Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Reflections: The Conquest of Happiness

As the car sped down the road, my mind raced with it. Thoughts chased one another relentlessly, churning up the bottomless void full of dust, of buried fears and hopeless scenarios. When the typhoon in my mind kept swirling faster and faster in sync with the trees wildly zooming past the window, the car screeched to a halt, and the typhoon froze in midair. Outside the window was a common sight I'd seen over a million times in my life. But on that particular night, with a panic stricken mind and a heavy heart, the sight of seeing an entire family sleep blissfully under the stars, precariously positioned on frail street partitions, amidst all the blaring horns, the mosquitoes and the dust, gave me a jolt. As if someone sharply slapped me across the face. I swallowed the painful knot in my throat and seriously considered stepping out, waking a teenage girl sleeping in rags and asking her what her secret was to sleep so blissfully when she had no clue about tomorrow's meal. As cliched as this might sound, I felt embarrassed and guilty at how I had sat there aimlessly letting my mind wander and conjure up such an abysmal view of my life, when I was blessed with so many many things. It is so easy to fall prey to the ego and its cry for pity. With an idle undisciplined mind, everything can be twisted so as to portray oneself as the victim of a great tragedy. But it is not often that such rude awakenings pass by one's window. So for many in comfortably developed societies, the mind rarely stops its tricks. And even if it did pause, the temporary realization is not strong enough to sustain the peace.

It disturbs me that human beings can be so intensely discontented even when they have all basic necessities, are blessed with decent health, and live in a peaceful, free society. I have never understood movies such as American Beauty. I get annoyed and depressed every time I watch it, but I have watched it multiple times to sincerely try and comprehend why a man would turn a supposedly normal and decent life, topsy-turvy. Is one's dissatisfaction so high that even inevitable, remediable glitches and hiccups in life can't be tolerated without running amok? What is the root of such deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness? Why are we setting up our lives to expect perfect happily-ever-afters, when the world can never guarantee such perfectness? If happiness is always dependent on such unrealistic external events, no wonder so many wallow in despair and unhappiness.

We are all familiar with the saintly spiritual definition of happiness - it is a state of mind which has to be trained to be independent of external causes. True and everlasting happiness is one that comes from within us. I completely agree. But Bertrand Russell's take is for the practical, spiritual agnostic. With his razor sharp logic and his lucid writing (rare for his breed), he explores the psychological aspects of happiness - unraveling those perspicacious understandings of the human psyche, which will strike a familiar chord of agreement with even the spiritualists. As a philosopher, I expected Russell to analyze and pick out the epistemological definition and purpose of happiness. But no, he thankfully does not. For, I am way past that state where I want to know why humans need to have this emotion or state of mind. I have reconciled to the idea that humans need a purpose to survive. Attaining the purpose needs to create some fulfillment, sensed in some tangible way, perhaps through the feeling of happiness. The book details all the means through which an average man can gain that feeling of purpose and happiness despite the ground beneath him constantly shifting. We have no control over many things in life, but of the things we are in control, the most important is our mind. Happiness is not something that will waft its way to us. The mind needs to go on a quest to find it, and to conquer it.

What causes a man in a developed nation to worry? Self-inflicted feelings of guilt, misplaced and irrational feelings of sin, the fear of boredom, envy, fear of public opinion, paranoia that we are the victims, the loveless souls in the middle of a mass conspiracy of hatred and unluckiness. The more idle the mind is, the worse the paranoia. Russell's basic and simple philosophy is to widen our circle of interests. The more we are interested in things outside ourselves, the more we give the mind opportunity to chew on creative conquests, taking the resources away from unnecessary worry. He urges us to be rational, and to discipline our mind. It is easier said than done to compartmentalize the mind and veer it away from unwanted, inevitable worries. This is where religion/spirituality and meditation would come in, but these aspects are not discussed in the book. But the most important first step is to identify if the mind can be channelized into any interest at all that will cause us happiness and pleasure (of course, something harmless and devoid of drugs). Doesn't matter if the interest that we want to pursue is not practical or meaningful according to Utilitarian's definitions. If watching the sunset is a cause of pleasure and inexplicable feeling of weightless happiness, then that's what you go after. Rather than worry about the futility of wasting time when you are expected be more productive and successful, relish the simple pleasures. Cultivate zest for such interests. An interesting discussion in the book is how the more civilized a society, the more unhappy the people are, and the more sterile. Contrary to evolution's common sense, the more civilized a society is, the more its people dread having children. There is a general fear, cynicism and pessimism about the future, while it is the other way around with less developed, less civilized parts of the society. Why?

To the girl who was sleeping in the middle of traffic, my life would be a blessing. She would find so many things to be happy about, and be zestful about. What is missing in me is that zest. A child is constantly at the brink of such vivaciousness and zest. Everything is new and exciting and adventurous. It's marvelous how children can entertain themselves for hours on end with something as trivial as sticks and mud. Somewhere in our lives, adults lose this feeling of implicit excitement and zest, of seeing everything through colored glasses. Why so? Because as adults our perspectives narrow in time. Our mind shrinks. All we focus on are the practicality and utility of things. We structure our lives with tight variables, when the truth is that we don't have as much control to regulate all the variables we introduce. If our happiness is to depend on them, it is unrealistic. The world doesn't revolve around us, neither is it sympathetic to our unique parameters of happiness. But we are so wrapped up in our self-centered pondering, that we delude ourselves that we make a difference to how the world functions and how it ought to reciprocate. Shifting the focus away from the self, and attending to the world around us, would make a big difference. Directing all the energy to creative means is a fruitful way of gaining purpose and happiness.

We are also paralyzed with the fear of boredom. Competition sucks us into its constricting core. We constantly try to run away from the fear of being alone, of being bored, that we cause ourselves intense physical and mental fatigue trying to numb our senses and kill time, rather than live the present as it is. A long and relaxing afternoon nap is immediately regretted when we get up and look at the time. We worry over the lost hours, when we should have been doing something more fun and constructive, such as taking a hike, meeting people, and being a tireless social butterfly. But what is wrong in taking a relaxing nap? Why not revel in that simple pleasure which we anyway appreciate. Why let our thoughts gnaw into us? Why be worried that we are not having enough fun? Why let the mind dictate and regulate what is fun? Simple pleasures are ignored in pursuit of something bigger, more fun, and more pleasurable to the senses. With this rigorous pursuit, finding pleasure by itself becomes a tiresome task, and there is no energy left to feel genuine zest or enthusiasm. The pleasure of simple solitude is now alien.

These are the simple aspects of happiness discussed in the book. Nothing earth-shatteringly new, but just a well-written, thoroughly analyzed essay on human psychology. It is down to earth in its convictions, and the recommendations on the pursuit of pleasure are devoid of any connotation of sin, which by itself is refreshing.

A woman once called up a radio-philosopher/spiritual mentor and cried out her woes. She had lost her husband in a tragic accident a year back, lost her son to cancer the following month, and recently lost her other son in another accident. With so many losses within a matter of a year, her life looked unbearably tragic and deeply saddening. When she cried, asking what other purpose she had to carry on living with so much sorrow, I waited in earnest for the mentor's advice. He asked her what would make her happy again. She said she wanted her family back, and that she had so much love to offer, but her children were taken away from her. The mentor responded saying that she still had ample opportunities to have a family again and share all her love. He reminded her that the world was full of young children craving for motherly love. As a matter of fact, the world was full of people yearning for love. He insisted that she still had plenty of reasons to survive and share her love with all those people and create a family for herself. After more than 10 years, I remember this piece of advice. We can always create meaning and purpose in our lives. We just need to go on a brave quest to find that which resonates with us, however trivial and simple, that will infuse pleasure and happiness.

The world has never yielded to us. As a species, we have constantly evolved and adapted to the ways of the world. So we must with our lives.


Srishti said...

Neeru... You surpass yourself this time ... :) great post da.. "Somewhere in our lives, adults lose this feeling of implicit excitement and zest, of seeing everything through colored glasses." Very true lines:)

Neeraja said...

Thanks Srishti... kind words for a boring ramble :)

Aparna Narayan said...

Very well written...as always. You should read Eckhart Tolle's " A New Earth - Awakening to Your Life's Purpose". I think you'll like it....

Neeraja said...

Thanks Aparna. The book sounds interesting... will try to read it :)