I have the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. At least that is what the United States constitution says.
Have I exercised that right?
I am not sure.
Growing up, I don’t remember my parents telling me to be happy. Happiness was perhaps implied in all the little things they encouraged me to do, like getting good grades, like singing, dancing, playing the lezim, and participating in debates.
But they never told me that the ultimate goal was happiness.
I was a naturally happy child who, nevertheless, loved reading sad books like Sane Guruji’s stories of his mother, who patched up saris to make ends meet. The artist in me responded to melancholy, to human dilemma, to suffering and tragedy. I hadn’t yet known any personal trauma, but poignant movies appealed to me.
Then, ironically, fate gave me something to grieve about. My mother had a nervous breakdown and I became the caretaker in the household.
Still, I was not an unhappy child. I went out with friends, attended parties and movies, rode my bike around town, and laughed loudly at the slightest excuse. Because, happiness, for me back then, was intricately connected to hope. As long as I was working toward a better tomorrow for myself and my family I felt, if not happy, contented.
For billions of people around the world, that remains the definition of happiness.
In the West, on the other hand, the psychological state of happiness is cultivated like an art form. Forget about tomorrow is the motto here; live in the moment.
I, on the other hand, remember feeling guilty if, coming home from a college party, I discovered my mother sitting on the doorstep, rubbing her forehead.
In my world, duty and obligation trumped the pursuit of personal happiness.
After I was admitted to IIT and left home for the first time, I felt sad about leaving my ailing mother behind. When word came that my father was having surgery, I packed up and returned home even though I had fallen in love with a young man at the institute. Somewhere along the way, I traded my happiness for someone else’s well being.
In my marriage, I took care of my two step-daughters, my own two sons, and an unemployed husband until I felt so burdened that I nearly cracked. But I had made a commitment, and put my self-interest aside for my family.
I am not sure if, given a second chance, I would not do the same thing. Sacrificing my life for others was, I believed, my higher purpose.
New age philosophy tells you to do just the opposite, “Ask for what you want,” “Take care of yourself first,” are some of the slogans that new agers are constantly bandying about.
So I wonder, to be or not to be … happy?
I am profoundly conflicted about the American ideal of happiness, which seems to me a construct coined by Madison Avenue.
Media-fed Americans seem allergic to pain and suffering. Pressured to appear cheery they turn every moment of grief into, not introspection, but some cause or the other. Yet the pressure to be happy drives millions to drugs, alcohol, violence, and suicide.
Since the financial crisis, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” has evoked certain connotations in my mind. Did the founding fathers mean happiness in a philosophical and ethereal sense, or was it code for “keep the capitalist system running by persuading people to buy more goods?”
“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,” Albert Einstein said. Reading this quote on a poster in my doctor’s office, I nearly burst out laughing. A man who allegedly discredited his wife’s early contributions to the theory of relativity, who is said to have abandoned his family for his secretary, and let his sons languish in mental asylums while preaching morality to the world, was perhaps incapable of noting the irony in these words.
But I had lived my life according to that dictum; had given my life to making others happy. Why was I not content with that choice?
Perhaps the trouble is that we have too many choices. Our freedom and mobility are canceled out by the enormous stresses we endure in search of that elusive happiness. Wouldn’t it be better to live in a simpler, less bewildering society in which rules and roles are clearly laid out?
What is happiness? Is it having a plasma TV in every room? Is it traveling around in search of a perfect vacation? Is it the model minority dream of having 2.4 kids who win every spelling bee and every academic competition?
Or is “All we need is love,” as the Beatles said?
“Our great culture helps us rise above all the pettiness in this place,” one of my Indian-American employees is fond of saying.
Are Indian Americans happier because of the philosophical underpinnings of their religions? I am not sure.
With death lurking on the horizon in my middle age, the desire to live an examined life, a conscious life, has intensified.
I wonder what has caused me greater happiness; giving to others or living for my own pleasures.
When childless friends of mine pity me for the sacrifices I am still making for my sons, I don’t have the heart to tell them what they are missing.
These days I find myself not in pursuit of happiness but rather in pursuit of the meaning of happiness.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com.