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Monday, 20 September 2021

Born to be happy

It matters little that this is the first April after a painful year of a pandemic that covered the globe with distress and despair. We long for happiness and we must find it, if not in April, then when?

Lubna Abdel-Aziz , Monday 5 Apr 2021
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What better time to greet spring with music and song, joy and happiness? It is April. Not April’s fool or poisson d’Avril. It is the month that commands the flowers to bloom, the trees to turn green, the clouds to disappear, the sun to shine and the birds to sing.

It matters little that this is the first April after a painful year of a pandemic that covered the globe with distress and despair. We long for happiness and we must find it, if not in April, then when?

So what if the author of one of the greatest poems in English literature, T S Elliot, started “The Waste Land” with the ominous line “April is the cruelest month of the year”? We beg to differ.

His was another time, another place, although it is hard to escape the coincidence that it was 100 years ago, following the Spanish flu pandemic, that he wrote this memorable first line.

Elliot had just recovered from the Spanish flu, which he and wife Vivian had contracted in December 1921. It ravaged the globe, killing 50 to 100 million lives. That, compounded with the losses of World War I, left Elliot’s London a dismal and barren waste land.

The coming of spring is supposed to breed hope and Elliot feared the hope that would not be fulfilled. Moreover, he had a chaotic marriage which ended in divorce.

This by no means is a dissertation on Elliot or “The Waste Land”, rather a defence of the month of April with its promise of renewal and recovery. Even if we too feel the brokenness and loss of the pandemic, we chose April to start anew.

Hope springs eternal and we have hope.

Now, the quest for happiness begins. In fact, there seems to be a human obsession for happiness. Have you ever noticed the vast quantities of “happy face” buttons, on mugs, pens stationery, bumper stickers, even stamps? Yes, the US issued a Happy Face stamp in 1999.

Happiness reigns supreme. It is marketed at every turn from children to seniors, from amusement parks to fast foods or plastic surgeons, we are all urged to be happy. We all wish each other happiness, it is a must-have, and there are hundreds of books to help us find it.

Have we gone happy crazy? In a consumer-oriented way, we have. If only there was a magic formula that we could apply.

Happiness means different things to different people — one size does not fit all.

What is happiness anyway? Simply put, it is whatever makes you happy, but that is way too simple for psychologists.

 A new branch of positive psychology is based on enhancing the human condition. Psychology therapists, or happiness counselors, are getting rich, spreading happiness to gullible clients.

Internationally renowned therapist and clinical psychologist John Schumacher says “the problem is that we’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places.”

His recent book In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind is a welcome addition to the bulging literature on happiness. Not only does he take us through history across cultures, literature, religions and philosophies, he shows us how consumer culture is “toxic to happiness as well as general emotional well-being”. He also draws insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, economics, philosophy and religious studies in order to conduct a biography on the life and death of happiness.

He explores the essence of happiness in different cultures and different times and critiques the commercialised happiness of today’s mass-consumer society.

In the US Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness” leaves us befuddled. To a slave then, it was freedom, but to the master what was it? Was it riches, power, education, enterprise or the freedom to fulfil one’s potential?

Elusive as ever, literature suggests that besides health and wealth, happiness is subjective. It is often associated with “a job well done”.

Superior work outcomes or increased productivity or creativity, resulting in higher income, is a popular form of happiness.

Can religion make you happy? This is another question that has plagued happiness’ psychologists. It can bring meaning to our lives but not necessarily happiness.

A new study suggests that it depends on the society you live in. Researchers surveyed 40,534 people randomly selected from 48 countries. The result is the more autonomy the less religion. In less developed nations, religion was tied to happiness.

In our opinion, humble though it may be, happiness is ultimately the love of life; the celebration of living.

There is a theory that happiness may be genetically determined. Professors Sheldon and Lyubomirsky, suggest in one of their many studies on happiness that genetics account for 50 per cent, circumstances 10 per cent, activity 40 per cent. Activity is your will and power. You can create your own happiness. It comes from within.

What about Love? Now that is the time of year when our thoughts, young or old, turns to love in song: “April in Paris”, “I remember April and I smile”, etc. Not only romantic love but to do what we love, wear what we love, eat what we love, spend time with who we love. It makes the world go round, they say. April is the time we dare to love, we dare to hope. Even Elliot admitted it was “breeding lilacs”, but afraid of unfulfilled promises.

We are unafraid. The pandemic will end. Spring is here. Earth is reborn.

Celebrate the joy of existence. Promises fulfilled.

“I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.”

 Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1842)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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