Why can’t we be happy with what we have?

First published at: https://vsanthakumar.wordpress.com/2018/02/04/why-cant-we-be-happy-with-what-we-have/

Indian gurus advise people to be happy with what they have. They may profess that the root cause of all ills in society is the desire (to have something more). Anti-development ideologues may find fault with this notion of `development’ itself – the desire to improve the life of individuals and society. Certain educationists argue against providing mainstream education for tribal people and such population by saying that it creates aspirations among them.

Though there is some virtue in this argument, it is a hugely harmful proposition for the society. Let us take the virtue first. This is related to the status-oriented consumption that I have described in an essay a few weeks ago. My aspiration is to gift a Maruti Sedan to my wife on her birthday, since I see others doing this. Even if I could, it may not enhance my happiness if there are others who gift a BMW car. Hence that part of the consumption which is aimed at enhancing one’s status in society need not enhance the happiness of that individual, and such a pursuit of desires by many people may not lead to an increase in the happiness in society.

By the way, this is true for other kinds of desires to enhance social status. There may be a desire to go up in the hierarchy in an organisation or politics as a way to have some `power’. However those who make it may realise that there are others with a higher level of `power’. Hence the competition for power (like the desire for status-oriented consumption) may not enhance happiness. In essence, a desire to enhance social status, through consumption or non-consumption means may not be desirable for individuals and society.

Beyond this aspect, an advice to limit aspirations is socially harmful in many ways. The question (`why can’t we be happy with what we have’) legitimises or glorifies the current distribution of welfare among different individuals. In fact, a major impetus for change in the society is the struggle to have a `better life’ by those people who are worse off in the current distribution. The advocates of a `contentment’ approach towards life are those who may be better off in this distribution.

Some may argue that those who advocate `contentment’ are `sanyasins’ – and they don’t seem to consume a lot. (This could be a rare case these days. Modern sanyasins and Gurus seem to enjoy `good life’). As I have indicated in an earlier article, happiness is a product of different inputs and the material consumption is only one among them. Even when these `sanyasins’ don’t have a higher level of material consumption, they are the beneficiaries or custodians of a number of non-material inputs. Hence it is possible for these `sanyasins’ to overlook the `poverty’ in terms of non-material inputs of those who aspire to have a better life.

We all know that there are different ways to change the distribution in a society. Enhancing the welfare of those who are at the bottom (poverty alleviation) could be one. Creating new wealth and seeing that this helps people to get out of absolute ill-fare is part of this. There are different ways by which a part of the wealth of the well-off can be used to benefit those who are at the bottom of the distribution. Or the inequality can be lessened through coercive or voluntary manner. However a position of why can’t we be happy with what we have, nullifies the need for any change in distribution. Those who hold this view are content with the existing position, they don’t have to take any effort to change the position of others, and they have a normative argument to ridicule the desire of others to have social change (whose life may be vulnerable on different counts currently).

There are ideologues who think that those people who live in poverty and misery have no serious issues with their life, and it is the desire to have a better life that creates the misery. This is not a naïve idea as we may think. There are two issues that may make even genuine people to accept this idea. First, people who live in any circumstance over a period of time may develop a certain habituation, and that may give an impression of their comfortable sustenance to outsiders.  Secondly, people’s valuation of two life circumstances could be vague or influenced by incidental factors. Someone who lived in a kutcha shed without electricity and water supply could shift to a small but clean and permanent house with electricity connection and water supply. Is he/she in a better position now? There may be cases wherein that person may not express a higher happiness in the new situation. This is the case not only for these poorer people. While growing up in a democratic society, I have heard the following many times: `it would have been better if we were ruled by the king’. I don’t think that those who say this do so by considering the full implications of what they say.

There is a better way to sort out this problem. What would be the choice of the person who lives in the kutcha house, if he/she is offered these two kinds of living situations (that is, one status quo and the second – shifting to the new house)? In most (or almost all) cases, the choice would be the better house with electricity connection and water supply. This actual choice has much more useful information than what this person may say in one or other situation. Those who think/argue that people may not become `better off’ in the new material condition neglect this real choice and depend on unreliable `small talk’.

Though I have talked against the desire to enhance the social status in the beginning of this article, we should not underestimate the value of `copying’ in a poorer or underdeveloped society. People learn to use (and hence struggle to acquire) certain commodities or services when they see others in the community using them. Such a demonstration effect works in the use of electricity, clean toilets, hygienic houses, vaccination, healthy food, education, and so on.  It is well known that certain desirable practices like family planning are also driven by the demonstration effect, as evident from the demographic transition of societies which have not used a coercive population policy. Thus status-oriented consumption has an important role in poorer societies.

The idea to emulate others may have socially desirable effects in certain other cases too. Those who make money through entrepreneurship may have the option of spending it wholly for ones’ own consumption (including that of his/her own future generations) in addition to reinvestments in enterprises.  Or they can spare a part of the resources for a set of public purposes.  Not bequeathing all wealth for ones’ own children, and providing some part for public causes like an endowment to a university, are common in developed countries like the US. In one estimate, the amount given for such altruistic purposes is 300 Billion US Dollars per year in the US, and 80 percent of this is by normal individuals (and not by big foundations.) However such a habit is yet to take root in India.  If the spending of people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Azim Premji, for social purposes encourages some others to emulate them, then that is good for the society.  There is no need for such a contribution if people accept the advocacy to be happy with what we have.

This `contentment’ approach has another undesirable effect. This can make people lazy and unmotivated in their own work. Why should a school teacher take the trouble to see that almost all children come to, and learn in, his/her class? She can be in the school for the minimal time and come back home and get busy with taking care of own children, and their education, marriage and so on. Even if she is a good teacher and believes in her karma, she does not have to worry about those children who are not in school or who cannot study due to familial reasons.

We should not be happy with what have.

Afterword: My impression is that Hinduism, as a religion or practice, does not have an intrinsic vision for social change or action. It focusses on the salvation of oneself and the stability (or the preservation of status quo) in society. Ideas like `Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam’ or those described in Manu Smriti are for the harmony or stability in society. On the other hand, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam propagate ideas of creating a `better’ society in this world (however limited or problematic these ideas are). The impact of the different nature of Hinduism on the persistence of underdevelopment in India (and the circulation of anti-development ideas), and the willingness of Indians to contribute less towards public/altruistic purposes (but more towards temples for ones’ own salvation) need to be analysed.

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