Home >Opinion >Views >What truly keeps people happy in such unhappy times

A new question is in the air. What must you do to find joy in these times? It is a question that presumes you are sad, that even insists you are sad. So it looks you in the eye even if you have not lost someone dear, and you are not enduring the torture of caring for someone, which today could include the task of dragging a bleak, industrial oxygen cylinder. Even if you have been spared for now, there is an assumption that you are slowly sinking in second-order melancholy. After all, there is death all around, and a sense of inevitability.

So, what are people doing to make themselves feel better? Nothing much.

Most people do nothing special to feel happy. They are just happy. When they are lucky, they are happy, and when they are unlucky they are sad, but all arcs of their lives bend towards joy. In happiness they are not amateurs; they don’t over-articulate joy. Their whole lives are built around being happy. So what they now do is stick to a semblance of a routine, and surrender to habits. They work, chat, watch a lot of television, watch T20, read, play badminton on the street assuming it will keep them fit, lament that the gyms are shut as though they used to go every day, and they eat a lot of fast carbs. As before. They did all this more or less the same way before the pandemic. A typical Indian does many things in a single day to be happy in different ways without even knowing the motive. And most people achieve happiness because the bar is so low.

There are others who are happy in a more complex way, which they consider a higher order of happiness, a self-assigned high place in a secret caste hierarchy of living. They don’t need to be entertained by a story, or a piece of news, or by sugar. In not expecting happiness in all three meals a day, or every hour, they imagine they have liberated themselves from animal biology. Thus, when happiness does occur, they feel it more than the others because it is so much rarer. They, too, were exactly like this before the pandemic, and they too have not gone in pursuit of happiness. They too are pros at happiness.

There is an old golden piece of advice in long-distance running. Don’t buy new shoes for the race day. It is the novice who runs a race in new shoes. Seasoned runners don’t do anything different on race day; they stick to everything that is old, including their water bottles and bandanas and watch straps, everything that is deeply familiar to their skin.

Most people who have gotten away from the pandemic so far without being directly struck by tragedy do not feel the obligatory sorrow that the question in the air presumes because they found joy in what is familiar to them, in their habits, and in staying true to who they are. They don’t even ask questions about how to be happy in a pandemic, or at least ask this in a serious way. They are just happy. So where has the question come from?

The question has emanated from people who talk the most about happiness. People who have for long been dejected, long before the pandemic. They have some interest in the answer, but they love questions more than answers. Most people who say, “Have you felt so dark before, so helpless before, so hopeless before," know that the answer is yes, they have felt so sad before, in different circumstances. The articulation of ‘how to be happy’ is often an articulation of sorrow.

The question has also come from psychologists and psychiatrists.This is because they are ‘qualified’ to have answers to such questions, which they then transmit. That is how the question has come to linger in the air.

Not everyone finds joy in bleak times by just being themselves. Some people are donating money to noble causes for the first time. Even people who know that every taxpayer is a philanthropist cannot help donating, because it brings them joy.

Some have decided not to feel the pain of other people, and they read news of the unfolding misery as though it is some kind of realistic fiction happening in another dimension. This form of protection from sorrow is more common than people are ready to admit.

Some have found comfort in becoming the guardians of appropriate sorrow. They condemn jokes and festivities, and the overt public happiness of the Indian Premier League (IPL). I am confident that they privately do watch Netflix “in these bleak times", but they find other people’s public display of joy disgusting. They are like that grim relative every family has, who expects everyone to be in mournful silence when he is ill. Oddly enough, many of the people who oppose IPL matches as insensitive are surely among those who condemn thugs who enforce homage to a departed politician or actor by closing half a city down. This sanctimony, too—this expectation that everyone should be like you, be as emotional as you—is a way of manufacturing comfort from ambient fear.

But a majority of people find happiness through regular means, like by seeking entertainment, such as the IPL tournament. However, they are wary of the guardians of appropriate sorrow. They fear being perceived as bad people. So they have become secretive even about watching cricket. And when they want to share something good that has happened to them, they break the news with the preface, “In these sad times, finally some good news", without realizing that in ‘bleak times’ the last thing people want to know about is something good happening to other people.

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