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Of Happiness

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Iftekhar Sayeed       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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 If thou wishest for power, covet nothing

Except contentment which is sufficient happiness. 

 These words of Sheikh Sa'di were born of empirical research: we call it observation and experience. Nearly eight centuries later, the wisdom of the couplet has received mathematical sanction in the form of econometric studies. Those wont to downgrade the sages will find it hard to write them off today.   For most of us are like the friend of Sa'di who requested him to put in a good word with the sultan that he may be promoted. Sa'di warned him of envy and the dangers of court intrigue; which admonition infuriated his friend! Anyway, Sa'di put in a word, his friend was promoted and he soon lost all his fortune when his colleagues whispered to the sultan that he was a conspirator. 

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 Economists are wont to measure wellbeing in terms of income – like the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, they have been aware for a long time that income is a poor indicator of wellbeing. With increase in income, comes increasing problems –like pollution. We are happy to buy a new car and whiz off with the family to Cox's Bazaar, to crowd the roads, release fumes that cause bronchial trouble for young children and finally contribute to the concrete ugliness of the formerly beautiful beach. Affluenza has its drawbacks.   It would appear that the citizens of Europe and America have not known any increase in happiness over the last hundred years, even though their income has multiplied several times. A more recent estimate puts the number of years of stagnant happiness at 50. At any rate, satiety set in a long time ago. 

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Yet the richer you are, the more likely you are to declare yourself happy. The richest 25% of Americans say they are "very happy"; only the poorest 16% say that.  Not everyone wants to be a dervish like Sa'di.   These findings have enormous implications. If more affluence doesn't make us happier, then the goal of governments changes: instead of trying to increase income, they would do better to increase happiness – which is something that nobody apart from yourself can achieve. Therefore governments, after ensuring that no one lives like a dervish unless they want to, should discourage firms from creating false needs through advertisements, and other instruments of desire. But that would probably be too Marxist an approach: anyway, it's doomed to fail. If people want to fool themselves into thinking that more means happier, then no power on earth can disillusion them. Which is a pity: because such a realisation would have saved us from self-destruction: the forests would not have been disappearing, over-fishing would have been abated, our children would have inherited cleaner air and water....Individual greed may be the driving force behind 'progress and prosperity', but it is certainly not 'the force that through the green fuse drives the flower'.  



Men like Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes prophesied that when people have enough material goods, they will seek the spiritual – the pursuit of disinterested inquiry will overtake the 'getting and spending' impulse. They prophesied wrong. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, owns a 74,000-square-foot-house. How much land does a man need? Affluenza leads to competition through conspicuous consumption. At job interviews and glitzy dinner parties, if you don't outwear the competition, you have failed. "Purposeful effort comes to mean," observed Thorstein Veblen, over a hundred years ago, "primarily, effort directed to or resulting in a more creditable showing of accumulated wealth. Among the motives which lead men to accumulate wealth, the primacy, both in scope and intensity, therefore, continues to belong to this motive of pecuniary emulation."  


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The reason capitalism "works" is because it is based on greed, envy and love of power. "...I am of opinion that thou shouldst retire to the domain of contentment and abandon aspirations to dominion" had been Sa'di's sage advice to his hapless friend. If we all took the advice, capitalism would collapse – in short, human nature will change course by 180 degrees.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "Bangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "TEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "He is also a (more...)

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