Everyone I know was profoundly relieved when the China-India stand-off at Doklam ended last month in a mutual pullback. Many of us were deeply grateful to Bhutan for standing by India and we longingly yearned for similarly good relations with our other neighbours. Bhutan has, of course, become famous for pioneering Gross National Happiness to replace Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of national success. Initially, I was sceptical if governments could make one happy because happiness seems to be an ‘inside job’, a matter of personal attitude and domestic circumstances. Most of us are unhappy because of failed marriages, ungrateful children, losing a promotion, or even a lack of faith. But now I think Bhutan has a point -a state which ensures freedom, good governance, jobs, quality schools, healthcare and absence of corruption can vastly improve the wellbeing of its people.
Not surprisingly, Scandinavians are at the top of the World Happiness Report 2017. America is ranked 14th and China is at 71. Surprisingly, happiness hasn’t risen in China although income per capita has multiplied five times since 1990. The reason could be a decline in the social safety net and recent growth in unemployment. India, alas, lags behind at 122, behind Pakistan and Nepal. Rankings on many criteria in the report depend on subjective wellbeing – it would be better to call it a National Wellbeing Report since happiness is such an individual experience.
Happiness is also a vast industry sitting in the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section of our bookstores. Ironically, nothing makes me feel less happy than reading a book on happiness – I conjure up grim images of smiling hippies, holding hands and chanting “make love, not war.” Unlike the French aristocracy, which believed that the natural state of man is idleness, I think passionate work is essential to happiness. One is lucky if one has the chance to work at something that one enjoys and also what one is good at. I agree with George Bernard Shaw: “Life isn’t about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself.”
How then does one give purpose to one’s work and to life? To answer this question, I sometimes play this thought game with my friends: You’ve just been informed that you have three months to live. After the initial shock, you ask, how should I spend my remaining days? Should I finally take a few risks? Should I confess my love to someone I have loved secretly since childhood? Should I turn to religion? Or learn to listen to the sounds of silence? How you live in these months is how you should live your life.
Ever since childhood we are told to work hard, get good marks in school and get into a good college. At the university, we are pushed to take ‘useful subjects’ rather explore the unknown. We finally land a reasonable job, marry a suitable partner, live in a nice house and get a nice car. And we repeat the same process with our young. Then one day in our forties, we wake up in the morning and ask ourselves, “Is this what life was all about?” We seem to have stumbled through life, intent on the next promotion, while life has passed us by. An unfulfilled life is a tragic loss.
No one bothered to teach us the difference between ‘making a living’ and ‘making a life’. No one encouraged us to find a passion. We were not exposed to choices in different fields. We did not read the great books of the humanities which portray struggles of men to create meaning in their lives. Very few are lucky to be a Mozart, who found a passion for music at the age of three. The way to tell you have found passionate work is when it doesn’t feel like ‘work’. Time gets distorted and suddenly it’s evening and you forgot to eat lunch. You were in ‘the zone’ as the athletes call it.
My ideal of happiness is consistent with Krishna’s idea of karma yoga in the Gita. Instead of detaching oneself from work, Krishna advises us to act desirelessly, which means not to seek personal credit or reward from one’s work. When I am absorbed in passionate work, I find that my ego tends to disappear. Passionate, self-forgetting work is of high quality because you are not distracted by the ego. This is my recipe for making a life, and it is also the secret of happiness.
The writer, Gurcharan Das, is an acclaimed author and columnist. He is the author of India Unbound and India Grows At Night.
This post was first published on his personal blog.
Tweet at Gurcharan: @gurcharandas
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