ISSN 2330-717X

Discontent By Design – OpEd

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Everyone, everywhere wants to be happy; how to find this jewel however is not easy and many people, most perhaps, spend their lives battling misery, whilst searching in increasingly narrow circles for happiness, or relief from unhappiness, until weary and despondent they give up and await the inevitable.

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Conditioned from birth to expect happiness to be found externally, in the sensory world and the turbulent realm of romance, this is where, understandably, most conduct their search. Reductive stereotypes of what constitutes a ‘happy life’ are thrust into the minds of everyone virtually from birth. Stereotypes constructed by corporate entities, supported by duplicitous governments that actively engage in designing and perpetuating systems (socio-economic-political) that, far from creating happiness, feed discontent, agitate internal conflict and create dependency on material sensory stimulation. Stereotypes that have evolved from a false set of conclusions about the nature of life, in which ‘the body’, with its endless desires, and pleasure have taken center stage. ‘Success’, usually determined by financial wealth and power, has been presented as the highest goal of life; ambition is promoted, admired even, ownership of stuff, and dominion over others seen as laudable.

Such false values, which are rooted in a narrow materialistic view of life, have largely come from Western developed nations led by the US, together with powerful multi national corporations. But thanks to globalisation and the dogmatic belief that there is no alternative to the Neo-Liberal economic model, nations and peoples around the world have now, more or less, adopted what is a corrosive, poisonous approach to living; one that vandalizes the planet, feeds mental illness and stokes social/income/wealth inequality.

It is no accident that the most unequal countries suffer from some of the highest levels of mental health illness; conversely countries that are more equal are routinely ranked as the happiest in the world – Finland (top for the fifth year running), followed by Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden.

A measure of happiness?

Within this all pervasive, cynical construct, an equivalence between happiness and economic/material success/status is drawn, promoted and to a degree believed in. It is a measure applied not only to individuals, but is the principal benchmark for gauging national development. To challenge this narrative and to speak of happiness itself (or indeed love, and the two arise from the same source) as a primary aim of life and the most important criteria for assessing growth – be it an individual or a country, in opposition to, for example, wealth, career success, political influence, a large house, fast car etc, is to be dismissed as naive; out of step with the fast moving competitive world in which we live.

But there are tentative signs that this lopsided rather crude view is beginning to be challenged, albeit quietly. Together with a growing feeling of disillusionment with the existing systems and values among many people, and thanks in large measure to the nation of Bhutan. This small country, wedged between Bangladesh and China has long embraced an alternative way of assessing the country’s status based on collective well-being rather than GDP levels, and in July 2011 sponsored a United Nations resolution (65/309), in which nations were invited to “give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development.”

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In response, the following year the World Happiness Report was set up; an annual look at levels of happiness throughout the world, a breakdown of various countries and an overview of where we, as a global society, are and may be heading. “The true measure of progress is the happiness of the people,” the report states. “That happiness can be measured; and that we know a lot about what causes it. Given this knowledge, it is now possible for policy-makers to make people’s happiness the goal of their policies.” And, let us add, not simply the continued enrichment of a few wealthy people/corporations.

The 2022 report, published in March states that over the ten years since its first publication, “There has, on average, been a long-term moderate upward trend in stress, worry, and sadness in most countries and a slight long-term decline in the enjoyment of life.”

This is an unsurprising, damning assessment of the dominant global values. But, given the current materialistically obsessed way of life, the social divisions, pressures to become something, to conform to an image that matches the cultural stereotype and to accept the dominant doctrine, as well as the growing sense of environmental anxiety (recognized as a mental health condition by the World Health Organisation (WHO), increasing and persistent levels of dissatisfaction, anxiety and unhappiness are inevitable.

And from the perspective of The Architects – the politicians, corporations and Devotees of the Doctrine — this is good. The last thing they want is happy contented communities in harmony with themselves and their environment; its hard to feel content in a violent world at war with itself; where the environment is being mutilated, distrust of ‘the other’ is encouraged, and where economic insecurity is the norm for most people.

Insecurity, intolerance and perpetual longing are cornerstones of the Ideology of Greed and Division, which rests upon a foundation of continual, irresponsible consumerism and separation; a longing maintained by advertising/marketing, triggering discontent that, they say, will be satiated by buying their products. But as the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi explained, “There is no happiness in any object of the world. We imagine through our ignorance that we derive happiness from objects. When the mind goes out, it experiences misery.” And the mind is constantly encouraged to ‘go out’: To shop, to seek entertainment, to follow and engage in desire of all kinds in the hunt for happiness.

Whilst the temporary fulfillment of desire does not creating lasting happiness, it does bring about momentary relief from longing and misery. It is not the object of desire however that creates such happiness; desire briefly satisfied is quietened, allowing the happiness that is always present to shine, before the next desire, and the next and so on. Desire is insatiable: As the Buddha taught, it is the root of all (psychological) suffering; with desire comes anxiety, disappointment and division — and where there is division, within or without, there will be conflict.

Escape within

Among the list of global crises confronting humanity is an epidemic in mental-health illness (depression and anxiety are the most common conditions), leading in some cases to addiction (as escape from unhappiness is sought) and suicide — seen as the ultimate escape. The actual numbers of people suffering is unknown, its estimated to be around one billion (15% of the world’s population), but no doubt it is a lot more. And while the causes may vary, and the circumstances of our lives differ, the human condition does not. Over and above whatever cultural/ethnic differences exist, (and these are fast being destroyed by The Globalisation and the Uniformity Project) we are all the same, and we all want to be happy, no matter where in the world we are, whether, black, brown or white, rich poor or somewhere in between.

Neither things, nor other people, position or success can fulfil this innate longing for happiness. As Ramana Maharshi explained if objects (including beliefs) brought happiness “it would be reasonable to conclude that, “Happiness would increase with the increase of possessions and diminish in proportion to their diminution. Therefore if he [someone] is devoid of possessions, his happiness should be nil. What is the real experience of man [woman]? Does it conform to this view? In deep sleep [e.g.] the man is devoid of possessions, including [conscious awareness of] his own body. Instead of being unhappy [though] he is quite happy.”

Like peace and love, such happiness rests within, it is the birthright of everyone, and yet, lost in the hollow world of consumption, competition and uncertainty many, if not most people, experience this inherent state fleetingly at best. This can change, indeed if we are to create healthy harmonious societies in which social and environmental responsibility are central it must. Systemic change is urgently needed, so too changes in values and behavior, and a lifting of the colossal pressure that characterises the lives of people throughout the world. Changes that inculcate social justice, trust and simpler quieter ways of living; changes that cultivate human kindness, compassion and unity. Changes that people everywhere are longing for: Reject the cries of the market, weaken The Monster and create a space in which contentment and natural happiness can flower.

Graham Peebles

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with acutely disadvantaged children and conducting teacher training programmes. Website: https://grahampeebles.org/

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