Humanity is obsessed with happiness. Thousands of books are available on the topic and the pressure to be happy evidently escalates during the holidays.
The Declaration of Independence tells us the pursuit of happiness is one of our unalienable rights as citizens. But, the question is: What is happiness? How to achieve it? At what cost? Is there a dark side to it?
The definition of happiness itself is not clear, even though, for practical purposes, the word happiness is related to pleasure, satisfaction, gladness, gratification, felicitousness, joy and a sense of well-being.
Happiness is a state of mind. As Abraham Lincoln put it, "most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."
"The purpose of life is to be happy on its own," the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, "no amount of technological development can lead to lasting happiness. What is always missing is a corresponding inner development".
Some studies show that the people who are religious, married, conservative, healthy and outgoing tend to be happier. Not that all the others are not happy. The commonality seems to be "being content" and "having faith." Of course, having a job or home will help.
The measurement of happiness also is a difficult task. It is easily done at a personal level (though, not always accurate) by self-reporting. It can be measured at community or national levels by various indices. Costa Rica has been found to be the happiest nation on Earth by any index. Interestingly, it dissolved its armed forces in 1949 and invested instead in education and preservation of the environment.
Can money buy happiness? People who answer yes tend to be the unhappy kind. People who answer maybe have some hope. Researchers say happiness peaks at a $75,000 yearly income. After that, they say, wanting more money is all about score keeping with friends and neighbors .
"Look what I did.'' "Look at what I got.'' "I will have what they have.''
It becomes one of the main sources of unhappiness.
True happiness promotes physical and mental health in many ways. Happiness is found, during a five-year scientific study, to reduce the risk of dying by 35 percent.
Concentrating on making other people happy instead of focusing on one's self will make one happier. As Buddha said, "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."
Being happy with what one has, may beget more of what one wants. Or, as Albert Schweitzer, said: "Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success."
We are reminded repeatedly about our responsibility to be happy and we constantly suffer from the unhappiness of not being happy.
The addiction to happiness can make us cross moral and ethical barriers. Like everything else, happiness is good only in moderation.
"If only we would stop trying to be happy,'' said American writer Edith Wharton, "we could have a pretty good time."
And, Henry David Thoreau said, "Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder."
It's eloquent advice that goes hand in hand with the wishes we receive this season:
Dr. Rao Musunuru is a Bayonet Point cardiologist.