The joy paradox: Why does happiness seem so elusive?
A global project by an Indian researcher invites people to see the joy hidden in their photo folders. It’s there, he promises. So why does it seem so elusive? ‘We’ve made it really complicated, when what we need to do is keep it simple,’ Rajesh Pillania says.
You’re happiest just before you know it.
Even the consciousness of joy can take some of it away, as the elusive burst is subdued by thoughts of: how long will this last; when will I feel it again; what about this is working, so that I might replicate it?
We so closely scrutinise joy because it is hard to come by, and equally hard to pursue or define. “We spend our life,” as the playwright Samuel Beckett put it, “trying to bring together in the same instant a ray of sunshine and a free bench.” That can be happiness.
It can be the sudden aroma of hot coffee on a peaceful morning. The smile of a loved one, the laughter of a child one doesn’t even know, the glint of gift-wrapping paper.
Humans have been studying joy since as far back as history allows us to see. The Vedas link it with the quest for the eternal, humanity’s true aim. Philosophers of Ancient Greece equated it with virtue.
It feels elusive because we often fail to recognise that it’s there, or accept what really causes it,” says life coach Chetna Chakravarthy, who also completed in 2021 the happiness studies course conducted by Tal Ben-Shahar at his Happiness Studies Academy. Ben-Shahar launched his first such course in 2006, as professor of positive psychology and leadership at Harvard University. So deep-rooted is our search for joy that it became the most popular course in the history of the university.
“We are fixated on what event or desire will give us joy and make us happy,” Chakravarthy says. “The faulty belief we live with is that only what’s on our list can give us joy. We think those things are security, wealth and stature, because that’s what society has taught us. If we just observed our day instead, and made a note of all the times we smiled, laughed and got excited about something, we would realise how much happiness is available to us already, and we could more easily and accurately figure out how to increase it.”
That’s part of the mission of a new coffee-table book based on a photo contest themed on happiness. The book and contest were launched by the Happiness Strategy Foundation, which was set up in 2020, amid the pandemic, as a means of promoting a more effective approach to joy in India.
The photo contest began as a way to pay tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. Photos are the ideal way to showcase how simple happiness usually is, says Rajesh K Pillania, 48. A former CEO of the foundation, has a PhD in strategy, is a researcher in the field of happiness, and lectures on the subject at management schools such as Management Development Institute, Gurgaon.
Starting in September 2022, the Foundation used LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, as well as offline networks and communities, to invite people from across India to send in pictures of their moments of joy. The 50 winners would feature in the initiative’s first domestic coffee-table book.
A total of 769 responses came in. A panel was invited to select the best 50. This jury included Saamdu Chetri, a happiness researcher and founder-director of the nonprofit Gross National Happiness Centre, Bhutan; Geeta Dharmarajan, founder and president of the storytelling platform Katha; acclaimed poet and novelist Mamang Dai; Ajai Chowdhry, founding member of HCL Technologies; and Aditya Arya, founding director of Museo Camera.
“What I saw (in the images submitted): A multitude of different expressions of happiness,” Chetri says. “A smile can hide many things... but there were genuine expressions of happiness here. I judged based on realness, because real happiness arises inward and it is natural.”
The winning photos are just what you’d imagine: youngsters grinning in a selfie, a little boy smiling in the rain, a family by a river, a quiet moment of silliness between a woman and her son in a store window.
The book is available for free download on happinessstrategyfoundation.org. On January 1, entries opened for a fresh round of the contest, with winners set to be announced in August.
In addition, the foundation has published World Happiness coffee-table books, the first in 2021 and the second in 2022. The first contained 25 pictures; the 2022 volume, 100, from countries ranging from Australia, Bangladesh, Japan and Kenya to the US, UK, UAE, Romania, Colombia and Latvia. It opens with a foreword in the form of a letter from the Dalai Lama. “It is our basic instinct to be happy and joyful and to avoid suffering,” the letter states. “In my own life, I found love and compassion to be key.”
These public initiatives are a starting point, Pillania says. “Sharing research findings doesn’t have the same effect. Show people what joy might look like among their own photos, and they might develop an interest in our research, or in thinking about happiness more clearly and more honestly, and this is our entire goal.”
What, in Pillania’s view, is the secret to true joy? “It’s what it has always been: health, love, community, purpose,” he says. “We’ve made it really complicated, when what we need to do is keep it simple.”
(This story has been altered to reflect Rajesh K Pillania's correct designation.)