Home / Opinion / Wealth, happiness and liberty

The relationship between wealth and happiness has a long lineage. Aristotle had wondered whether wealth was at all useful if it was not a means to “something else". There is a fair degree of consensus that this something else is happiness. What exactly is happiness, and how to achieve it, is however not at all clear. At the root of the problem lies the complex, often counter-intuitive and paradoxical, and non-linear relationship between wealth and happiness. Also, while wealth gives one greater freedom of choice, the notion of liberty is more implicit than explicit in this debate. It is however central not only to happiness but also, as we shall see, to unlocking man’s true potential.

In his classic formulation on liberty, philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a distinction between its positive and negative dimensions that have often come into conflict. Positive liberty is the freedom to do what you wish, which could however include the state imposing what it claims as the ‘popular will’ on citizens that could constrain individual liberty. Negative liberty is freedom from the domination or oppression of others, including the state.

Like liberty, happiness too has both a positive connotation—being glad or happy—and a negative one, not being unhappy, that is being content, satisfied, etc. The negative concept leads inexorably to a gradual disengagement with the world and relationships.

At one level, being happy is like the wind in the sails that spurs one on, that enthuses while the feeling lasts. This is the positive concept of happiness. At another level, not being unhappy is ananda or satisfaction, being at peace with oneself and the world, suggesting quiet equanimity, without the peaks and troughs. This is the negative concept of happiness. The first kind of happiness seems external and ephemeral, the second internal and more durable. Individuals can, and do, experience both forms of happiness. The larger questions are: what is the source of both kinds of happiness? Are there ground rules for getting there? Which kind is the more desirable?

Desire is central to both kinds of happiness. The path to negative happiness lies in limiting desire. According to the Buddha, desire as the source of all sorrow or unhappiness was one of the four noble truths. The next noble truth followed, namely that the path to eliminating sorrow lay in limiting desire. This could be done through disengaging from the world and society. Renunciation or vanaprastha in the Buddhist-Hindu tradition is the most extreme disengagement, with the temperate ‘middle’ path recommended for the ordinary man.

The path to positive happiness on the other hand lies in following your desires, something that the Buddha renounced in his search for enlightenment. Pursuing either form of happiness is, and should be, a matter of personal choice. Usually it is an automatic response. It is nevertheless intriguing that the Constitution of the US, one of the most advanced, wealthiest, powerful, innovative and successful of nations throughout its history, rests on a combination of a positive concept of happiness (‘pursuit of happiness’ enshrined in the Declaration of Independence) and a negative concept of liberty (first constitutional amendment). Is this fortuitous or is this the magic potion that unlocks human potential? Arguably, India seems to operate with the obverse combination, namely positive liberty and negative happiness.

The path to negative happiness seems relatively straightforward in theory, although far from easy in practice. The path to positive happiness is however littered with moral hazards. Three problems in particular stand out. First, self-destructive pursuits like alcoholism and drugs could be a source of transient happiness for some. Second, the pursuit of happiness can have a dark side in human interactions. It is not difficult to imagine a situation where acts harmful to others could be a source of happiness for some people. Third, the fleeting nature of positive happiness which inevitably leads to satiety.

These moral hazards can arguably be remedied through three golden rules that conduce to the optimal mix of wealth, happiness and liberty that can unlock man’s true potential.

First, individuals need to discover what they like doing best—which activities they like doing that seem to make time stand still. The right to pursue happiness also gives the right to unhappiness. Putting restrictions on the liberty of adults to prevent them from self-destructive behaviour can be the thin edge of the wedge that has the makings of a nanny state that can lead to unhappiness and alienation in society as happens when the state becomes the nation’s moral touchstone and policeman. Second, your pursuit of happiness ends where another’s pursuit begins, and the state needs to underwrite this. According to an influential view, this is the main rationale for the existence of the state to begin with. Both these golden rules are consistent with a minimalist state adhering to the negative concept of liberty.

The third golden rule risks foolishly attempting to tread where even angels will not. Taking the liberty to amend the four noble truths by inserting a single adjective before desire, namely ‘unrequited’. Desire in itself is not the problem. It is unrequited desire that is a source of unhappiness, or at best of fleeting happiness as desiring “things" or activities cannot result in enduring happiness. Requited desire, on the other hand, is the source of dynamic or self-sustaining happiness manifested through relationships. Mutual love is one such expression of requited desire. Gift giving is another, as it makes both the giver and receiver happy. Indeed, using your wealth and time to maximize others’ happiness may be a greater source of happiness than using it on yourself.

Alok Sheel is a civil servant. These are his personal views.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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