The pursuit of happy-ness

The 2006 film of the same name shows the story of a single father who faces insurmountable odds at first and eventually ties the ends of the protagonist’s frayed life beautifully. The movie ends with the father being successful at what he does, a typical tale of hard work, perseverance and luck ultimately bringing success and much needed financial stability to the protagonist’s life. But is the protagonist ultimately happy with his newfound wealth and stability? We will never know.

Such stories abound in the Indian diaspora that is thriving outside the country today. You hear of folks from modest backgrounds, with parents living very middle-class lives, only dreaming of the lifestyles their wards lead today. But the part I have since realized is missing, both in the movie and reality is the happiness. I work in a society full of accomplished individuals, smart and tech-savy, making many times more than the American average salary, living in posh-neighborhoods, driving swanky cars and warmly clothed in their expensive Columbia jackets. It looks great on the outside. These people have proverbially “made it”, aced tough competitive exams, majored in various engineering fields, worked hard through graduate school here living in near-poverty conditions, bagged prestigious jobs and now lead cushy lives. Everyone’s life is like a movie tale. But only a small fraction of them seem to be generally happy.

I am not saying one must be happy and upbeat when faced with a crisis or an emergency. Those are unfortunate but necessary experiences faced during a lifetime. But what about that occasional gathering? That birthday party? The impromptu dinner or lunch? Or a drive to the beach with friends? I have begun to notice that the upbeat conversation fades quickly and is replaced by a constant worry – of job security, deportation, company financials and more recently – immigration status. Those are valid reasons to worry, no doubt. Private companies don’t provide the cushion of job security or retirement benefits and the tech-sector is especially vulnerable to setbacks and layoffs. But is the other alternative constant worry? Do we strive to improve our lives only to mentally burden ourselves with the fear of losing it all? Where do we draw the line between being ambitious and anxious?

Everyone is different and handles a crisis, imaginary or real, differently. The pressure to perform well in tests, get a good college degree, job and working hard are directives issued in pursuit of the eventual “good” comfortable life. We worked towards a better standard of living, a job where you could have a positive impact on the world and enjoy life. I see everyone living swanky lives , enjoying fantastic vacations, buying large mansions and cars but being generally unhappy because they constantly worry about something. Yuval Noel Harrari, in his book “Sapiens” points out that human beings in their pursuit of a better life have actually increased their burdens and revved up the pace and anxiety. He rightly calls it “The Luxury trap”. Are we being ensconced in this trap as well? Does the promise of earning money, living the desirable life, holidaying in famous places around the world come at the cost of mental peace and sanity?

I will not be the first to point out the exponential rise in stress being faced by our generation. The stress to maintain the lifestyle, being threatened by unfavorable immigration policies, the peer pressure and competition today in the work-force are all man-made evils. It is no wonder that our parents’ generation were more social, interactive and generally happier. To me, personally, if you aren’t able to be happy and constantly seek that utopian existence without risks and only rewards, you have to evaluate what your ultimate goal is. The phrase “Happiness comes from within” is often overlooked and brushed off. But the ability to be at peace and pursue the feeling of being joyous without depending on circumstances all the time is key to avoiding feeling blue for something or another.

I still pursue happiness. I am aided in no small measure by wet noses and wagging tails who welcome me home everyday. Their love, excitement, happiness and ability to live in the moment is not actually an evolutionary drawback, maybe it is the real goal.

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