Saturday, April 30, 2011

Complexity of happiness

The word happy sounds familiar and doesn’t seem especially philosophical. It expresses a concept called happiness that we assume we understand, at least to some degree. Although it seems so easy, articulating the concept isn’t. In fact, for long as philosophers have been discussing happiness, its definition has been debated.

Happiness is plural. People present happiness in various rubrics and experience it differently. Some find happiness in aims, achievements or acquiring things, others purely on experiences. For one it may mean running barefoot through a dewy grass, for another it’s holding a baby in his arms. Sex can make someone happy, as can a new outfit. Some like monks even experience happiness in the absence of all of these. Each of the above is a valid vision of happiness. Happiness isn’t simple, singular or similar for all. It is perhaps the most complex and subjective term in the English language.

Happiness is changing. People have various conceptions of happiness, and they depend on many factors such as age, gender, region, religion and culture. Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford social psychologist, explains that these conceptions also change from time to time, as they move through their lives. What may seem happy today may not be so tomorrow.

Happiness is paradoxical. For instance, many people commonly equate happiness with fun. Hence, in order to be happy, they believe that their lives need to be full of fun. Unfortunately, this expectation of happiness is never usually realised because always having fun is far from possible; and with the modern society becoming used to more choices and less patience, expectations rise. According to Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychologist, our increasing expectations mean that we are always on a search to appease ourselves. Even if we believe we have the key to happiness within ourselves, our pursuit of it seems to be an external one.

Happiness is shapeless. The beauty of the concept of happiness is that is seems to belong to a virgin fairyland, bleached in nuance and vagueness. This is why the terrain of real life, criss-crossed by pain and beauty and monotony and tears and stress and ideas and eroticism, can have its contours reflected by the shapeless notion of happiness.

The complexity of happiness – with its plural, changing, paradoxical and ambiguous notions – makes it creative fodder, offering endless possibilities to the advertising business. Yet, many use it unthinkingly and often superficially. Happiness as a central theme – with its facets and complexities – deserves more documentation, time, understanding and importance than we credit it. No wonder, Don Draper of Mad Men puts it rightly, ‘Advertising is based on one thing, happiness.’

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