On happiness


Rajneesh Narula

(another in my occasional essay series)


There are two questions that flummox me at social gatherings. The first is a favourite of new acquaintances who need a geographical/cultural reference point by which to interpret my actions and speech: ‘where are you from?’ The second brings us to today’s theme, preferred by friends whom one may not have seen for a long time: ‘Are you happy?’

It is another thing entirely whether these people ask because they really wish to know, or it is something to ask. The sincerity of the question, versus the sincerity of the questioner.

It vexes me, this question. Somehow I feel obliged to consider sincere questions, not least because most conversations at social events tend to the banal and superficial, and this question most certainly is not.  I invariably pause before answering, and have a quick think, ‘so, am I happy?’ The first thought that pops into my head is to ask for clarification: is this simply a way of asking if I am happy that I met you today, or perhaps this is the kind of question you ask (in a politician sort of way) to draw the encounter to a close. There is also always a clear possibility that you simply want an excuse to tell me about your own glorious and happy life. Then there is the question of what context you want me to respond:  am I happy at this particular moment of my life, as we speak? Perhaps you want to know about my general state of happiness around about the time (say a few months) of the question?

I tend to go with a quick evaluation of the last few weeks and months and just as sincerely, say ‘yes’. Sometimes I offer a caveat or two, that all things considered, I have a pretty darn good life, thanks for asking.

It is not – unfortunately – the end of the matter.  This is the downside of being a neurotic intellectual. As the astute reader will have realised, my stock answer doesn’t actually respond to the question.

Having a good life is not always the same thing as being happy. Thus the crux of my dilemma: what is ‘happy’? Being Happy is that great elixir, almost as powerful a dream as Eternal Youth, the Meaning of Life, or Living Forever.  Self-help books, DVDs, 10 step programmes and lectures  on happiness sprout like mushrooms from the lips of yogis, philosophers, academics, snake oil salesmen, politicians  and born-again zealots. 

A couple of hours of googling makes the matter even more murky.  Happiness is clearly a continuum. You can be ecstatically happy – and who hasn’t been there? - skipping as you walk, barely suppressing the urge to giggle, smiling at complete strangers, and generally sharing your happies with people who conclude from your strange behaviour that you are high on some sort of recreational pharmaceutical. That clearly is at the one extreme of the happiness continuum. At the other end of the spectrum – interestingly – is not depression (as some might think) but ordinary, humdrum, Garden Variety Unhappiness.

The difference between unhappiness and depression is muddy. The distinction (as far as I can surmise) is this. Unhappiness is caused by circumstances and situations that are real. These can be either external (say the death of a loved one, the lack of a house/spouse/job/money), or internal (say, lack of self esteem, frustration). When these are so, you are justified in feeling your life is crap. You are rightfully and deservedly unhappy, because Your Life Sucks the Big One (If you are happy under these circumstances, you must have a large supply of amphetamines).

You are only actually clinically in a depression when external circumstances  are actually not rubbish, but you feel sad anyway, and no improvements in your level of happies arises even when circumstances improve. That is, where the external and internal stimuli causing your unhappiness vanish and you show no change in your happiness coefficient, you are depressed. Freud is attributed to having said that purpose of psychiatry was only to take people from a depression to garden variety unhappiness. Unhappiness is natural. In other words, see a plastic surgeon, get a job, find a boyfriend, stop sleeping on a bed of nails, leave your husband, come out of the closet. If you fix all of these things and you still don’t feel happier, see a shrink (Which probably explains why most rich people are in therapy).  

Reality and stimuli to do with the absence or presence of things associated with your ego, your needs, and your sense of self-actualisation determine your Happiness and Unhappiness. If you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, ducks think you are a duck, your friends are all ducks, doctors and veterinarians alike are certain this does not reflect a chemical imbalance in your brain – you probably really are a duck.  There is nothing really wrong with being unhappy, if your reality does suck. Reality is a pretty slippery beast to come to grips with.

The best psychiatric help can only bring you back to garden variety unhappiness. We also know that being ecstatically happy is not sustainable, but neither is extreme unhappiness, because you will be inclined to suicide. Even where our circumstances remain unaltered that cause either of the two extremes, our mind seeks make the extraordinary seem ordinary, as if to say these edges are dangerous, stay away. One is no longer ecstatically happy one year after a £10 million lottery, even though the money is still there. I may be ecstatically happy the first time Penelope Cruz throws herself at my feet, but the 115th time she demands sex, I shall find no need to Tweet about my good fortune. Likewise, the anguish of getting dumped by Penelope Cruz will lessen over time. We know two things from this. First, both are transient states, unsustainable for long periods, and second these extremes are largely caused by external events.

This means that there is probably an equilibrium level of happiness, and I propose that this steady state is what we should define as our happiness coefficient, not the occasions of our extremes. Our baseline happiness levels are – as far as I can tell - much more determined by our internal state of affairs, from which the materially and/or socially wealthy are able to rise up from, scaling the giddying heights of ecstatic once in a while, and visiting the troughs of sadness when circumstances require you to do so.  It is also equally clear that your happiness equilibrium may be one of generally being ‘Not Unhappy’, or even ‘Garden Variety Unhappy’ rather than ‘Mildly Happy’.

Happiness when externally determined is a temporary phenomenon, because our external needs are relative, subjective and competitively determined. ‘Competitive’ because we see Tom, Dick and Jane doing, and that helps determine what we believe we ‘need’, creating a reference point of our happies. For instance, I might be happy because I own a motorcycle, but when Suleiman the banker down the road does less work for more money and buys that Ferrari, I suddenly feel less happy. I go green, and I covet.  My happiness may have been diminished, although my own reality has not changed, but my relative reality has. My happiness coefficient may also determined by my comparing my own progress over time.

As a child, I always wondered why – when offered three wishes by a benevolent genie/devil – the sorry fool would ask for things that had a downside, like princesses and palaces. Why did Aladdin/Sinbad/Faust not simply ask, ‘I want to be happy’, and then surely all these things would fall into place as a consequence? This, I felt, would surely lead to a better outcome (and my adult experience in these matters confirms that princesses of any persuasion are a guaranteed source of misery. There really never is an upside. Show me a happy princess and I’ll show you a prescription for Prozac).  And here we come to the fault of capitalist consumerism which raises the stakes on what you think you should have to be happy.  Film, TV, books all portray a reality which we need to suspend disbelief to appreciate, but sadly we take these back from our fantasies into our reality. We prefer to go with the beguiling two dimensional view of happiness painted by Hollywood/Bollywood, typified by the physically and mentally flawless couple driving off into the sunset to live happily ever after, with perfect jobs and perfect children, all untouched by psychological angst or trauma.  Even though we know this is fiction, we are exceptionally good at ruining our happies by measuring our lives against Shahrukh Khan’s or George Clooney’s character. The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, as Irma Bombeck so succinctly put it, but no one seems to pay any attention.

All flavours of spirituality and religion point to the source of unhappiness as being the desires emanating from material world, and guide one towards forsaking worldly possessions if we seek inner peace. None seem to speak of outer peace, perhaps because it would be a contradiction in terms. Maintaining a ‘Not Unhappy’ equilibrium is not the same as inner peace, but it’s a good start. The best most of us can do is be content with our lot once we are able to count our blessings, recognising that – as many Nigerian truck drivers did by painting this on the back of their lorries in the 1970s  – ‘No Condition is Permanent’. The Sufi mantra that ‘This too shall Pass’ is similarly intended, a useful phrase that, when meditated upon, can bring a smile in times of anguish, and melancholy in times of happiness. All this, of course, requires both strength and resolve. Finding one’s equilibrium and leveraging it to a higher point consistently requires accepting some pretty clear ideas about coveting the reality of others, and acknowledging that everything coveted has a price, and you had better make sure you are able and willing to pay.

I find it especially important to minimise (and avoid) the negative energy that chronically unhappy people generate, which, I suspect, are most people struggling with the competitive aspect of keeping up with the Jones’s. There are also those people – much like hypochondriacs – who revel in their unhappiness, because it defines them, and seek to populate their space with equally (or more) unhappy people, whom they collect just as others collect stamps.

But all this is futile, of course, because everyone must search for their own path, for like Kafka’s gatekeeper, it is unique to each of us, not in some generic self-help guide.  I can do no better than to quote a brief vignette from the life of the irrepressible Mullah Nasruddin:

“Oh, great sage, Nasruddin,” said the eager student, “I must ask you a very important question, the answer to which we all seek: What is the secret to attaining happiness?”

 Nasruddin thought for a time, then responded. “The secret of happiness is good judgment.”

 “Ah,” said the student.  “But how do we attain good judgment?

 “From experience,” answered Nasruddin.

 “Yes,” said the student.  “But how do we attain experience?’

Nasruddin smiled, shaking his head, “from Bad judgment.”






 A question that arises every Sunday (when I speak to my mother) is this: How do you distinguish between Garden variety unhappiness and depression?

Ah. Jenni Diski. My favourite irregular correspondent to the London Review of Books.


Why do people feel happy

He hated xxx with a tenacity worthy of a nobler enterprise

It wiuld be an exaggeration to say either book made as much as a ripple

The old reliable concept of counting one’s blessings springs to mind.