I spent my teen years in a state of happiness. Not that I had great things happening in my life. My external world was as difficult as any adolescent’s. My internal world though, was in a constant high, keeping me peaceful and healthy.
The Harry Potter books were my teenage companions. No matter how many times Ron drank the love potion, I’d find it hilarious again and again. Harry’s life at Hogwarts had given me a magical world of my own to retreat to. It was all in my mind, it was my happy place, and it reflected in all areas of my life.
What is happiness anyway? The absence of sorrow? That’s not practical. The absence of desires? We’re not ascetics. Psychologist Tishya Mahindru Shahani explains, “We can be happy only when we’re content within ourselves. I’d say happiness is the degree to which we judge the overall quality of our life in a positive light. It’s a part of our conscious mind.”
This definition reminds me of Liesel Meminger, the child protagonist of the book The Book Thief. The girl led a happy life for most part of the story, despite living in a war-ridden area. Her contentment made her such a positive soul that even Death, the narrator, celebrated her story. She was grateful for all she had and that kept her happy.
Like Liesel, I too was joyous as a teen. But adulthood has sapped my knowledge of happiness and its secrets. The more I try to find happiness, the more elusive it seems. Of course, I’ve been looking for it in all the wrong places–higher education, career, financial security, relationships to name a few. I now see that I’ve been chasing after a mirage. Says Shahani, “It might seem like we get our happiness from external objects or experiences. But the truth is that happiness arises from within us, no matter our external circumstances.”
Sure, externalities can bring us joy. A child’s first steps, a hard-earned educational degree, a fat paycheck, a pet’s antics, all make us feel elated in the moment. But happiness is purely internal and somewhat disconnected from these joys. Sexagenarian Kailash Advani describes this best. “When I was 15, it was my life’s fantasy to drink from a tin of condensed milk. My family had financial hardships. I had to wait for a 100 rupees gift from my principal, just so I could have the milk,” he says. “That was pure joy. As a boy though, I mistook it for happiness. Today I understand real happiness is entirely internal. It doesn’t matter that I had to shut down a business I had run for 21 years. I’m happy no matter what,” shares Kailash.
Recently, I watched the 2009 Ted Talk Plug into your hard-wired happiness. It turned out to be a revelation. The motivational speaker, Srikumar Rao, spoke of the fundamentally flawed ‘if-then’ mental model we’ve all adopted. According to him, it’s natural to want more. But associating the ‘more’ with our happiness is the real problem, he pointed out. Shahani agrees. She explains, “It doesn’t matter if there’s turmoil in our lives. There’s always a part of our mind that retains its state of peace. It’s just that our fears and desires blind our mind to its innate happiness.”
It certainly requires some internal work to get to a state of happiness. We may not be able to induce it per se. But understanding that happiness lies within us is a good place to start. Of course, I’m not the best person to walk you through the steps that lead you there. But let’s find out from others who’ve tapped into their innate happiness.
Tony Pius has been a dance artist for a while now. He’s found that dancing not only elevates his mood at the moment but makes him generally more peaceful. He explains, “Dance works your body to an extent of extreme fatigue. It requires absolute control over the body. In the process, you train your mind to remain in control. So, I’ve seen that this art has given me control over my innate happiness too.”
Tony found his happiness through dance, but it’s not the only way. Shahani says happiness can be found when we calm the habitual agitation of our mind. She maintains that’s all it takes to be happy – lulling an agitated mind. That sounds easier said than done. It seems almost saintly to me. It doesn’t look like something we’re all capable of, does it?
Going by how Prem Paul Ninan found his happiness, I think it’s safe to say we’re all capable of calming our mind during troubled times. All it took him was maturity. He explains, “Life’s experiences make mature people out of us. With time, I became more resilient. I learnt to weather the storms with a peaceful state of mind.” Today, Prem doesn’t get blown off with the first wind that comes his way. His calm-in-a-storm approach to life keeps him grounded and happy.
I’m talking about individual happiness here. If every individual in a region were to feel happy for the most part of the year, that would create collective happiness, wouldn’t it? Let’s not forget there are whole countries that are deemed happy! Denmark may not necessarily put a happy image in your mind. After all, it’s a cold country, where the sky is an eternal grey and frostbites claim several fingers and noses. How happy can it be? But, according to the Happiness Research Institute, based in Copenhagen, Denmark has been leading the list of happy countries. You’d think the climate dampens the spirit of the Danish, but they fight back with hygge (roughly pronounced hoo-gah), a kind of ‘cosy-up’ social bonding over drinks, food, TV shows and the like.
In the East, Bhutan too has earned its spot as one of the happiest countries. It’s a tiny nation with a handful of people living in the most serene setting you could think of. So, what makes this country such a fairytale? Here’s what a friend in Bhutan–Gopi Chandra Kharel–has to say. “It’s a nation that believes in peace and harmony. No one thinks twice before lending a helping hand to a stranger, who might be treated with suspicion elsewhere,” he says. Going by what Gopi says, it seems to me that the people of Bhutan are harmonious by nature and therein lies their peace. He agrees. “Simplicity and kindness create a happy environment for us,” he says.
We may not all live in Bhutan, but I’m sure we can find a Bhutan deep within ourselves. Happiness needn’t be an illusion if we know where to look. I’m reminded of the time when an orphaned Harry sat gazing at the enchanted Mirror of Erised, longing after his parents’ reflection. If that mirror were real, I’d love to see the world happy.