I thought I’d put this together based on the discussion in laith’s spirituality thread.
The issue of happiness arose because striving for spirituality can involve lifestyle changes and I think a barrier to that can be a feeling that such a lifestyle will diminish one’s enjoyment of life.
Which leads us to wondering what it means to be happy and whether that can be changed.
Looking around me I see all sorts of people doing very different things and many of them at least claim to be happy. There’s the uncle who is not rich in any financial sense, but who spends entire days in Pakistan playing golf. There’s the barrister cousin who’s forever preparing for a very important court case or my mum who’ll cook for a hundred ladies for a majlis at our home.
In each instance, as I see it, these people have configured what it is that will make them happy and then gone about achieving it. In each instance what’s really smart is that they’ve configured happy in such a way that it is stretching but also actually achievable.
Achievable in the sense that given the environment and circumstances that they have and about which we can often do little, they’ve taken charge of those things which they can control, defined what happiness means on the basis of these and constructed it in such a way that they can get it. Stretching is also important because without it there can be no sense of achievement.
Most importantly, in each instance I can see that while they are happy there’ll be other people who can just as easily see that this is not the lifestyle that would make them happy. I would go mad if my daily routine involved taking a stick and repeatedly hitting into a small hole an even smaller ball.
Some of that definition of happiness depends on the meanings that we attach to things. I’ve explained what golf means to me. But for my uncle there’s clearly a sense of physical achievement, there’s the sportsman’s image he has of himself that’s reinforced and there are the meanings he associates with golf as an exclusive sport. For my mother the meanings are associated with the religious symbols, the wajib, the mustahab, the sawab and so on.
In each instance there’s also the social kudos. My uncle gets to meet the ‘higher-ups’ in Pakistani society and the approval of this social network is obviously important. The same goes for my mum. I wind her up by saying that I don’t see much difference between what motivates her and the Hindu and Sikh women I come across who put in a lot of effort to cook the meals at their local temples to win the appreciation of their social circles.
In each instance happiness has been configured in such a way that there’s an easily accessible social network of people who will appreciate what the individual can do. My mum’s social network of Shia ladies has developed organically over decades. My uncle’s social network was acquired when he left the UK and moved to Pakistan, joined the local golf club and impressed them with his skill.
Social networks are important because happiness is often co-created with the people around us. Those symbols and meanings often only really work when there is someone to share them with. Someone who can understand what they mean and what their significance is and with whom it’s possible to have a conversation about that shared interest and indeed to develop it.
Of course you can have symbols that have meaning only for you and where there may be no one else to share them with, but then the inner satisfaction will have to suffice. Many years ago I met Yousuf Karsh and I have an autographed book of his photos, but that name means nothing to anyone else that I know, but the knowledge of having met him gives me an inner glow. Sometimes there may be no symbols at all and also no-one else to share them with, I know of fairly anonymous investors who make lots of money and they’re quite happy with the anonymity or alternatively there are academics who have a lot of professional recognition, but much less money.
Yaani it’s L’Oreal and Wallahi you’re worth it
SoSolidShia who has since left Shiachat, (or was he banned?) used to have that as part of his avatar and I always thought it was quite clever. But it does remind us of how the messages we see every day remind us that thinking of the self is justified and that there is a cause and effect relationship between spending money and being happy.
Of course, there isn’t but many people are taken in by it. Is there a magic pill? If there is one the effects are only short-term before you need to spend again in order to get the next high.
To take the example of another type of product, what was initially presented as an occasional treat because of its high calorific value or sugar content, is promoted in such a way that it becomes part of our regular consumption and happy is replaced by habit and the company behind it has a bigger share of our wallet, which was always the intention.
When we buy happy then, it has to be on an irregular basis for it to keep delivering happiness.
Can buying happiness ever really pay off? When its consumption isn’t easy, when it requires some prior effort or engagement I think it can.
I remember spending hours sitting in theatres watching live performances of Shakespearean and other Jacobean plays. I am pretty sure there were more entertaining things to do for a sixteen-year-old. But it was very worthy. Certainly it wasn’t as much fun as the latest Hollywood blockbuster and obviously, it wasn’t as accessible. But it did make the study of English literature easier and yes, after a fashion it was actually enjoyable, especially when you knew the script and could decode the jokes. The prior study increased the enjoyment. Years later I can still remember some performances, but I can't remember any movies I watched at the time. So there's the added payoff of happy memories.
Something else that occupied my teenage years and was immensely fun was wet processing photographic film and photos. It was an interesting combination of art and science. I think all the people who have hobbies can understand. The people whose entertainment is mainly passive, such as watching television, might not.
The funny thing though is that the people with the hobbies may not necessarily be doing them to achieve happiness, it just happens as a by-product. In contrast, the people who switch on the television are chasing after happiness and yet when they find it, it’s likely to be more transient than for those people who just happened upon it.
There are two types of people today, those who create content and those who consume it. I think the creators are happier than the consumers.
And where there is an effort in achieving happy I think there is also the likelihood of satiety, the feeling of fulfillment and the need to do something else. In contrast, where the consumption of happiness is easy, where it is simply bought and passively consumed, the lack of satiety means that overconsumption is possible. We see some people watching inordinate amounts of television, we see increasing levels of obesity and rising levels of debt as people eat and buy themselves happy.
Happy about what?
I remember playing with car racing sets as a kid. It was never a satisfactory experience. One car in the set would always be intrinsically faster than the other, you could predict who would win the race depending on what car they had.
There was clearly a difference between what those, admittedly cheap, sets could deliver and what my expectations were. Expectations that are higher than what we can realistically receive will always end in disappointment. Happy people have their expectations met or exceeded. But setting expectations that are too low may lead to people serially taking advantage of you since you never complain.
What’s the solution here?
It’s a question of differentiating between what matters and what does not. And even, more importantly, it’s a matter of assessing whether the people we are dealing with can actually deliver what they promise.
Too often we are willing to suspend disbelief, take people at their word and believe their promises. They patently cannot deliver, but we refuse to believe that, sometimes this is because of our own ignorance or greed. The possible gain seems so attractive that we fall for the lie. Conmen do this all the time. Often what is at stake is either money or love because in both areas we really find it difficult to behave rationally. The Nigerian 419 scam goes for people who believe that you can get large sums of money easily and men from various developing countries make promises of love to older, richer single white women in the West via the internet, which usually involves a trip to the local branch of western union. These are extreme examples, but it happens to a lesser extent for different products and services all the time.
Then there’s the issue of differentiating between what matters and what does not. Life is too short, you cannot complain about everything. Indeed, it may well be the case that you took someone at their word, perhaps even knowing that they could not and would not deliver everything that they promised, but you knew deep down that this did not really matter, but you were confident that what you really were interested in would actually be delivered.
In my opinion, this marks the difference between two types of people who go on the hajj. The knowledgeable ones know what constitutes for a good hajj, where you were guided correctly by the alim with you and where the requirements were fulfilled correctly. These people also know what questions to ask different hajj organisers in order to ensure that their expectations about the fulfilment of their obligations are met. They can hear the promises about the hotel, but they know deep down that whether or not these are fulfilled, does not really matter.
On the other hand, there are people who may not really know what their religious obligations are. These are the people who lose focus and are the ones who are unhappy about not getting enough food at Mina, the waiting around and the quality of the hotel. Not only are they unhappy but they are unhappy about the wrong things and perhaps even happy at the wrong things as well!
Reconfiguring happy then, is a matter of being clear what we should be happy about, ensuring that we get that and not worrying when other promises that people make are not delivered.
The disappointment of loss
Too often people set expectations about what it is that will make them happy that is either unachievable or costly in a variety of other ways. The trick perhaps is to focus on what we can directly achieve by ourselves with the minimum of resources. It’s being able to do what is costless better than before and deriving satisfaction from it. And the only costless activity, over which we have complete control, in my opinion, is prayer.
At the same time, it’s not a matter of eschewing or rejecting what the world has to offer. Rather it’s the ability to be happy if you have the material goods but not disappointed if you don’t. It’s being able to walk away dispassionately in the face of material loss. I'll deal with the latter issue in this post.
Equanimity in the face of loss takes practice.
The practice comes from giving charity. Each time we do it, we cut our bonds from the material, so that when losses occur as a result of circumstances over which we have no control they affect us less and we do not suffer unhappiness.
Psychologically humans hate incurring losses. It’s part of our DNA. Nobel prize winning research has shown this. We do all sorts of crazy things in order to avoid losses. Give someone the option of paying $1.30 for a gallon of gas and receiving a $0.10 rebate if they pay by cash or instead paying $1.20 by credit card and incurring a $0.20 surcharge and they’ll always go for the $1.30 option. The cash buyers will do it for obvious reasons and the people paying by credit card will do it as well because paying the $1.30 as a default option is far less psychologically painful than seeing a base price of $1.20 and then realising that choosing to pay by credit card will involve incurring an additional $0.20.
There have been a number of other studies along similar lines, all demonstrating that we will often engage in irrational actions to avoid losses. I’ve previously linked to a lecture given by Robert Shiller at Princeton where he refers to people taking out (really bad value) insurance policies for individual flights in order not to incur a loss.
Another often quoted example in this area is to do with how much value we attach to things we own. Experiments show that if people own something they’ll ascribe a higher value to it than other people who do not.
Giving to charity then or detaching ourselves from what we own, is difficult for humans. It is part of the human condition. And yet IIRC the Qur’an mentions charity every time it mentions prayer.
I think it works in a number of different ways. I’ve outlined one and another that comes to mind is my view that the Qur’an is recognising that wherever someone has gains (on which charity can be paid), they will invariably at some point suffer a loss. When people who have had gains give some of them away as charity when the invariable losses do happen, they will, at least, have the comfort in knowing that while they had it, they spent it on assets for the akhira.
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
A discussion about achievements in life or the lack of them in the Thoughts threads reminded me of this.
We often think about what we could have done, would have done or should have done. This can become a maudlin exercise full of regrets and unhappy thoughts.
Often such thinking can lead to issues about what we’ll do now to address this and I wonder whether the options discussed are always advisable.
Just because we did not do a certain degree 15 years ago, does that mean we’ll be any better off or happier doing it now? The world when the decision was taken not to do the degree or when the opportunity was missed, was a different world to the one we are in now. The benefits of that degree may well have changed. The costs of doing it now may well be different to what they would have been in the past, so the value of the whole exercise may be different as well.
In hankering after what could have been and in trying to get it back we could be losing focus on what else we could be achieving now in the time that we have left that may offer greater value.
The whole process of looking backwards is one that assumes we are now older than we were before. As we get older the reduction in the time that we have left becomes more acute – the focus now really has to be on what really matters.
So as we get older the very process of worrying about previously missed material gains and losses may actually compound the problem rather than make it better. The goals have to be different now.
The benefit that age brings is that older people can compare the achievements and mistakes of people that they have known over a long period of time. Young people cannot do this. They can be told about it, but personal experience often has more resonance.
Older people can see where their peers started, what they did in terms of materialistic and spiritual activities and observe where they have ended up. That longitudinal perspective is one whose benefit you don’t have if you are young.
In the final calculation when you start attending the funerals of people you have known for a long-time, you realise how futile material achievements are, especially at the margins. If an individual has acquired enough material success to have been self-sustaining (including any family) surely any assessments of success and failure over the life led thus far need to be in terms of spiritual and moral mistakes and future rectifications?
Thought of in this way, reflections about the past become an intensely productive, positive and indeed happy activity. Because whatever happened in the past that enabled us to arrive at a destination where there is a realisation (niyat) that rectification is necessary, surely that has been a positive result?
These are the only changes that I can think of which are not rendered irrelevant by changing circumstances in the same way as the ones I mentioned at the start of this post.