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View: Being happy often means looking beyond imperfections
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Ask people and they will tell you their principal aim is to be happy. Even countries have embraced the idea. The US constitution makes the ‘pursuit of happiness’ an inalienable right. In various forms, South Korea, Japan and Brazil also have happiness in their charters.

 

Ask people and they will tell you their principal aim is to be happy. Even countries have embraced the idea. The US constitution makes the ‘pursuit of happiness’ an inalienable right. In various forms, South Korea, Japan and Brazil also have happiness in their charters. Bhutan has a gross national happiness index. The UN celebrates World Happiness Day on March 20 every year. But what exactly is happiness?
 
Perhaps the best account of happiness is from Greek traditions. It falls into two broad buckets: one that focuses on pleasure, propagated by Epicurus; the other on virtue, advocated by Epictetus. Our modern day experience shows that this makes sense and is a simple first cut way to seek happiness. Chasing one, just pleasure or just virtue, will not make for a complete life. This is the reason rich kids are not often happy; neither are ‘leftists’. It is up to each of us to find this delicate individual balance.
 
Shawn Achor, whose TED Talk on happiness is among the most watched TED Talks, has a simple premise. People think that happiness is the result of success. But neuroscience research shows that the reverse is actually true. His view is not about denial of problems, but a view about the power of human agency to overcome challenges. His research shows that job success is 25% predicted by IQ, the rest by a person’s optimism levels, social support and the ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.
 
The bottom line is that the external world can only predict 10% of people’s long-term happiness. The remaining 90% is determined by how the brain processes the world. Indeed, happiness comes from within.
 
Robert Biswas-Diener, known as the ‘Indiana Jones of positive psychology’, in his research, the AIM Model of Happiness, sifts out three factors: attention, interpretation and memory. What we pay attention to is what dominates our mind. So, to be happy, one should not underestimate the small, good things that happen every day. The world is a laboratory for interpretation and objective responses will trump emotional ones in providing happiness. One should use memories as assets. Investing in experiences and savouring them can pay big dividends.
 
Money’s contribution to happiness reaches the point of marginal returns quickly. A 2010 Princeton study found that the correlation between happiness and wealth in the US lasts up to $75,000 a year. This relates well to Motivation-Hygiene Theory: not having money reduces happiness, but having more money does not necessarily increase happiness. Moreover, money brings control over one’s life, which may be a bigger factor leading to happiness than what money buys, which is why the link breaks quickly.
 
Social scientist Arthur C Brooks has three mathematical formulae for happiness. One, subjective well-being is a sum of genes, circumstances and habits. He focuses on habits since genetic dispositions are predetermined, and the effect of circumstances are transitory because of psychological homoeostasis, an evolutionary trait that enables people to get used to both good and bad circumstances quickly.
 
For analysing habits, Brooks provides another valuable equation: habits are a sum of faith, family, friends and work. Here, faith refers not to religion per se, but to a mental and emotional framework through which one can ponder life’s deeper questions. The importance of friends and family is demonstrated in another classic study (bit.ly/2PkIXww) initiated at Harvard in 1938, which tracked the lives of 724 men.
 

 

The first group comprised Harvard sophomores, and the second was a group of boys from one of Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. The results were profound: people who were more socially connected were happier. The key here was not the number, but the depth of relationships. The study showed that people who reported being the happiest in their 80s were those who were most satisfied with their relationships at 50.
 
Looking at work, Brooks finds the centrality of productive human endeavour in creating a sense of purpose — and happiness. Brooks’ third equation: satisfaction is what you have divided by what you want. He emphasises the denominator. It is eerily similar to the Hindu philosophy of controlling one’s wants and getting off the hedonic treadmill. Who said happiness is easy?
 
Being happy often means looking beyond imperfections. Gratitude is a good proxy for happiness. Kindness increases happiness. As does smiling. Intrinsic goals are better than just extrinsic goals. Deepak Chopra’s mantra of ‘intention without attachment’ works. As does Dale Carnegie’s idea of ‘day tight compartments’ to complement long-term ambitions.
 
Happiness is contagious. And the lines from David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play, M Butterfly, are most apt, ‘I’m happy. Which often looks like crazy.’
 

 
 


 
 


 
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