Happiness is an Illusion

By Rathi Ramanathan

One of the most challenging cross cultural issues for me is the relatively recent Western preoccupation with personal pursuit of happiness. History shows no religions and very few philosophers have ever focused on the pursuit of happiness. In fact, Oliver Burkeman in his book entitled “The Antidote – Happiness for People who can’t stand positive thinking”, argues that the notion of seeking happiness is flawed. Burkeman, a journalist with the Guardian – interviews an unusual collection of thinkers who finally points him to this conclusion.

“That our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure or sadness is what causes us to feel insecure, anxious and unhappy. Let us embrace uncertainty, insecurity and be familiar with failure.”

Buddhism counsels true security lies in the unrestrained embrace of insecurity through the inevitability of change. Hindu ethics offers contentment through the rightful pursuit of balancing the artha (worldly possessions), kama (desires like sexual and intellectual interests), dharma (duty to society)) and finally moksha, to attain spiritual liberation. One cannot be happy through the mere pursuit of worldly possessions or status in society in blind fulfilment of one’s desires, emotions and ambitions. You must feed the mind, body and spirit and ultimately learn to let everything go in preparation for death and liberation.

How differing philosophies on attitudes to happiness play out in society is particularly striking in how one parents. While the western model focuses on allowing a child to pursue “dreams”, a typical Asian parent will advise the child to choose a sensible career path that offers both financially and intellectually security. They do recognise their child may have an inherent talent but they also recognise the path to fame and success is a difficult one – no matter how talented you may be. So in firstly pursuing economic security, you then can take the risk of pursuing one’s dream and if that fails, you can always fall back on your career.This is one of the many aspects of what is coined as Asian sensibility.

Studies confirm that children of parents with higher hopes do better academically than those whose aspire less. So tiger mothers can take comfort in the data. After all, how can a child hope to understand what happiness is, unless it is associated with instant gratification? Even adults struggle with the idea of happiness – as evidenced by the growing phenomenon of mid-life crisis.

Research on happiness indicates people who help others are happier. Paul Hauch, a psychologist argues in his book entitled Overcoming the Rating Game: Beyond Self-love, Beyond Self-esteem that positive thinking and focusing on happiness encourages self absorption. He further argues that building self-esteem simply leads to arrogance, conceit and feelings of superiority. This may help explain the millennium generation’s obsession with selfies.

However what worries me about the new generation is the inability of young people to deal with failure. One only has to look at the steep rise in suicide rates for 19-25 year olds which coincidentally is the time when young people are leaving home and transitioning into adulthood in the West. While there are many indications pointing to the adverse impact of social media on young people-and I have also written and argued that  teenage dating has a negative impact on young people’s sense of self and self esteem- leads me to wonder, like others, if in fact constant praise and affirmation, in the belief it boosts self esteem, has the unintended consequence of breeding a generation that is unable to cope with criticism or set backs whether it be in the workplace or personal relationships.

How do they learn to become resilient if they haven’t dealt with adversity ? I do believe we should build self esteem, however new studies show that given a good loving environment, children generally have good self esteem so why not start preparing them for the very challenging life in this competitive capitalist world that is ahead of them.

That way they will fly strong and resilient when they leave the parents’ nest.


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