One day the teacher asked a class of ten year-olds what they wanted to become when they grew up.
One boy jumped up- ‘I want to be a doctor’.
‘Oh, Very good’, said the teacher.
Many others followed. ‘Teacher’, ‘Truck driver’, ‘Singer’- The children came up with many professions. One girl said that she just wanted to be at home and look after the house like her mother.
‘That is not bad’ Said the teacher. She was open to unconventional lines of thought.
‘What about you, Prakash?’ She asked the quiet boy sitting at the back.
‘I just want to be happy’ said Prakash. ‘I want to be happy when I grow up’
The teacher was stumped. “But that is not something that….that..” She fumbled.
A few months ago I was talking to an old lady, a patient of mine. Her only daughter brought her to me every day for a diabetic foot ulcer that she had. She had a son who ran away from home at the age of sixteen. She had no idea where he was; or even if he was still alive. It had been twenty years now, she said.
‘Wherever he is, I just want him to be happy. I hope he is happy.’ She said.
So, is happiness a thing? Is it a good goal to pursue? Can it be taken as a means to an end?
I should tell you here, that by happiness, I mean the general level of satisfaction we have with life on a daily basis, and not the momentary elation we feel, for example, immediately after winning the lottery. Subjective well-being may be a better term, but we will stick with happiness.
Till a few decades ago, such questions were considered meaningless. It was against objective science, many said. Economists felt that well-being was a measure of wealth. Everybody wanted to study things that can be measured; material things. What was felt by human beings were thought to be less than real.
But as you know, what matters most to us is our subjective state of mind. Unless we exist, we have consciousness, the world doesn’t exist for us. Every sensation, every objective truth that we have learned about the world, is present ultimately in our minds only. So what we feel matters. There is no doubt about that.
That is not all. Modern developments in the field of Brain science, Neural imaging, Behavioural psychology, Economics, Statistics etc has made things like happiness measurable. And study-worthy. Now we can answer questions like:
Is the sensation of happiness and misery present in particular areas of our brain, and does the activity of each area go up and down with whatever we feel according to the good or bad things that happen to us?
Can it be measured, and is the measurement reliable?
Is happiness something that we have, like Blood Pressure, at a constant level with fluctuations, but unlike BP, present only when we are awake?
Can people’s happiness levels be compared?
Can the happiness levels of different societies and at different times compared and studied reliably, according to epidemiological principles?
“Yes “ Is the answer to all the above questions, according to Richard Layard, an economist and happiness researcher, who wrote ‘Happiness- lessons from a new science’.
fMRI or functional MRI is a method of scanning the brain which shows the areas that become active and the amount of activity while a person is doing some task. For example, when a person moves his right hand a part of the left motor cortex lights up. When a person is happy a particular area of the brain becomes active, and the amount of activity correlates with his self reported level of happiness.
Happiness can be measured by self assessment, on a graded scale, just like doctors measure pain. They can be asked to grade their level of well-being on a scale of zero to ten, with zero very depressed, to ten corresponding to the highest amount of happiness imaginable. These scales show:
-Good correlation across a particular area.
-Similar proportions among males and females.
-Good similarity to the level of activity of the ‘happiness’ areas in fMRI.
-Show some expected variations across regions- for example- low levels of happiness seen in poverty stricken areas or where there is war, famine or disease.
– Low levels of happiness correlates with incidence of depression, suicides, crime and even road traffic accidents.
-Personal levels of self-reported happiness agree very well with other people’s assessment of their happiness. As in ‘He has always been a very happy guy, I will give him a seven out of ten’.
From these, we can infer that happiness indeed, is a thing.
What kind of thing is it? Is it a good thing? These questions remain to be answered. To know more, you can read my book, Health and happiness without Bullshit’.