People say money can’t buy happiness, but now I find it allows you to rent a lot of space in the ashrams of the saintly. Going by the pile of moolah some of our spiritual mentors are sitting on, unimaginable wealth — for me, money that takes 20 people 36 hours to count is a start — and the delightful things it can buy appears to be essential to stay spiritually satiated in this mad, bad world.
Right, and wrong. After spending close to a century analysing what makes us depressed, neurotic and delusional, clinicians have finally turned their attention to what makes us cheery. And, no surprise, they report that all you need is enough money to meet your basic needs. More than that — acres of land with private helipads or roomful of gold, for example — doesn’t make you any more exultant. Of course, basic comforts can be a pair of Manolo Blahniks or a Rolex for one and Nike or Swatch for another, but happiness appears to be the middle road most taken but least appreciated.
Happiness works at two levels. First is your day-to-day mood swings and the second is satisfaction about the way your life is headed, the kind of stuff Deepak Chopra preached to amass his great wealth. More than absolute wealth or status, satisfaction from life depends on relative wealth or status, shows research. Simply put, it depends on how much more money you have than your neighbour.
This does not mean you hang out with hobos and the criminally insane to feel better about yourself. All you do is set a material target and take a break when you reach it.
Princeton University’s economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman set the bar for Americans by putting a price on happiness at making $75,000 a year (Rs 33,75,000 a year or 2.8 lakh a month). The lower the annual incomes were below this benchmark, they found, the unhappier people were. But earning more than $75,000 — no matter how much more — didn’t make people happier.
Several studies have shown that religion is a happiness booster, as much for the spiritual guru than the devotee, as we’re discovering every day. Apart from this opiate for savaged souls, random acts of kindness — paying for a child’s education, visiting a sick relative, etc — are boosters for the mood barometer. Surprisingly, cerebral traits — such as high IQ, curiosity, reasoning — do less to make you happy than social virtues such as love, gratitude and benevolence.
So, if money and a big brain don’t bring you happiness, what does? Not youth, success, an education or good looks. States with higher education levels such as Kerala and Sikkim have the highest suicide rates in India, with deaths being the highest in teenagers and young people in their 20s.
And what may well be the only factor in favour of growing older, surveys across the world have consistently shown older people to be more satisfied than the young.
Cynics would say that they have less to look forward to, and so have fewer disappointments, but you can’t beat hard data: People between 20 and 24 are sad for an average of 3.4 days a month, compared to 2.3 days for those between 65 and 74, reports the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since growing older is not something you need to work at, the easiest mood-booster would be to do a random act of kindness. Psychologists anyway credit much of the benefits of religion to the interpersonal participation it generates, so perhaps it’s time we turned to community instead of ashrams for satiating the spirit.