International Happiness Day was on March 20, but few in India celebrated with a bhangra. Given how low India ranks on global indices of well-being, this was to be expected perhaps. But a “happiness index” is puzzling — for, what defines “happiness”? There are striking differences within official indices themselves; Bhutan initially believed, like Greta Garbo, that happiness meant being left alone, its 1970s Gross National Happiness index measuring joy by limited exposure to “foreign culture”.
By 2012, Bhutan’s index included “community vitality”, critics then wondering about multicultural societies, where one community’s vitality may cause another to feel a lack thereof. Perhaps anticipating such unhappy tussles, Dubai established a Ministry of Happiness, firmly laying down rules for joy. But happiness evades precision. “Who seeds love collects happiness”, declared William Shakespeare. However, Sigmund Freud nixed this, stating, “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”
In trademark neurotic style, Woody Allen commented, “To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love — to be happy then is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy, one must love to suffer.” That explains India’s most happily unhappy man, Devdas, an iconic drunk sunk in a joy of misery, shouting “Paro”, reaching for another luscious drink.
Perhaps Freud is right: “What we call happiness comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up.” But given the diversity of India, anticipating one such “need” is hard. You could need a job, a nap, a small kindness, a gold set, a spicy golguppa, a cooling burst of rain, a glitzy new purchase, renouncing everything and walking away. Truly diverse needs compose “happiness”, the hardest emotion to universalise, for it is so individual, so fleeting, we don’t even remember when we were happy last.