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Unhappiness, though dreaded, can make us do marvellous things

Science does not understand happiness well enough to define it. It is abstract and its meaning changes between the sexes and age groups.

columns Updated: Dec 20, 2015 22:25 IST
The Lancet,The Million Women Study,unhappiness
If happiness is an individualist pursuit, and it does appear to be so, what does such a pursuit say about us as members of the many tribes we belong to? Is a collective pursuit of happiness even possible?(IStock Photo)

To the most treacherous question in a marriage — ‘Are you happy, darling?’ — it appears that women do not give the same answer to their husbands that they give scientific surveyors.

A study that was published this month in the general medical journal, The Lancet, had followed over 700,000 middle-aged British women for about 10 years after asking them whether they were happy. Over 83% said they were ‘happy most of the time’ or ‘usually happy’. The startling discovery of the study is not that there are happy women in the world. From a scientific point of view, it is an unsurprising fact.

The objective of the study was to ascertain whether happiness reduced mortality. Science does not understand happiness well enough to define it, so studies that involve the emotion ask people to rate their own happiness. Not a reliable method, but there is no other way. Also, happiness is abstract, its very meaning changes between the sexes and age-groups. As a result, happiness studies do not have the halo of other forms of scientific research. But the sheer number of women who were monitored by the study that was published in The Lancet, The Million Women Study, lends it much heft.

The study concluded that the world was probably misled all these years. It has refuted the popular belief that happiness brings good health, and unhappiness brings early death. According to the study, happiness has no major impact on health. And, poor health may cause unhappiness, but unhappiness does not lead to poor health.

What is not disputed though is that unhappiness in some personality types, in some circumstances, can seed suicidal thoughts. And, in many people, unhappiness has the potential to push them into unhealthy habits like alcoholism and gluttony.

It is a poor use of unhappiness. Because unhappiness is a resource. We might be in the pursuit of happiness, but unhappiness can make us do marvellous things.

Ambition, for instance, is purely the capacity for unhappiness. That is why ambition is a talent. It is as foolish to ask a person to be ambitious as it is to ask one to paint well. Unhappiness creates a restlessness that forces many to set out to achieve an end. This inevitably involves hard work, and hard work is never labouring on what you love but completing tedious tasks. Only the unhappy can do that, and only they have the energy to game the system, play office politics, stab backs when required, and kiss feet.

The happy cannot do all this, because they are held back by their happiness. It is a state of existence that is wrongly called ‘contentment’. Surely, the happy must have come up with this flattering description of what is essentially a quiet inaction. The fact is that most of the happy are not content, they would like to have more if it all comes their way, but they do not have the churning within to disrupt their present.

In any case happiness is not a steady, uniform state across time. I have a theory that after the age of 15, we die once every five years and become zombies, and to be reincarnated we have to do something extraordinary, not wise, but extraordinary, or plain drastic. (Some people have children.) Those who are not reborn remain the living dead and they meander through life searching for meaning, which is a spiritual expression of unhappiness.

If happiness is an individualist pursuit, and it does appear to be so, what does such a pursuit say about us as members of the many tribes we belong to? Is a collective pursuit of happiness even possible? Several happiness studies in the past have pointed to a hypothesis that most of us would suspect is true — that some of the crucial sources of happiness are different for men and women. Amusing then that many happiness surveys of married couples take a couple to be a single beast, and deem their happiness as a collective emotion. ‘Happy couples’ and ‘unhappy couples’ do exist, but most of the world do not belong to such demographics.

It would be fascinating if a study sets out to find out the proportion of couples within who only one person is happy, and whether the happiness of one spouse is actually built on the unhappiness of the other. That would make science literature, perhaps. It should also inspire us to look at our own mild unhappiness as a measure of how it might be making those who are dear to us happy.

Unhappiness is extremely profitable in the arts. It is of such value that perfectly happy people pretend to be unhappy artists. And those who are naturally unhappy use the exposition of gloom to compensate for their mediocrity. The currency of unhappiness is what resolves the mystery of how the Left took over the arts. There are only two human enterprises that permit the full expression and veneration of unhappiness — arts and the Left wing. The Left probably invented arts as the megaphone of lament. This also explains why there is no money in the arts, at least for most artists. Anything that is permeated by the Left would naturally be impoverished.

Unhappiness is also an exquisite medium of ageing. It slows down human time. Prolonged happiness is a rot, the days go by fast, events occur without conflict, things fall in place, children rise and walk and run, and you are left wondering where some years had gone, and what exactly you did through hundreds of days. Unhappiness is slow, and heavy with our plots to escape it.

(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. He tweets @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: Dec 20, 2015 22:25 IST