Memories of an uncomplicated time when we did not dissect happiness

A crisp, triangular paratha with a dollop of white butter or a spoonful of fresh cream, lovingly prepared by my grandmother and relished sometimes standing with her in the kitchen, was all it took to make me happy. Or, writing letters to friends on yellow, ruled sheets and then hearing back from them a few weeks later. Sometimes a shout from a neighbour from across the hedge that she was coming over for lunch with her new dish would do it. "I'll get the chicken; you prepare the phulkas." How delightful it sounded!

Looking back, it still astonishes me how far we have come from those simple days. Today, had my grandmother still been around and had she prepared a paratha for me, I would probably have eaten it distractedly while checking my email, or WhatsApp or, worse, Twitter. I also have little time for letters or the energy for enthusiastic neighbours who might invite themselves over without adequate notice.

What got me thinking about those golden days was a mail I received this week. It talked about a “happiness coach” who conducts, among other things, one-day, two-day or three-day happiness workshops. There was also mention of a happiness academy that gives you certification in happiness studies after you complete a course that runs over 46 weeks and costs nearly Rs 2.8 lakh. I went over the course outline. From defining happiness and spirituality to understanding the ideas presented by Aristotle, Shakespeare and Orwell, and questioning whether a pig is satisfied or if a grazing cow is happy, it covered enormous ground.

Reading it, a thought crossed my mind: what would my grandmother say if I told her about this course? First, she wouldn’t believe that something like this was for real or that people would even buy into it. Just the way she refused to accept that bullet hole jeans were a fashion when a friend turned up at our house wearing them, years before they became the rage they are today. And if I’d persist, she’d just pooh-pooh it.

Back in those days, we didn’t dwell on happiness. Or let me put it this way: we didn’t reverse-engineer happiness. We were happy about some things and situations, and not so much about others. We were happy with some people and not so much with some others. Did we pursue happiness? Of course we did. But we did not dissect it.

The tools – such a mechanical term to use in the context of happiness – to being happy are today offered to us in neat packages. Happiness is a programme or a curriculum delivered in schools, colleges, workplaces and by governments. This year, a Delhi University college introduced a free six-month happiness certification course to help students deal with stress as they go through life. And Ambedkar University announced that it is developing two happiness programmes — a six-month certificate course and a one-year diploma — for judicial academies. The Madhya Pradesh government has been running a happiness department since 2016, and now it plans to open a “time bank” to encourage a sense of community and, therefore, wellbeing.

“Time banking” – a concept that has gained currency in over 30 countries – was popularised by an American professor of Law, Edgar Cahn, in the 1980s. Cahn suggested treating time as a currency, which is equal for all. Now if I, as a volunteer, use one hour of my time to teach someone a skill or offer some kind of help or service, another volunteer will spend an hour to do the same for me.

Time banking aims to promote a partnering culture as opposed to a predatory culture that’s the very DNA of money. But it rests on the premise that people have time when the reality is that we have created a world where we have taken time away from people and added multiple distractions that further eat into it.

A large part of our life is now transactional. Happiness, too, is being treated as a means to profit. Happy employees translate into greater productivity, which means greater profit, hence workplace happiness workshops.

The need for these once unthinkable happiness trainings has come about because we have royally messed up. I remember my summer vacations – unplanned and liberating. And I compare those with the summer vacation children today have – structured with activities.

We have come a long way from an environment that facilitates happiness. We have built a sense of urgency into our being. I remember catching a glimpse of my grandmother sitting on a sofa as I tore out of the house one day. She’d been observing me. For a brief moment, our eyes met. That look of hers still helps me to slow down and savour life. />

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