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Chasing happiness

January 3, 2009

“I call that man happy, to twist Henry James a little, who can meet the needs of his imagination”
By Pico Iyer
Livemint - Delhi
The key to happiness, I’ve always felt, lies not in what you have but in what you don’t have: unrealistic expectations, a sense of entitlement, a constant sense of craving or a hunger to be famous, powerful or rich. I call that man happy, to twist Henry James a little, who can meet the needs of his imagination, and I’ve always felt that if you can simplify and clarify your needs, then everything else falls into place. The happiest people I’ve met are definitely those monks—starting with the 14th Dalai Lama, subject of my most recent book—who have created so strong and stable a home in themselves that they are never far from home, lost or uncertain of where they’re going.
Recent research has shown, again and again, that most of us have a certain “happiness threshold”, beyond which it’s hard for us to go. Certain people seem as averse to optimism as others of us are unaware of the meaning of despair. Yet where we stand, when it comes to our happiness, is less like our height than like our muscles; we can work on it, train ourselves (as we train at the gym) and learn how better to realize our potential. Not everyone can become an Arnold Schwarzenegger (or a Dalai Lama), but most of us can learn to be happier and healthier than we are, so long as we enjoy basic freedoms and food and shelter.
Happiness is a matter, in short, of our perceptions, and not our circumstances; certain wise souls have been as content within a prison as many millionaires in Beverly Hills are lonely, confused or depressed within their multi-million-dollar mansions. People who suddenly win the lottery, surveys have found, are, at the end of their first year of wealth, no happier than before; they spend all their time with lawyers, they’re not sure whom or how much to trust, they’ve moved into a fancy neighbourhood where they don’t feel they belong. Meanwhile, those who are suddenly rendered quadriplegic report that they feel really not much worse than before their accidents, after a period of adjustment. This is what we see on the page, too: a compassionate young woman like Etty Hillesum, who lost her life in the Holocaust, writes with radiance and conviction and infectious optimism, even as her death approaches, while many a self-absorbed rock star confesses himself desperately starved of the love, respect and direction that are where true happiness lies.
I’m not the person to speak on this subject—just another blundering journalist—and I could fill this column with the wisdom of my betters, from Aristotle to Woody Allen. But what I’ve found in my own life is that happiness has come most reliably when I haven’t been looking or hoping for things that don’t really sustain me deep down. In my mid-20s I was a young writer with a job at Time magazine in midtown Manhattan, an apartment (officially) on Park Avenue, freedom to travel and write and, single, to do pretty much anything I pleased. But I could feel that something inward and profound was not being satisfied, and so I left for a monastery in Kyoto and now live in a two-room flat in the middle of rural Japan, with no car, no bicycle, no printer, no high-speed Internet, no television I can understand.
And the days seem to allow time to do everything and nothing, and I can’t think of a material thing I lack. Happiness really means just the freedom to pursue what is most essential in you while always recalling that happiness, peace and respect come only when they are not being pursued.
Pico Iyer’s most recent book was The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
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