Happiness and the Theory of Relativity

“Learn to let go. That is the key to happiness.”

                                                     –   Buddha

The other day, I chanced upon a report on the Happiness Index 2012 based on a global poll. What intrigued me were the results.

 On the top of the heap, as the happiest, are folks from Indonesia,India and Mexico. An Indonesia repeatedly ravaged by earthquakes and tsunami. An India struggling with one of the highest malnourished young population. And a Mexico racked by drug cartels and violence.

And at the bottom of the rung with low happiness levels are countries with some of the highest human development indices viz.Germany, Japan, France and Italy. The results do seem to fly in the face of our belief that happiness is a function of wealth, quality of life, health, education etc. And if this be not so, what really are we looking for when we seek happiness?

I get down to finding out what happiness is all about. Is it that warm fuzzy feeling that we get inside when we feel pleasure? Is it the lightheadedness on achieving that long cherished goal and recognition? Is it the contentment of our current situation, be it our family, work or surroundings? Or could it be the exhilaration offered by our material possessions?

As I reflect, I realise that we carry this hugely relative view regarding happiness. On one end of the scale we see it closely linked to pleasure. And so we aggressively seek it, doing everything in our powers to possess it. On the other end of the scale, we try to achieve happiness through “high thinking simple living” moral posturing which denigrates pleasure as something shallow and non-spiritual.

I drill and probe into this relativity surrounding happiness.

My thoughts veer towards the age old fable of the Buddha and the young woman Kisagotami. The story goes that when Kisagotami’s first born dies, her desperate attempts to seek out medicine.to revive the infant takes her to Buddha. Buddha, hearing her pleadings, tells the woman, “To make the medicine, I would need a handful of mustard seeds from a house where no child, husband, parent or servant has died.” As Kisagotami goes on her quest, she realises that hers is not a unique predicament. She leaves the body of her child  in the forest and returns. Buddha helps Kisagotami to “let go” of her perceived source of happiness- her child, to gain a higher view of happiness.

I see how I, like Kisagotami, instinctively position myself at the centre of my universe and hold on to all I have. So no matter what is happening out there, it comes down to how it will impact me. I notice this every time that inner voice complains, “Even though there is an economic downturn, why should I lose on my investments? Why does my child’s school not provide her the extra support? Why does it always happen to me?’ And so on…. I notice my self centric view and the need to hold on is really at the core of my perennial happiness hunting mission.

Me…. Mine….. Myself…..Acquire……. Protect.

Our instinctive happiness mantra. Words and thoughts close to our core. All contributing to our “me-first” perspective. Do we see the need to shift away and increase awareness of many other perspectives around us? As we make this shift, our “me first” point of reference loses ground. And this is when we enter into the world of relativity. Similar to what Einstein conceived a century back, this is a world where each of our reality is relative and all points of view subjective to the beholder. A world where the sheer act of noticing can change the outcome.

We cannot have happiness without unhappiness, pleasure without frustration. Just as we cannot have well being without catastrophe. All on a continuum, all relative to each other.  As we shine the light of this realisation on our “narcissistic self”, we see the relativity of our self concept and its reactions like anger, anxiety, doubt and grief, conditioned as we are to hold onto them. As we do this, our sense of solidity of the “self” collapses into a realm of relativeness.

So we come back to the question, “What is happiness?”  I believe it is an attitude floating in relativity. An attitude to accept pain and disappointment as part of pleasure. An attitude to move away from self obsession while being obsessed with our core values and commitments. An attitude to retain our faith as we face ridicule and hurt to that “me –first” self. An attitude to welcome the Good without being possessive along with   the Bad without being disappointed. The attitude to “let go” when it no longer serves us.

Could it just be that such an attitude gets fostered in an environment full of uncertainty and challenge? An environment which simply does not allow us to seek refuge in our individualistic cocoons. An environment which allows us to “let go.”

Could it just be why the Happiness Index 2012 has thrown up the kind of results it has?

In Learning………                                                                         Shakti Ghosal

QE1, QE2, QE3……………..QEn.

” There’s no disaster that can’t become a blessing, and no blessing that can’t become a disaster.”  Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I have never failed to notice one common thread in most Hollywood disaster movies. Of a precursor to the main event whose significance is lost to all except the protagonist. And how, when the latter tries to convince the authorities about the impending cataclysm, he is ridiculed. Till it is too late.

So in Independence Day, when David Levinson discovers a signal within a signal which is counting down to the Doomsday attack of the aliens, most of Mankind prefers to think of the event as the path to Deliverance. And in Day after Tomorrow, when the paleoclimatologist Jack Hall presents clinching evidence on global warming at a United Nations conference, diplomats are unconvinced. Interestingly the audience, sitting on the seat edge comprehends the emerging situation with the main guy and one tends to leave the theatre wondering at the woodenness and ‘stuck in the groove’ mindset of the powers that be in the movie.

As I sat reading a piece on the global economic situation the other day, one aspect caught my attention.  Of how more and more Governments are raising funds against bonds. Enter the central bank ( Fed in the US, RBI in India) which buys back these bonds and credits the commercial banks through a single entry and hey presto! money has been created out of thin air. The much touted QE1 and QE2 in the US were such “money printing” initiatives. The banks sit on piles of cash which they would like to lend out. And the more such money sloshes about in the economy, the more it chases physical assets like real estate, gold etc. And before we know it, we are inside a bubble, a dangerous territory to be in.

I remain amazed at how nonchalantly the world has passed over the above real life disaster in the making. How Governments, like opium addicts, continue to indulge in QE3, QE4………. up to QEn, by which time we are sure to be overwhelmed by hyperinflation. And how the interest payments on the borrowings are becoming unbearable and sending whole economies into a vicious tailspin. What a huge problem China, with its three trillion dollar reserve in US treasury, is facing due to a looming bond crisis. Or how an aging population in developed economies are finding their pension systems increasingly under threat. As people watch in horror their life savings getting eroded to near nothing.

Keynes in his 1919 essay on Inflation quoted Lenin, the Communism ideologue, as saying, “The best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens……………………………. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.” 

So like David Levinson and Jack Hall of our movies, did Lenin have the prescience of what would happen a hundred years later? Was he the one man who foresaw the self destruct capability of Capitalism nurtured economic forces gone wild?

In Learning…….                                                               Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement:  Keynes on Inflation. Excerpts from ‘The Economic Consequences of the Peace’ by John Maynard Keynes, 1919. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/shared/minitext/ess_inflation.html