the pursuit of happiness

re-reading pico iyer’s piece also reminded me of another piece, which i have been meaning to post since i read  – the idea of happiness, by ashis nandy.

Nandy argues that

The self-conscious, determined search for happiness has gradually transformed the idea of happiness from a mental state to an objectified quality of life that can be attained the way an athlete after training under specialists and going through a strict regimen of exercises and diet wins a medal in a track meet.

He is concerned with

 the emergence of happiness as a measur­able, autonomous, manageable, psychological variable in the global middle-class culture. And the two events can be read as parts of the same story. If the first factoid – discovery of happiness as a teachable discipline – suggests that in some parts of the world happiness is becoming a realm of training, guidance and expertise, the second reaffirms the ancient “self-consoling” “naïve” belief that you cannot always be happy just by virtue of being wealthy, secure or occupied. You have to learn to be happy.

The determined pursuit of happiness is now seen as a response to a disease called unhappiness. In the second post-world war period, unhappiness in some parts of the world has been systematically medicalised. It is now the domain of professionals, where the laity by itself cannot do much except cooperate with the experts. To acquire normal happiness, one now requires therapy, counselling or expert guidance – from a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst or professional counsellor or, alternatively, from a personal philosopher, wise man or woman, or a guru.


There survives another concept of happiness, more nuanced and yet, at the same time, more down-to-earth. It affirms that healthy, robust, authentic happiness – “authentic” in the sense existential psychoanalysis deploys the term – must have a place for unhappiness. Aoki talks about the sadness of unrealised hope and the struggle to acquire a language in which to talk about happiness. In such instances, the presence of the unpleasant does not necessarily mean the diminution of happiness. It becomes part of a happy life that oscillates between the pleasant and the unpleasant, achievement and failure, being and becoming, work and play. In such a life, work becomes vocation and leisure need not be reinvented as the antithesis of work. Vocation includes leisure, exactly as a pleasurable pastime may comprise some amount of work. The idea of perfect happiness is consigned either to the domain of the momentary or the transient or to the mythic or the legendary. It cannot be achieved in life, but may be realised in exceptional moments.

( read the rest of the article)

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