On the desk of my former boss, there was a small board that said:
“The greatest need- common sense”
But it is really surprising how often common sense is wrong. When I was a young adolescent, like most of my peers, I was very concerned about physical beauty. It was my lack of (perceived) height that bothered me the most. Later on, my receding hairline became a source of major worry. I couldn’t help envying some of my friends who were tall and handsome, though I was good at concealing it. Many pretty girls clustered around them and I imagined these beautiful friends of mine to be much happier than the plainer population that included me.
By high school, it had become clear to me that there were differences among people in their natural abilities. Some students could do math effortlessly. Whenever I was doing a math problem, I tugged and tore at my hair so severely that I am convinced that my baldness which was to develop later was mainly due to this. Intelligence was for real. It was a much-prized possession. Society (and teachers) made that abundantly clear. Whatever one said about different abilities and how everyone is good in his own way, there was a quality called general intelligence that was partly innate. Highly intelligent ones do have it much easier than many others. They should be happier than others, shouldn’t they?
They should, but they are not. Studies have consistently shown that intelligence has nothing whatsoever to do with lasting life happiness.
Being beautiful and attractive doesn’t make one any happier. This surprising finding was proved quite satisfactorily by Diener and colleagues in 1995. They did rigorous measures of subjective well-being and the physical beauty as objectively assessed by impartial judges who were not aware of the implications of the study. Another surprising study found that fashion models who were highly valued for their beauty were significantly less happy than their peers.
What could be the reason for this finding? Aspirations and expectations are probably to blame.
We become happy when our life outcomes match or exceed our expectations. I know how intelligent and beautiful I am. An amount of self-deception does come into the picture, but that is a different topic. If I am intelligent, I expect certain results. I expect better grades and a good job. It doesn’t make me happier, because it is expected. On the other hand, I will be disappointed if I am intelligent and only barely passed my exams.
When I am handsome I do expect the society to treat me like a beautiful person (It does- science has shown that people are not impartial as regards physical beauty). I expect similarly beautiful ones of the opposite sex to be attracted to me. I would be very unhappy if they didn’t!
As young college student, I noted that it was good to be young. I was healthy and vigorous. I could eat whatever I wanted.
I saw that my parents were burdened with responsibilities. Many of them I considered bothersome (Including being in charge of someone like me). I was generally free to do whatever I pleased. Old age and the suffocating adult world seemed ages away.
My grandparents were alone. They had some diseases and infirmities of old age. Their mobility was restricted. I imagined that they felt very alone. We visited them frequently and they were overjoyed to see us.
I was sure that this was the happiest period in my life. Things would become worse, I was sure.
I would not have been that surprised if happiness levels remained stable throughout life. Now I know about hedonic adaptation and the ‘expectation versus attainment’ equation. I would have even expected a slow decline in happiness as we progress through adulthood to old age.
In fact, the opposite is true. Happiness levels increase steadily and reach a peak in young adulthood. Middle age shows a dip, when you are less happy in your forties or so. Subjective well being and satisfaction rise in your fifties and sixties in spite of declining health, diseases of old age and stints in hospitals. They show a decline, in some cases, only after age seventy five. That too, when adequate social support is not there. When ample supports are there, like in advanced countries, eighties are the happiest years in a person’s life!
It is clear that there are many things we don’t know about the factors that govern happiness. It is easy to come to a conclusion that you can do nothing much about your happiness baseline. You either have it or you don’t.
But that is not true. Abject poverty and continuous misery makes people unhappy. Happiness levels vary across communities and countries. As people are lifted out of poverty, countries like India and China has shown a rise in the subjective well-being of its citizens.
In the west, as also in upper middle class India, material prosperity and conveniences of daily life has improved remarkably, over the past half century. Has that made people happier?
We have data from only western countries. But they tell us something that we, as a developing nation should take note of. What do we want to develop into?
It seems that despite many fold increases in absolute income and purchasing power, most of the European countries and the US has not become happier. In fact one survey shows that in America, half a century back, the average happiness score was 7.5. A recent estimate puts the value at 7.2. During this period, the average American has become healthier, richer and lives considerably longer. The actual prospect for pursuing leisure has increased. Technology, gadgets and the internet have provided unprecedented opportunities to entertain themselves and relieve boredom. Still the number of citizens suffering from Depression has gone up. More people attempt suicide. Crime rates are on the rise. Our well being is on a stagnant path.
In some countries, especially Scandinavian countries, happiness levels have risen slightly.
Maybe we need to steer our policies prudently, to increase social inclusiveness and ensure minimum facilities for all, while at the same time avoiding predatory governance that may choke economic activity by an excess of control and taxation.
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