In pursuit of happiness: Why is it important to be happy?

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New Delhi | September 09, 2018 1:57 AM

Personal happiness has become big business today. From ‘happiness curriculums’ in schools to ‘happiness departments’ in state governments, there’s a huge thrust on the emotion and its attainment. But why are we chasing happiness? And is too much premium being attached to being happy?

classes, happiness clasesParticipants at a session by Happy Ho, a Delhi-based emotional wellness firm that curates happiness-centric solutions for its clients; and the Delhi government instituted a ‘Happiness Curriculum’ from this year in the city’s government schools

In July, after schools had reopened post the summer vacations, children in more than 1,000 government schools of Delhi were in for a surprise. For those studying between classes I and VIII, one period of 30 minutes everyday was now allotted to ‘Happiness Class’. The curriculum of the ‘subject’, for which there will be no exams, includes exercises such as storytelling (which aims to make students think and analyse situations independently), activity-based learning, mindfulness, etc. “Children look forward to the class. They enjoy engaging themselves in the various activities and go to the next class with a smile on their faces,” says Kadambari Lohiya, one of the 200 mentor-teachers working with the Delhi Directorate of Education.

Lohiya says a class on mindfulness can teach a child about his/her immediate environment, thoughts and emotions. “The aim is to increase their attention span, improve academic performance and enhance emotional stability,” she stresses, adding, “It thus provides an environment where students are able to reflect about their usefulness in the whole social structure.”

A team of 40 experts framed the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ that focuses on value education and mental exercises. It has 20 stories (for the storytelling sessions) and 40 activities. One such activity is ‘Gratitude Wall’, wherein students are asked to write a few lines, expressing gratitude to family members who may have helped them in some way on that particular day. “Students come from very difficult backgrounds. A school system, where success is only measured through pen-and-paper examinations, creates further obstacles for them. So skills acquired through these activities will help them manage stress, decrease hyperactivity and anger, increase empathy and make them live a more meaningful life,” Lohiya explains.

Pragyanam, a soon-to-be-opened school in Gurugram, is also developing subjects with ‘happiness’ at their core. “Children are not happy at schools. They definitely get knowledge, but the process is not a happy one. We will deliver the curriculum, knowledge and life skills in a happy and conducive environment,” says CEO Raj Singhal. “The curriculum is designed to nurture qualities like self-confidence, self-esteem, inquisitiveness, coping with stress, being humane, coping with emotions, problem-solving, critical thinking, being responsible, and other life skills,” he adds. Singhal maintains that their methodology is about empowering children to move from “happiness by chance to happiness by creation”.

The cheer squad

Personal happiness has become big business today. From schools to large corporates, books to Instagram posts, wellness camps to workshops, the happiness industry is thriving. There are how-to-be-happy books lining shelves in bookstores, articles written ad nauseam about happiness and TV and radio programmes dishing out sermons on the happy state of mind. There are happiness modules in universities, camps held to spread happiness and even corporate workshops focusing on the emotion and its attainment. The quest for happiness has even led to the germination of new-age professions like ‘happiness counselling’ and ‘happiness coaching’. “Striving for happiness can be considered one of the most universally sought objectives not only for ourselves, but for our near and dear ones as well,” says Samir Parikh, director, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare, Delhi.

It’s not surprising then that, in 2016, the Madhya Pradesh government launched a ‘happiness department’ called the Rajya Anand Sansthan for the happiness of its citizens. Besides dozens of other activities, the department prepared a ‘happiness calendar’ (with a list of monthly tasks such as ‘play a game you have never tried before’, ‘write a letter to someone who hurt you’, etc) to help citizens remain happy.
In April this year, the Andhra Pradesh government, too, proposed to constitute a ‘Happiness Commission’ that would take up a series of programmes to promote happiness in the state.
So what makes state governments invest in joy? “Happiness, or joy, is a primary human emotion, which is an inherent right of every individual. It is not something that needs to be taught, as humans are inherently capable of experiencing it. At the same time, though, it is important to remind them of the ways of recreating a sense of happiness and well-being, which tend to get lost, as we begin to follow mundane routines,” says Parikh of Fortis Healthcare.

Perhaps that’s what the Madhya Pradesh government plans to achieve with its happiness calendar. Experts from Bhutan and the UAE, two countries that regularly bring out a happiness index of their nationals, were in MP in February this year to help the state prepare its ‘Index of Happiness’ to be published by the end of the year. For the index, MP carried out a pilot happiness survey in 10 districts, covering about 1,000 people, asking them what made them happy and their level of satisfaction with facilities like security, education, healthcare and entertainment in the state. A week-long Anand Utsav (Festival of Joy), which included various sports and cultural events, was also held across the state in January.

Not just India, the happiness syndrome has captured the attention of policymakers and officials across the world. In 2013, the UN started celebrating the International Day of Happiness on March 20. Observed by all member states of the UN General Assembly, the international organisation recognises happiness and well-being as a ‘fundamental human goal’. In the UN’s 2018 World Happiness Report, in fact, Finland topped the list of the most happy nations, which was compiled by analysing data from 156 countries (India ranked 133rd).

Then, in the UAE (which has its own minister of state for happiness since 2016), 60 government officials were chosen two years back as the country’s ‘chief happiness and positivity officers’. They were sent to Oxford University’s Mindfulness Centre and the Greater Good Science Centre of University of California, Berkeley, where their training focused on learning about happiness and how to spread it. In 2013, Venezuela, too, announced the creation of a new ‘vice-ministry of supreme social happiness’. And in Bhutan, Gross National Happiness, as set forth in 2008 in the Constitution of Bhutan, is given more importance than the gross domestic product.

Corporate giants aren’t too far behind either when it comes to monitoring their employees’ level of happiness. Google, for instance, employs ‘happiness gurus’ for their well-being. Others have ‘chief happiness officers’ onboard because joy is now connected to productivity. Also, many organisations work on the principle that political, economic, ecological and social problems can be narrowed down to psychological behaviours and attitudes of employees. “Employers increasingly want their employees to be positive in their outlook, so as to become more engaged in their work. Some of this is well-intentioned, some of it isn’t,” says William Davies, a London-based political economist and sociological theorist.

Closer home, Happy Ho, a Delhi-based emotional wellness brand, curates happiness-centric solutions for its client organisations, as well as individuals. “We customise solutions based on a client’s requirement. For corporates, we have two programmes: a Happiness Lab, which is installed at the client’s premises, where we work with different teams to address unique issues. The other is ‘Happy Ho Sessions @ Work’, which are pre-curated sessions lasting for around three-four hours,” says Jwalant Swaroop, founder and CEO, Happy Ho, which provides around 16 different modules in healing and solutions drawn from positive psychology, applied philosophy and spirituality. “We help our clients reclaim their lost happiness,” Swaroop asserts.

Joy on sale

In a consumerist society, happiness is today viewed as a commodity that can be purchased. It’s no surprise then that bookstores are filled with titles like Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Art of Happiness, Happiness: Finding Inner Peace and Contentment Through Mind Awareness and Relaxation, The Happiness Makeover, etc, all trying to teach the reader how to be happy. Instant gratification through shopping, eating at fancy restaurants, sugar overdose or going to exotic locales for vacations is looked at as the path that leads to happiness. Popular spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, too, runs Art of Living Happiness Programs that promise to help people rediscover joy and cope with the stresses of everyday life.

So be it books that guide you to a happy state of mind, holidays that guarantee joy, wellness camps that help you attain nirvana or life coaches who belt out positivity sermons, ticking off a materialistic bucket list has become the new avenue to be happy, with terms like ‘retail therapy’ thrown around loosely. Phenomena like ‘happiness sales’ by retail giants, too, paint a picture of how shopping is the route to happiness. “The marketing industry has been looking for ways to attach positive emotions to products for over 100 years. So in that sense, it’s not new,” says sociological theorist Davies.

In his 2015 book, The Happiness Industry, he highlighted that happiness is less science and more an extension of hyper-capitalism.

Agrees Swarnima Bhargava, a clinical psychologist with Children First, a Delhi-based mental healthcare solutions provider for children: “In the past 20 years, with an increase in globalisation and consumerism, happiness is increasingly regarded as a goal to aspire for and an attainable commodity,” she says.

And the figures speak for themselves. “The happiness sector is slated to be worth around $20 billion in India. But it is still very nascent and we have not even touched the tip of it… the unorganised sector is huge and the estimation of its size mindboggling. Therefore, there are more people selling unhappiness than people buying it currently.” says Swaroop of Happy Ho.

The stress on happiness has become so intense today, in fact, that an increasing number of youngsters are downloading mental health apps, where comfort is sought from a bot. Take, for instance, Wysa, a mental health chatbot, which has over 4.50 lakh users from 30 countries. The chat bot gives out tips to overcome stress, etc, to users. “We think Wysa works because everyone needs a friendly ear at times, especially when you may not feel comfortable exposing your thoughts or feelings before someone else. Our users tell us they find this experience truly empathic… that Wysa feels non-judgmental,” says Ramakant Vempati, co-founder, Wysa.

For appearance’s sake

So why are we chasing happiness? The need for feeling happy increases when people compare their lives with what they see on their social media feeds, say experts. “Many young students I interacted with (for my book) complained that appearing happy—rather than actually being happy—has become the priority because of social media,” says Boston-based Donna Freitas, sociologist and author of The Happiness Effect, published in 2017. In her book, Frietas stresses how people project an upbeat appearance on social media regardless of how they feel inside. “‘Putting on a happy face’, as one student put it, even if you are sad, lonely or miserable, is the constant expectation,” Frietas says.

Sociological theorist Davies points out how social media platforms have a tendency to exacerbate and accelerate emotional trends. “Different social media platforms have different psychological and emotional effects. Twitter, for example, seems to generate confrontational behaviours and attitudes. Facebook and Instagram are different, in that they support a kind of competitive happiness, where people put on displays of success and joy to demonstrate their success to friends and followers. It’s also known, for example, that Facebook can lead people to become more sympathetic to violence and more depressed,” Davies warns.

The idea that ‘happy’ is something you should be and can become through your own efforts wasn’t always as dominant as it is now. Dealing with work-life balance issues, stress related with work and relationships, anger management and lack of joy in life are issues that were never talked about two decades back. Bhargava of Children First explains how a breakdown in social relationships, coupled with an increased focus on individual satisfaction, has contributed to a search for happiness. “Also, the proportion of society that have their basic needs met has steadily increased, thereby increasing the attention on intangible pursuits such as happiness, mindfulness, etc,” she says.

The flip side

So is this obsession with happiness leading to an escapist attitude, wherein problems are being brushed under the carpet to give currency to euphoria? Purists think so. Many books, in fact, are questioning the happiness industry. In July, Australian author Jill Stark launched her new book Happy Never After in which she explores modern society’s ‘fairytale syndrome’, pointing out how people have come to believe that sadness is abnormal and something to fear.

Nordic countries, which are well known for topping international studies on happiness, are prime examples of the happy face that’s a disguise. A recent study, In the Shadow of Happiness, conducted in August by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, found that subjective well-being is unevenly distributed in the otherwise egalitarian Nordic countries. It found that there are significant ‘happiness gaps’ amongst the different generations, with 12.3% of the total population in Nordic countries struggling or suffering with stress, unhappiness at work, etc.

After all, putting too much premium on happiness has to have its fallouts. “Life is not about happiness, but rather well-being. Research shows that other things matter too, like strong connections with others or doing work that has meaning. It is about feeling heard, knowing that you have control and are not alone,” stresses Vempati of Wysa.

So just as there is research to suggest that positivity breeds happiness, which, in turn, leads to a successful life, there is counter research to suggest that the key to well-being is not feeling positive emotions more often than negative ones. It isn’t about trying to turn negativity into positivity, but rather feeling a wide variety of emotions. In fact, treating unhappiness like a moral failing can backfire. In a study conducted by social psychologist Iris Mauss and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011, it was found that the more people valued happiness, the lonelier they felt. Researchers concluded that people who valued happiness more tended to have more depressive symptoms and were less satisfied with their lives when they were under low levels of stress.
June Gruber, a professor of psychology at Yale University, US, warns that it’s important to experience positive moods in moderation. According to Gruber’s research, very high levels of positive feelings predict risk-taking behaviour, excess alcohol and drug consumption, binge eating and may lead people to neglect threats.

A few years back, psychologist Edward Diener (of University of Utah and University of Virginia)—a leading researcher in positive psychology who coined the expression ‘subjective well-being’ as the aspect of happiness that can be empirically measured—and his colleagues analysed a variety of studies, including data from more than 16,000 people from around the world, and discovered that those who, early in their lives, reported the highest life satisfaction reported lower income many years later than those who felt slightly less merry when young.

In the words of Canadian celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson and existential humanist Kirk Schneider, “Perhaps genuine happiness is not something you aim at, but is a byproduct of a life well lived—and a life well lived does not settle on the programmed or neatly calibrated.”

Maybe, it’s okay to not be okay.

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