The questions started to come in furiously a few weeks ago when a wizened, old man, waved from across the road to suggest the both of us walk together through the neighbourhood. He is the silent, amiable kind. I joined him. A few minutes into our quiet walk, he asked: “What is the most important thing to you?”
I was flustered. I always imagined myself as the kind of person who knows what is important and what isn’t. This once though, the answers didn’t emerge spontaneously. He suggested subtly I think it through and that he doesn’t expect an answer out of me. His attempt was to embed a question in my mind. To make it easier, he added: “There are no right or wrong answers.”
A pregnant silence followed the reminder of the walk. What ought my answer be?
“Take your time,” he offered helpfully as we continued to walk. His face wore the look of a serene man. My head though started to resemble a battlefield. There were many things in there slugging it out to be the “most important thing”. Each “thing” had a good reason to be on top. When each of these things were examined dispassionately and in the third person, what ought to be the most important?
I thought I could see a pattern. Each of what I imagine as important is intended to do one of four things: Earn Money, Gain Power, Attract Fame or Retain Love.
While on money, there is much research that suggests the pursuit of money over $75,000 per annum (Rs1.20 lakh per month in terms of purchasing power parity) is an exercise in futility. That this amount is the “Happiness Plateau” is something I had pointed to in an earlier dispatch.
As for those who choose to chase money in excess of this amount, they been the subjects of much scrutiny as well, by the likes of that acclaimed science writer Daniel Goleman. This is because those who seek money merge with those who choose between power and fame. Between the three, they form a dark triad and are inseparable. There is much to suggest that the pursuit of one of these three leads to an unholy nexus and reduces the quality and quantity of life.
To live well then, evidence has it we are better off if we love well. Because if we love well, some damage can be undone. The quantity of life can go up by as many as eight years. The how-to-go-about-it had gotten me intrigued and is something that was discussed at much length earlier in this series.
The submission then was that the pursuit of love has more merit than engaging with the Dark Triad. There is more pleasure in it as well because it creates room to engage in frequent acts of love-making and increases happiness, and consequently the quality of life.
With the benefit of hindsight though, may I posit that happiness which emerges out of love-making is as ephemeral as happiness the Dark Triad offers? Not for anything else but because the joy of love-making lasts only as long as the act does. Post the act of love-making, it is either the memory of the act, or the anticipation of the act that creates an illusion of happiness. The promise of love isn’t different from the pursuit of anything else.
If we be prudish for a moment though, keep the act of love-making out of it and engage only with the emotion that is love, another human is needed to reciprocate what we feel and acknowledge our emotions. Minus a significant other, the emotion that is love too can only be imagined or anticipated. There is no happiness in the moment.
It sounds rational then to argue that all happiness that is sought in the pursuit of money, power, fame and love is of a fleeting kind. This is not for anything else, but because the happiness these pursuits offers are “derived” from memories of what has already passed or “imagined” around a future one can only be hopeful about.
The irony though is, if happiness is such a lovely thing, why must it such a fleeting creature? If it is as fleeting as it is, and all our lives are going to be spent in the pursuit of something that may barely last, is the quest a futile one? Why expend time and energy on it then? What may it be like to be perpetually happy?
Much thinking through later, I could hear the significance of the questions the old man had left unsaid. “Have you thought about why you do what you do? Is your identity tied to what you do?”
If some energy be expended on thinking through it, and the primary motivators that drive all of what I do are taken out of everything I do, will I continue to do what I do? May I want to earn more money for the heck of it? What do I need power or fame for? If I have no one to love or no love to offer, of what use am I to anybody? What is the point to existing then?
To test if there may be any merit in the hypothesis, I conducted a very unscientific study by asking a few friends what drives them. Everyone was unanimously driven by the quest for more money, power, fame or love (call it sex if you want). But once that is acquired, what else will they want to pursue to stay happy? Everybody went blank.
The old man and I had parted ways a long while ago that evening on a pleasant note with a promise to catch up later. His questions lingered though. I went back to the works of Mihali Csikzentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist. He has expended time thinking through the theme in his now seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness and has spoken about it in his various talks.
“What I 'discovered’ was that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
When thought about, I suspect what he is trying to say is that “Happiness” is a state of mind that can be acquired with much practice over time. He offers perspective on why us humans are unhappy.
“The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.”
Having said that, he makes a point that is at once devastating as much as it is humbling: “…natural processes do not take human desires into account. They are deaf and blind to our needs, and thus they are random in contrast with the order we attempt to establish through our goals. A meteorite on a collision course with New York City might be obeying all the laws of the universe, but it would still be a damn nuisance. The virus that attacks the cells of a Mozart is only doing what comes naturally, even though it inflicts a grave loss on humankind. Rs.The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,’ in the words of J. H. Holmes. It is simply indifferent.”
If we hold on to this thought for a moment, everything sounds futile.
Or is it?
Csikzentmihalyi has a pointer: “This paradox of rising expectations suggests that improving the quality of life might be an insurmountable task. In fact, there is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment.”
Implicit to this assertion are a more questions: Does this imply that us humans ought to know where may our limits lie? This follows from what was pointed out earlier: that there are limits to the happiness money can buy and boundaries to the gratification love can offer. And that happiness is a state of mind which insists we must choose to be happy, irrespective of the conditions that surround us.
But how may we find where do the limits lie? We may never know how far until the boundaries are pushed. All we can do is continually explore where those boundaries may lie. Who is to know how and when may those boundaries be tested?
One thing I do know for certain though. My time is limited and there is only so much I can accomplish. A lot may have to be given up on. What is it that may have to be given up on is something I don’t know.
That is why I’ve been at a little experiment for a few weeks now. What if I stop multi-tasking completely? While eating, for instance, attempt only to eat and taste the food. While reading, try to only read, and absorb the words. When with a close friend, attempt to shut the world out. While at a task, stay immersed in it.
On the one hand, the food tastes better, the thought that has gone creating the literature comes across clearly, the nuances in a friend’s voice suddenly makes itself obvious, the task on hand seems infinitely more pleasurable and time moves slower.
Is it possible pointers to where the good life lies may emerge when time slows down? Because everybody else seems to be in a hurry to get someplace. Where to? And what for?