What makes you happy?
Irrfan Khan, born in 1967, was by no means a kid in the late ‘80s, when he was cast as a street child – one of the main actors – in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. Though doubtlessly capable as an actor, Irrfan was too tall for the role. The camera, finding it hard to fit him into the same frame with the other boys, rejected his efforts after a portion of the picture had already been shot.
If he’d played that part in Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionaire would’ve been his second film at the Academy Awards. Which is rare for an Indian actor, given it’s equally odd for films set in India to make it to LA’s red carpets. Both movies set in Mumbai’s grimy streets attempted to show, in their own engaging ways, a face to poverty that was more human than perennially unhappy. Uncles at the Oscars were understandably pleased. These were relatively fresher images for the West. The rich are more used to stock-pictures and statistics confirming merely misery and deprivation in the Third World.
While Irrfan was telling me about Salaam Bombay, something I never knew he had almost played the lead role in, he mentioned the unusual friends he’d found and made, working and hanging out with the carefree ‘Shafiq Syed’ and gang – the real Bombay street irregulars, who were finally picked for Nair’s celebrated picture (Whatever happened to them after). He used to train them in acting as well.
For Irrfan, who’s related to a royal family in Rajasthan, the fact that his new bunch of buddies lived each day without an expressed sense of home was an immediate revelation. These children never went back anywhere, he said. Anywhere. As sun came down and they felt tired, they found a corner in a street of their choice that had no cops around, and they just slept – here today, there tomorrow. If they chanced upon a running, tap, they squatted under it and considered themselves bathed. When they didn’t have money, they would burst a tube-light on their heads and make some….
Irrfan once graciously accepted an invitation to their regular mid-week party at a hotel once. The said shop – the venue of the soiree – baked the most number of cakes on Wednesdays, and recurrently chucked unshaped ones out the window. Sitting outside, the group had perfectly timed the throw, and the catch, before the cakes could hit the trashcan below the window sill: Thoda khao, thoda pheko. I could almost picture a giggly lot diving around corners like Mohammad Kaif, jumping in excitement to their moments of joy.
I don’t intend to romanticise poverty, or downplay the importance of basic economic well-being. It’s just an eye-opener sometimes to acknowledge that no one is full-time poor or rich, full-time handicapped, full-time powerful, terminally-ill, unemployed, lottery-winner, orphaned, widowed, dissatisfied at work or home, or whatever else, for happiness (or its lack thereof) to be a function of any of these particular measures alone. We could all be unhappy (or happy) with (or without) all those reasons.
We just introspect much less on the subject, I guess. Professional psychologists themselves began to take happiness as a serious subject of study much later in their field’s history. For years, most considered mental health as absence of mental illness, rallying towards bringing our mental states from negative to normal. What if we’re already at zero, or good, how can we get better? This became the astoundingly popular movement called positive psychology only in the late ‘90s. Inspiring happiness has of course been the primary purpose of popular entertainment forever.
Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness remains for me the most moving meditation on the subject on the movie screen still: a story that compels you to contemplate how remarkably lazy or self-satisfied we get about life, which starts from everything being an accident of birth, which we continue to take for granted thereafter. We should be pleased Will Smith, a remarkably motivational public figure for his community himself, plays the main role.
At one moment, struggling to survive, make a living, along with his little son, he wonders aloud how, apart from right to life and liberty, Thomas Jefferson had included pursuit of happiness as the stated goal of the Declaration of (American) Independence: “How he knew to put the ‘pursuit’ in there, like no one can actually have happiness. We can only pursue it.” Perhaps pursuing short-term goals, or at least having one in the first place, helps. Or so is the thought I left with.
A research-paper popular in the intellectual circles for a short while severely concluded on the ultimate human mystery to suggest that “trying” to be happier was in fact as futile as trying to be taller. The psychologist ate his own words thereafter, discredited his own exaggerated theory.
Positive psychologists consider companionship or human company in general, acts of kindness, and writing down our strengths and virtues on a ‘gratitude journal’, to be definite “happiness boosters.” Though, as it turns out from a research, about 50 per cent of your satisfaction levels with life come from genetically transferred traits. You’re born with them.
This makes sense when I look at my little nephew and niece. The little girl would just laugh at the snap of a finger, right since she was born. At age two and half, she’s a bundle of joyous energy. The infant boy, her little brother on the other hand, though only six months old, is much quieter, stingier with his precious smiles, he gets crabbier with the slightest discomforts. I’ll have to wait for them to grow up to figure if one turns out to be the serious man, cometemplative and at peace with himself, and the other remains the perennially happy-go-lucky ballerina that she is now.
Aspects of income, marital status, religion and education, so high on most priority lists, the research says, contribute only about 8 per cent to the measure of happiness. The remaining (42 per cent) is a response to “life’s slings and arrows”: good days and bad days, both finding their way into a long tunnel of memory, some making it through, some not. We probably remember more the accomplishments and positive outcomes than the nitty gritty than went behind making them so. Past remains a pleasure to recall, nostalgia stays the insurmountable exaggeration.
If only statistics, surveys, indices could judge what’s after all to each their own. A monumental breakthrough still that befitted Claudia Wallis’ Time magazine cover story back in 2005, where I quote from, is a collective agreement among positive psychologists on the three sure-fire routes to happiness.
One’s “sensory pleasure”, which is obvious for what it signifies: food, sex, smell, tech, travel, everything that money can buy. The second is human “engagement”: our depth of involvement with family, work, romance and hobbies. The third is “meaning”: using personal strengths to serve some larger end; part of it being altruism, or the art of giving. Despite our relentless chase for the first, some scientists categorically conclude, it’s the latter two that truly keeps us most happy.
These are of course theories. There’s only way to test them. I don’t know if I am happy for having written this, or you for having read it. Would the lack of either have made us any happier still? Shut up! I hope not.
Follow the writer on twitter@mayankw14