of GNH sounds like some utopian nonsense, Adam Kramer, a psychologist from the University of Oregon, has developed a GNH model based on the use of positive and negative words in social network status updates. Like?
Our own Khushwant Singh has some definite ideas about what makes him happy. His best-selling book, Absolute Khushwant, lays down the prescription: health, a comfortable bank balance, own home, an understanding companion, contentment in what one has and is, staying away from gossip-mongers, one or two fulfilling hobbies (not including going to parties or clubs), 15 minutes of introspection every morning and evening, not losing one’s temper and the capacity to enjoy solitude.
Does that sound like an introvert? Extroverts are not necessarily happier than introverts are. However, if you are an introvert and want a strategy, bring yourself to interact with strangers. That forces you to project happiness and you end up feeling happier. Even a fake smile, they say, can produce happiness.
One happiness advice that is catching on is likely to make sellers of smartphones very unhappy. Stop multitasking, be in the moment and take up one thing at a time. The idea is to simplify, to trade a blur of mechanical efforts for a few meaningful activities.
In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit, Richard Louv rues that lack of physical contact with nature harms children. Those who play in the woods grow up to be less obese, more active, less stressed and more creative.
We could send our children to beautiful, wooded Kasauli. One of its famous residents may protest, though—Khushwant Singh!
This article was written for the magazine By the Way and published in the April 2013 issue.