Why I Don’t Pur­sue Happiness

Business Bhutan - - Opinion - SONAM PELDEN

Ev­ery few months, my mind crowds and I lose my abil­ity to con­cen­trate. It lasts three days or a week, or, cat­a­stroph­i­cally, two; my writ­ing stalls out and soon af­ter, so does my speech. For years, the reme­dies were books and late-night com­edy spe­cials—they still do the trick, but a lit­tle too slowly. Re­cently I’ve learned that this slug­gish­ness comes about when­ever I ex­pe­ri­ence an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis (which is quite of­ten) – when ques­tions like ‘What is my pur­pose in life?’ ‘Why am I al­ways work­ing?’, and the dreaded ‘Am I happy?’ plague me more of­ten than the email no­ti­fi­ca­tions on a Mon­day morn­ing.

The dis­course around happiness is some­thing I en­counter more of­ten than the av­er­age per­son would sus­pect. Per­haps it’s be­cause I am a Bhutanese liv­ing abroad, and most in­tro­duc­tions will be punc­tured with in­qui­si­tion about my gen­eral level of happiness.

They’ll ask: ‘Isn’t Bhutan the hap­pi­est coun­try in the world? Are you all al­ways happy?’

I’ll re­ply: ‘Yes, we have a Gross Na­tional Happiness in­dex. No, we are not al­ways happy. I mean I cer­tainly am not!’

I don’t go in much for light-hearted an­swers frankly, I find any­thing that sounds too overtly happy de­flat­ing, for rea­sons that I will con­tinue work­ing out with my ther­a­pist – just kid­ding!

I feel like I am star­ring in a com­ing-of-age novel – where an in­tel­li­gent young woman wakes up one morn­ing to ques­tion her en­tire ex­is­tence be­cause she has lots of ideas about the world but no clue how to live in it (Ex­cept, in this case, you scratch the in­tel­li­gent young woman and re­place her with some­one who is per­pet­u­ally para­noid with re­ally bad stress habits).

I al­ways find it very dif­fi­cult to an­swer this ques­tion (or to list down the things that make me happy) with the care­ful nu­ance the sub­ject re­quires. One rea­son for this is be­cause most of us as­sume that happiness is a bi­nary state – you are ei­ther in joy­ous tri­umph or a mis­er­able wretch (and I am al­most never the for­mer). It’s a ques­tion you can only an­swer when you think about this con­cept on a deeper level. Most of us never think about mea­sur­ing happiness. Or, we sim­ply as­sume we know how to do it.

I read some­where that happiness is hav­ing: 1. Some­thing to do 2. Some­one to love 3. Some­thing to look for­ward to While I think this is a pretty good start, con­ven­tional think­ing about happiness im­plies that other things or peo­ple make us happy. Why is it that we be­lieve some­thing or some­one al­ways has to make us happy?

I think that’s the big­gest prob­lem with happiness. Why do we keep as­so­ci­at­ing happiness with ex­ter­nal things like ca­reer, love, and money? And how much of it do I need to be re­ally happy?

Maybe I was just born anx­ious and an­gry and this is how I find peace with the uni­verse. Or maybe I am just mis­er­able and ev­ery­one else is feel­ing some­thing I am not.

Be­ing happy im­plies per­ma­nence – it im­plies you have com­pleted all your pre­req­ui­sites and now you get to sit atop your giant pile of happy for­ever. You have re­tired from the every­day roller coaster of emo­tions and sim­ply revel in your happiness.

And this is why I have a prob­lem with Bhutan be­ing dubbed as the hap­pi­est place on earth – and with the lit­eral as­sump­tion that all its peo­ple are happy. By and large, the nar­ra­tive put forth by pop­u­lar me­dia prop­a­gates the no­tion of a naïve bliss­ful na­tion – al­beit en­tic­ing – where tribes of smil­ing peo­ple are con­stantly gripped in song and dance, which sees it­self as the be-all and end-all def­i­ni­tion of happiness. This is a dan­ger­ous half-fic­tion which needs to be fought on all fronts. It in­cu­bates anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism and a sense of en­ti­tle­ment, and per­haps even more trou­ble­somely, man­ages to dis­tort how Bhutanese peo­ple per­ceive them­selves. And I have come in contact, with peo­ple who care less about be­ing use­ful to our coun­try and more about our per­ceived level of happiness by the out­side world. There is so much more than smil­ing and danc­ing to Gross Na­tional Happiness – and we need to push that for­ward! (To be elab­o­rated in a sep­a­rate post)

But …

Happiness is not some self-driv­ing car tak­ing hu­man­ity to a pre-set des­ti­na­tion. If the gains of happiness are to en­dure, then there must be some­thing else that cham­pi­ons it long-term. Our sense of happiness is so brit­tle it can be de­stroyed by sim­ply ask­ing whether it ex­ists or not.

In­stead … I pre­fer the pur­suit of use­ful­ness over the pur­suit of happiness.

Think­ing about use­ful­ness takes one’s murky in­tu­itions about life and re­turns them in vivid, per­fect form, like the mess that only dis­tance can help make co­her­ent.

I be­lieve pur­su­ing this feel­ing of use­ful­ness is more im­por­tant/ac­cu­rate than happiness be­cause ul­ti­mately be­ing use­ful and hav­ing a pur­pose in life – i.e adding value to my com­mu­nity and to my­self makes me feel more ful­filled, more alive – all the things we as­so­ciate be­ing happy with.

When I am work­ing, or read­ing, or ex­er­cis­ing, I am not smil­ing or beam­ing with joy. In fact, when I do these things, I am of­ten suf­fer­ing. But I do them be­cause I find them mean­ing­ful, and I find my­self be­ing use­ful. I find them com­pelling. I do these things be­cause I want to be tor­mented and chal­lenged. I want to build things and then break them. I want to be busy and in­ter­est­ing and brim­ming with ten-thou­sand mov­ing parts. I want to hurt so that I can heal. I’m not happy – I am busy. I am in­ter­ested. I am use­ful.

I think it all boils down to a story of bal­ances – of hav­ing use­ful things to do but also be­ing grate­ful for be­ing able to do these use­ful things. It is also a with­er­ing of ex­ter­nal judg­ment and val­i­da­tion and do­ing ex­actly what you find ful­fill­ing.

Go­ing back to this: … Happiness is hav­ing: 1. Some­thing to do 2. Some­one to love 3. Some­thing to look for­ward I think this in­evitably touches on as­pects of 1. Use­ful­ness (when you have some­thing to do) 2. Be­long­ing (when you love some­one) 3. Hope (when you have some­thing to look for­ward to) … more than happiness it­self.

Now if you ask me if I feel use­ful, if I have a sense of be­long­ing and if I am hope­ful about the fu­ture – the an­swer will most likely be a more straight­for­ward Yes!

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