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

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