Happiness is a warm puppy said the poster. It was the 1970s, and I was a young boy. Oh no, I thought. I don’t like puppies, warm or otherwise; maybe I was condemned to a life of sorrow. Definitions can cause more grief than we imagine. But when you are at the cusp of a new year, happiness is the best thing to wish for.
It means different things to different people, even different things to the same person as they grow older. When millennials were once asked about their life goals, 80% said they wanted to get rich. Half of the same group wanted to become famous. Nothing about love or relationships.
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Hell is other people, wrote Sartre. Did he mean that all relationships are fraught or was he implying that others are hell if our relationships with them are bad? No Exit, the play in which Sartre’s line appears was written in 1944. Six years earlier, the Harvard Study of Adult Development had commenced. It analysed the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores (including John F. Kennedy). Over the years, others were brought in, notably the wives and children of the original group. It is the longest study on happiness.
Robert Waldinger, its current director, a psychiatrist and Zen priest coined the term ‘social fitness’: the study of which has given us such terms as ‘loneliness epidemic’, ‘connection divide’, ‘social prescribing’, ‘relationship education’ ‘hedonic well-being (as opposed to Aristotle’s eudaimonic well-being, the sense of life being meaningful overall), all self-explanatory.
Sigmund Freud based his theories on studies of neurotic people. Half a century later, Abraham Maslow, who felt that a science should not be based on the study of sick people alone, studied healthy people. One thing the healthy had in common, he discovered, was what he called ‘peak experience’: moments of sudden, immense happiness.
The Harvard study can be seen as the middle path. It stayed with the subjects throughout their lives, and rediscovered that good relationships keep us happy. This is a study not working backwards from what a person has become or where he is now, but forwards from where everything (including the past) lay in the future.
While the book Waldinger co-authored with Marc Schulz, The Good Life, sounds dangerously like a self-help manual, it is in fact based on the findings of the Harvard study. It describes rather than prescribes.
“Taking care of your body is important,” says Waldinger, “but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too.”
The World Happiness Report last year placed India 136th on the list, behind Ukraine, Ethiopia and Pakistan. Finland was at the top. The opposite of happiness here isn’t just sadness, it is loneliness. And this is as ruinous to health as physical illness. U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy called loneliness a “growing health epidemic” citing a study that said isolation is “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” In 2018, Britain’s prime minister Theresa May appointed the country’s first Minister for Loneliness.
Lost in search of ourselves
Happiness can’t be found in books that prescribe. “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of,” as Albert Camus said.
Most self-help books tend to be counterproductive. A book titled How to be Happy in 20 minutes can be a disaster if the reader doesn’t feel ecstatic in the prescribed time. Any book can be re-titled to sound like a self-help book, a genre that is a bestseller in every store. Romeo and Juliet? How to Postpone Happiness to the After Life. Macbeth? Listen to your Three Inner Voices. The Great Gatsby? Don’t Let Someone Else Drive.
Not all of us know what makes us happy. And not many can recognise happiness when they experience it. We are lost in search of ourselves, said the novelist Benjamin Labatut. The great tragedy in life is being happy and not knowing it. We tend to acknowledge happiness only in retrospect. Remember how exciting that trip to Europe was? But during that trip, we cursed and fought with everybody and swore never to return!
Fortune and fame when young give way to health and happiness as we grow older. I remember a line from a poem I read long ago: celebrating life left.
“I will be happy this year” is a great way to start 2024, even if that does sound like Chicken Soup advice. When I was a boy and happiness was a warm puppy, in the future lay my career as the first Nobel-winning Test cricketer. Only in my mind, though.
As another year begins, I am grateful that I love and I am loved. Nothing else matters. As our ancestors knew, and E.M. Forster said decades before the Harvard study: only connect.
The writer’s latest book is Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read?.
Happiness mantras for 2024
‘I needed to step back’
— Anurag Minus Verma, podcaster, who brought out a children’s book, Moon Pizza, this year, and plans to write a book about social media in 2024. (As told to Neha Mehrotra)
Social media got too overwhelming for me in terms of the volume of reactions you get every day. Both in terms of love and hate. I realised that I am perhaps too glued to it, and that I needed to step back. I no longer treat it as a platform for any kind of discussion or discourse. For that, I have my podcast. I just use social media as a publishing platform. Since I’ve stepped away from it, my interactions with friends and family have improved, and I’ve realised that I can sustain conversations for longer. For instance, I recently met a fellow podcaster while travelling. We first went out to eat nihari, a Mughlai dish we both wanted to try. And then we spent the next few hours chatting: about the creative gig economy, the podcasting scene, diet, life and philosophy. I don’t think I would have given conversations like these as much time earlier. Another thing that brings me joy is doing good work and sharing it with people. I am working on a documentary now — travelling through Rajasthan, on a road trip, and recording what I see. It’s personal history, but I’m also looking at it from a sociological lens of class, caste and gender.
‘Teddy has been like family’
— Lakshya Sen, former badminton junior world no.1, who was part of the Indian team that won the Thomas Cup in 2022. (As told to P.K. Ajith Kumar)
I went through a rather tough time following an injury earlier this year, but I could put it all behind me because of the backing I received from my family, friends, coaches, other supporting staff, training partners, counsellors and Teddy, a pet dog gifted by my brother [Chirag, who recently won the men’s singles title at the national badminton championship]. I was troubled by shoulder pain because of which I could not hit my smashes properly.
A few incidents disheartened me then. There was always something keeping me away from the court. I knew it wasn’t an injury scare that was stopping me. I had been working with mental trainers from a very young age. During this difficult period too, I was talking to them. The entire team around me was very helpful.
I remember talking to my mum during a tournament in which I didn’t do well and telling her that I wanted a dog. On my return, my family surprised me with a Chow Chow. Teddy has been like family. Whenever I come back from training, it is great to know that there is someone waiting for you, and to play around with.
‘I call up a friend’
— Kopal Nanda, ecoinfluencer, who prides herself for embracing more responsibilities in 2023, and plans to upskill and do a marathon in 2024. (As told to Neha Mehrotra)
This year, I’ve maintained social fitness by celebrating everything I possibly can: a birthday, a task someone completed, any small accomplishment that deserves celebration. I also attended all my friends’ weddings. It’s been a difficult year and so finding these moments of escape uplifted me.
There have been multiple incidents — personal and global — that caused me anxiety in 2023. And the role Instagram played in keeping us constantly wired wasn’t the best. Some content should have come with a trigger warning. My personal feed is filled with the Israel-Palestine crisis. And you can’t skip it because you want to keep up with what’s happening around the world. It makes me feel helpless though.
In such situations, I call up a friend and make sure that the people around me are feeling okay. The discipline of maintaining a routine, such as taking care of my plants, also helps me. If I see my plants growing, I feel good: a new leaf unfurling or a flower blooming. I know that I’m seeing the results of my efforts. It is that sense of accomplishment that keeps me going.
‘I try to spend time with students’
— K. VijayRaghavan, former principal scientific adviser to the government of India. He started a major science programme for school children this year and hopes to scale it up in 2024. (As told to Divya Gandhi)
The first lesson — and the most difficult — for social fitness is to try and be more concerned about those around you than just about yourself. Easier said that done, but it helps to see the perspectives and tribulations of those with whom I interact, even if I may not be of practical use.
This year, what was very worrying is how in-person interactions reduced substantially. On the one hand, days are often packed with engagement, with people appearing to interact, but on the other hand many of these interactions are online or are not buffered with time for relaxed conversations or thought. This is worrisome. I’ve tried — mostly unsuccessfully — to keep quality time for quality interactions.
The principal luxury is making time for what you enjoy, and time with family and friends. But this is not easy for many people overwhelmed with the challenges of the day. I also try to spend time with students — from high-school goers to research scholars. I am not sure it helps them, but it certainly helps me. Some of us put in effort on a summer programme for school children from across India. That was very rewarding and an eye-opener for me. This programme will now continue each year, thanks to generous philanthropic support. Getting together, working together and interacting helps. Not unexpectedly, we humans thrive on social interactions [as opposed to social media].
‘Watching films cuts out the chaos’
— Basil Joseph, actor and filmmaker, who gave acclaimed performances in two Malayalam films, Kadina Kadoramee Andakadaham and Falimy, this year. (As told to S.R. Praveen)
It has been a year of transitions for me, especially in my personal life after I became a parent. On the professional front, work has become hectic after the transition to lead roles. I have always tried to maintain a work-life balance and spend as much time as possible with my family. We travel a lot together.
My old friends circle — people from my college days and from my previous workplace [before I became a filmmaker] — is also important to me. Though there are close friendships within the industry, there is always a certain distance. For instance, when I am with my old circle of friends, we joke around and pull each other’s legs. There is no need to break the ice.
Among the things that have triggered me this year are the visuals in social media feeds of the deaths of children in ongoing conflicts. As a father, it affects me a lot to see visuals of people crying out for their dead children. Such happenings are unimaginable.
During such periods, watching films has been my way of cutting out the chaos around me. I also watch works by old masters and films from the black-and-white era as a means to learn the craft. It is an activity that takes me to a meditative space and gives me a lot of relief when I am faced with trobling matters. Cricket is another enduring passion. I still take time out to play cricket at the turfs in Kochi. Luckily, my biggest hobby has become my work.