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When are we happy?

Last updated on: September 05, 2011 12:38 IST

There are many unknowns about happiness, but one thing is known: Thinking about happiness does not make you happy, says B S Prakash.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Think of three age groups:

  • 15 to 20
  • 50 to 55
  • 65 to 70
  • Which group do you think is most happy -- or putting it in a more practical way, least unhappy -- however we define happiness? (In our context, being able to live without too many worries or being reasonably content is a good way of thinking about happiness).

    Would you be surprised if the answer is A, C, B in that order. You need not agree, but if you are curious about research on happiness, please read on.

    There are many unknowns about happiness, but one thing is known: Thinking about happiness does not make you happy. Nevertheless reflecting on the nature of happiness or about the causes of unhappiness, is a part of 'the human condition'.

    Buddha may have come to the conclusion that desire itself is the root of all dukha- misery, but the desire for sukha, is also intrinsic. So from time to time it is interesting to look at findings of happiness-research: It used to be that happiness was earlier primarily a matter of philosophical enquiry; over time it has become a matter for psychological research, and currently is headed as a subject for the neurosciences.

    Happiness no doubt is an individual's state of mind, but there is certainly a social aspect to it and so is it with research. Let us start by noting with satisfaction that in social sciences the idea that it is relevant to measure 'well being', instead of merely 'wealth' has gained acceptance.

    Money is important, can contribute to fulfillment of desires, but is not a sufficient condition for wellbeing, either in an individual or society. The Human Development Index developed over twenty years by Mahbubul-Haq, an eminent Pakistani economist and his good Indian friend Amartya Sen has now acquired greater salience.

    Wellbeing is not happiness, but can contribute to it with its components of health, education, freedom etc. What was regarded as a quaint Bhutanese idea, of measuring the Gross Happiness Index is also being seen as an enlightened concept though the methodological tools are still to be developed to give it rigor.

    Sociological data has been collected for forty years now to analyse questions such as which groups of people are happy in terms of gender, income, race, age or ethnic orientation.

    The future, however, is in examining the brain itself and the circuitry within it which mirrors a happy or a depressed state in an individual. Some of the research in brain-sciences focuses on the activity of the neurons in the brain of an individual who is 'happy'. To try to induce states of tranquility or happiness -- of course, the two are very different -- by stimulating a part of the brain is the next step, a laboratory version of what may be happening in yogic or tantric techniques, or for that matter in marijuana or 'Ecstasy' usage.

    Thus there are many dimensions to research on happiness from the philosophical to the psychological to the clinical. Here let us confine ourselves to one aspect derived from the sociological: At what stage of life is one most happy, the question that we started with.

    Tons of data has now established fairly conclusively, the phenomenon of what is being termed as the 'U-curve of happiness'. This is the idea that the young up to their twenties tend to be happy as one would expect; but that dissatisfaction and grumpiness often sets in around the fifties -- the familiar mid-life crisis that was traditionally spoken off; and then the somewhat counter intuitive idea, that despite declining vitality and activity, the old tend to be happier compared to those in their fifties.

    An individual's condition like health, family-status, adequate means etc matter of course, but there seems to be a larger trend here in the U-bend data seen from 72 countries. An article summarising the phenomenon in The Economist magazine last December drew hundreds of responses mainly from the above sixties endorsing the view.

    Why may this be so? Instead of theorising, it is instructive to look at the letters to the magazine agreeing with the research findings. Typically they run like this:

  • I am 66 and happier than ever in my life. Luckily, I do not have to worry about money, but that is not the most important reason why I am content.
  • I don't feel I have anything to prove to anybody. I am not trying to climb the corporate ladder and achieve status. I am out of the rat race and do not have to worry about my employer/business. I have knowledge of the world and am willing to discuss things on an equal footing with college students or university professors.
  • I have enough income to get by and don't need to engage in new acquisitions or conspicuous consumption. Walking or enjoying good food at home are as satisfying as driving expensive cars and eating at fancy restaurants.
  • I have made my own way in the world and have nothing left to prove even to myself. I still am active in social issues, enjoy reading and television and I still like to learn new things all the time.
  • I am no longer keeping score. I long ago broke even, and any joy I can get out of life from here on in is extra bonus.
  • These are the comments mainly from Western readers, but the sentiment is familiar. An Indian may add:

  • The greatest blessing is when my grandchildren invite me to play carom or cricket and are triumphant when they beat me.
  • The socio-psychological explanation underlying the letters seems persuasive. Let us assume that the young are carefree, even if in our society the anguish of college admissions and career choices can be most stressful. But even among successful corporate types, the fifties are often a time of reckoning when people have to come to terms with the limits of their potential and the horizon of their ambition in realistic terms. In the sixties a person has come to accept the overall trajectory and terms of his life.

    Shakespeare took a bleak view of old age and in describing the seven ages of life depicted it in cruel terms, not being sensitive to the U-bend:

    Last scene of all,
    That ends this strange eventful history,
    Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
    Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, Sans everything.

    In contrast the traditional Indian tradition describes four stages, the four Ashramas, and is much more in tune with the possibility of happiness, albeit of a different kind, among the elderly. Leaving aside the stages of the Brahmacharya (the student) and the Sanyasa (the ascetic), for our purpose, let us only look at Vanaprastha, the stage for the withdrawal of the elderly from the duty bound career of the Grihastha, the householder.

    The gradual non-involvement, the deliberate distancing from the whirl of every day business, the cultivation of the contemplative state, may this not lead to Ananda -- bliss, a higher state than happiness, sukha>

    Call it withdrawal, acceptance, contentment, transcendence, or what you will, isn't there a parallel between the third stage of Vanaprastha and the theory of the U-bend?

    Coming down to the mundane from the metaphysical, we can conclude with the wisdom in the words of that pragmatic American philosopher, William James: 'How pleasant will be the day when man gives up the desire to be young... or slender.'

    B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at

    B S Prakash