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'Survival Instincts Beat The Desire To Be Happy'

"Misery has a purpose. It alerts us to threats to our own well-being and motivates self-protection."

'Survival Instincts Beat The Desire To Be Happy'
'Survival Instincts Beat The Desire To Be Happy'
What is the good life? Is it individually achieved affluence: a fancy car, a deluxe home, holidays abroad? No, says David G. Myers, American social psychologist and author of The Pursuit of Happiness. The good life springs less from one’s first million than from loving and being loved, from developing the traits that mark happy lives, and from ‘flow’ in work and recreation. He spoke to Pritam Sengupta. Excerpts:

Isn’t it odd, in the age of globalisation, to be wondering if money can buy happiness? Does such a line end up proving the limitations of capitalism, thus buttressing the old, socialist arguments?
When you ask whether money can buy happiness, few people would answer yes. But ask another question—would a little more money make you a little more happy?—and most will sheepishly nod.... Certainly, globalisation’s contribution to the alleviation of poverty in India and other countries must be appreciated. But we can also question western materialism. In an era when consumption has increased to ecologically unsustainable levels, it’s prudent to ask whether the quest for more and more things—to levels way beyond what’s needed to meet basic human needs—really contributes to quality of life.

How important is the pursuit of happiness for human beings? Would we have stagnated and maybe perished as a race had we all been satisfied and content with what we had?
I call this the adaptation-level phenomenon. And we must thank ourselves for it as it is this that fuels our ambition and achievements. Without it we’d dwell contentedly on our first plateau of success, feeling no drive to accomplish more. Instead, as we pursue expectations bred by our rising achievements, staying even won’t do. Dutch emotion researcher Nico Frijda says, "Continued pleasures wear off.... Pleasure is always contingent upon change and disappears with continuous satisfaction."

In a poor country like ours, where people fight hunger, disease and oppression, is it reasonable to expect them to place the desire to be happy over the instinct to survive?
No, the drive to survive trumps the desire to be happy. Happiness is something one thinks more about after his or her basic needs are met. Thus "what makes a happy life" is a question more often studied in times and places where the people’s basic needs are secured, and they look for something more. As the King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuk observes, "Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product."

Are rich people happier?
To an extent, yes. Especially in poor countries like India, being relatively well-off does make for greater well-being. We need food, shelter, and some control over our lives. But in affluent countries, once we are able to afford life’s necessities, more and more money provides diminishing additional returns. That’s why America has big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secure rights and diminished civility. We are excelling at making a living but failing at making a life. We are prosperous but yearn for purpose. We cherish our freedoms but long for connection. In an age of plenty, we are feeling spiritual hunger.

Has any society ever been uniformly happy?
No society has been uniformly happy. The point cannot be overstated: Every desirable experience—passionate love, a spiritual high, the pleasure of a new possession, the exhilaration of success—is transitory. True, some individuals are happier than others—or more in love, or more spiritually alive, or happier with their success. Still, life can be an unending pleasure cruise if happiness were continually rejuiced by new upward surges—highs followed by highs.

Do you believe technology will one day enable governments to keep all citizens happy? Is it healthy to always be happy?
No, I don’t think such a day will come. Misery serves a purpose. It alerts us to threats to our well-being and motivates self-protection.

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