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Commentary Last Updated: Sep 28th, 2007 - 00:52:46

Of happiness
By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 28, 2007, 00:49

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If thou wishest for power, covet nothing
Except contentment which is sufficient happiness.

These words of Sheikh Sa�di were born of empirical research: we call it observation and experience. Nearly eight centuries later, the wisdom of the couplet has received mathematical sanction in the form of econometric studies. Those wont to downgrade the sages will find it hard to write them off today.

For most of us are like the friend of Sa�di who requested him to put in a good word with the sultan that he may be promoted. Sa�di warned him of envy and the dangers of court intrigue; which admonition infuriated his friend! Anyway, Sa�di put in a word, his friend was promoted and he soon lost all his fortune when his colleagues whispered to the sultan that he was a conspirator.

Economists are wont to measure wellbeing in terms of income -- like the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, they have been aware for a long time that income is a poor indicator of wellbeing. With increase in income, comes increasing problems -- like pollution. We are happy to buy a new car and whiz off with the family to Cox�s Bazaar, to crowd the roads, release fumes that cause bronchial trouble for young children and finally contribute to the concrete ugliness of the formerly beautiful beach. Affluenza has its drawbacks.

It would appear that the citizens of Europe and America have not known any increase in happiness over the last hundred years, even though their income has multiplied several times. A more recent estimate puts the number of years of stagnant happiness at 50. At any rate, satiety set in a long time ago.

Yet the richer you are, the more likely you are to declare yourself happy. The richest 25 percent of Americans say they are �very happy�; only the poorest 16 percent say that. Not everyone wants to be a dervish like Sa�di.

These findings have enormous implications. If more affluence doesn�t make us happier, then the goal of governments changes: instead of trying to increase income, they would do better to increase happiness -- which is something that nobody apart from yourself can achieve. Therefore governments, after ensuring that no one lives like a dervish unless they want to, should discourage firms from creating false needs through advertisements, and other instruments of desire. But that would probably be too Marxist an approach; anyway, it�s doomed to fail. If people want to fool themselves into thinking that more means happier, then no power on earth can disillusion them. Which is a pity: because such a realisation would have saved us from self-destruction: the forests would not be disappearing, over-fishing would have been abated, our children would have inherited cleaner air and water . . . Individual greed may be the driving force behind �progress and prosperity,' but it is certainly not �the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.'

Men like Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes prophesied that when people have enough material goods, they will seek the spiritual -- the pursuit of disinterested inquiry will overtake the �getting and spending� impulse. They prophesied wrong. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, owns a 74,000-square-foot-house. How much land does a man need? Affluenza leads to competition through conspicuous consumption. At job interviews and glitzy dinner parties, if you don�t outwear the competition, you have failed. "Purposeful effort comes to mean," observed Thorstein Veblen, over a hundred years ago, "primarily, effort directed to or resulting in a more creditable showing of accumulated wealth. Among the motives which lead men to accumulate wealth, the primacy, both in scope and intensity, therefore, continues to belong to this motive of pecuniary emulation."

The reason capitalism �works� is because it is based on greed, envy and love of power. � . . . I am of opinion that thou shouldst retire to the domain of contentment and abandon aspirations to dominion� had been Sa�di�s sage advice to his hapless friend. If we all took the advice, capitalism would collapse -- in short, human nature would change course by 180 degrees.

Research has revealed that people are happier if they earn more than others (contrary to economic theory, which has it that you are happier the more you earn, irrespective of others' income). Before you continue reading this essay, answer the following question. Which would you choose: $50,000 per year while others earned half that amount, or $100,000 while others earned twice as much? Give it a moment�s thought, then read on.

If you chose the former option, well, you are all too human -- and like the group of Harvard students who were asked the same question. So, if you work harder and earn more, you won�t be very happy if others around you earn more also -- only by making sure that they earn less than you, can you ensure your own psychic satisfaction. Now, answer a second question before you read further. Which would you choose: two weeks� holiday, while others got one week's, or four weeks� holiday while others got eight?

Again, like those Harvard students, you probably chose the latter option. People compete over income, but not over leisure. Does any woman ask her friend how much leisure her husband gets? No; but she is probably very aware of his income.

Lack of leisure, however, cuts you off from family and friends and makes you -- and your family -- miserable. As for your friends, they have probably given up on you by now -- besides, they too are too busy trying to earn more than you. Covetousness, therefore, makes your whole life miserable.

I know couples who hardly see their children, so busy are they earning more than the Joneses. And they justify their hyperactivity by all sorts of chimerical fears: that they have to pay rent, pay fees, save, and so on. Yet, they are already doing all this and more. Why? Because someone else will pip them at the post. As Bertrand Russell, with his keen logical mind, observed: �Envy consists in seeing things, not in themselves, but in their relations.�

But he was only partly right; for people compare themselves, not with those who are worse off, but with those who are better off. And they almost never focus on what they have, but on what they do not have.

Last winter, our charwoman came to our house one morning very late. We were angry at her tardiness; we were far from angry when we learnt the reason. Our charwoman lives in a slum that is situated over a pond. One of her neighbours was an old woman. During the severe cold of the night -- it was probably the coldest day last year -- the woman froze to death. I still cannot recall the episode without a shudder. �I never lamented about the vicissitudes of time or complained of the turns of fortune except on the occasion when I was barefooted and unable to procure slippers. But when I entered the great mosque of Kufah with a sore heart and beheld a man without feet I offered thanks to the bounty of God . . ." So wrote Sa�di, and with one more morsel of his wisdom we shall end these reflections.

O contentment, make me rich
For besides thee no other wealth exists.

Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.

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