Is envy the root of most unhappiness

Socrates (b. 460 BCE) has a unique place in the history of happiness. Socrates argued that happiness being a godly quality is a rare occurrence and is reserved only for those whom the gods specially favoured. It was at the time when Greeks had a rather cynical view of human existence. The idea that one could obtain happiness for oneself was considered arrogance.

From Socrates onwards, while several philosophers and religious leaders of all faiths believed that true and lasting happiness was indeed possible, it has also been labelled as ‘the most misunderstood phenomenon in the world’.

Happiness is one of the most oft-repeated words as everyone in his wish or prayer desires happiness for others. It is thought to be the greatest blessing in the world. It is also the most cherished goal. If you ask anyone ‘what do you want’ the answer is often ‘happiness’. It is because happiness is the goal that makes other life goals-success, prosperity and relationship-feel meaningful.

There can be a debate whether happiness is a destination or a journey, but there can’t be any debate regarding good deeds to be a primary source of happiness. Small acts of kindness, gestures of affection, compassionate words and helping others all add up to good deeds radiating pro-social behaviour.

It is said that if you are willing to accept that happiness already exists in you, you will begin to experience more happiness around you. Being willing to accept yourself is the first step to bringing out the best in you. Some people chase happiness while other people choose happiness. Money can’t buy you happiness because true happiness is not a material achievement. If you make a list of things that give you true and lasting happiness, it would surprise you that your list would include all those things that cost no money and are totally priceless, like laughter, friendship, meditation, air, wild nature, fresh air, kindness and stars at night.

It is said that if you are willing to accept that happiness already exists in you, you will begin to experience more happiness around you

Money, no doubt, is a big source of pleasure, but it is not the only source of pleasure. Since glut of everything is bad, too much money can be a source of worries and fears, enough to rob you of the true happiness of life. Only that much money is essential that can fulfil your basic requirements of leading a happy and content life. Poverty is one of the most wretched things in life, and a paramount source of unhappiness.

Utilitarian thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham advocated the greatest happiness principle as a guide for ethical behaviour. In our own time, there are two distinguished philosophers, Bertrand Russell and the Dalai Lama, who have extensively written about happiness. Dalai Lama in his The Art of Happiness writes, “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear, whether one believes in a religion or not.” He further states, “Unhappy people tend to be self-focused, withdrawn, brooding and even antagonistic. On the other hand, happy people tend to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people.”

Russell wrote his The Conquest of Happiness in as far back as 1930, and it is as relevant today as it was then. While checking the reviews of his book in Good Reads, it was not surprising to note that his views get astonishingly high ratings from modern readers despite the passage of nearly 90 years when he expounded them. It is because his rational mind tends to find correct answers by raising a counter question: ‘What causes unhappiness’. Instead of going in a roundabout manner, the counter question leads to a precise and direct answer.

Russell has regarded gratitude as the common denominator in the quest for happiness. Happy people are always grateful. When people are grateful they are also happy. When people are ungrateful they are also unhappy. Shakespeare regarded ungratefulness as “sharper than the tooth of a serpent.”

According to Russell, we must be grateful to God for all the bounties He has bestowed upon us. It is essential to heighten your sensitivity to God’s love and God’s grace, which will in turn make you happy.

One must busy oneself in one’s work to avoid unhappiness. One should be engrossed in doing the things one loves. You will feel happier when you are a busy bee. Being active in something you can engage your skills in keeps your mind distracted from things in life that you can’t control. When you stay busy you create positive feelings and avoid negative ones by forgetting them.

The most miserable man is the one who is absorbed in the consciousness of sin. This man is perpetually incurring his own disapproval, which, if he is religious, he interprets as the disapproval of God. He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be, which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is. He learns in his childhood that swearing is wicked; drinking is wicked; ordinary business shrewdness is wicked; above all, sex is wicked. He does not, of course, abstain from any of these pleasures but they are all poisoned for him by the feeling that they degrade him. In his disappointment, he becomes cruel, repents of his cruelty, and starts afresh on the dreary round of imagined sin and real remorse. This is the psychology of many apparently hard-boiled reprobates.

The man who is only interested in himself is not admirable, and is not felt to be so. Consequently, the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object. Russell calls this Byronic unhappiness. Such a man will not be completely happy since human instinct is never completely self-centred, and the narcissist is limiting himself artificially just as truly as is the man dominated by a sense of sin. Vanity, when it passes beyond a point, kills pleasure in every activity for its own sake, and thus leads inevitably to listlessness and boredom.

The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men in history. Love of power, like vanity, is a strong element in normal human nature, and as such is to be accepted; it becomes deplorable only when it is excessive or associated with an insufficient sense of reality. Where this occurs, it makes a man unhappy or foolish, or both.

Love is to be valued because it enhances all the best pleasures, such as music, sunrise in mountains, and the sea under a full moon. Love is able to break down the hard shell of the ego since it is a form of biological cooperation in which emotions of each are necessary to the fulfilment of the other’s instinctive purposes. The Stoics and the early Christians believed that a man could realise the highest good of which human life is capable by means of his own will alone, or at any rate without human aid. Some people have regarded power as the end of life, and others mere personal pleasure. Russell believes that man depends upon cooperation, and has been provided by nature with the instinctive apparatus out of which the friendliness required for cooperation can spring. Love is the first and commonest form of emotion leading to cooperation, and those who have experienced love with any intensity know that real happiness is not possible without the person loved.

In the struggle for life, a fair competition is essential, but the root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness. This cut-throat competition instead of enhancing pleasure deprives the man of much of the happiness of life. A happy life must be, to a great extent, a quiet life; for it is only in an atmosphere of quietness that true joy can be lived and experienced.

In modern day advanced communities, nervous fatigue takes away much of the happiness of life. Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. Fear, in its most harmful form, arises where there is some danger that we are unwilling to face. In the humdrum of life, one has to come across all kinds of fears including fears of financial ruin, discovery of trade secrets and jealous suspicions.

Next to worry, probably, one of the most potent causes of unhappiness is envy. Envy is one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions. Not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune on others with impunity, he is also rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have. The habit of thinking in terms of comparisons is a fatal one. It is an irony that not many great men were free of envy. Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander envied Hercules, who never existed.

You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine to be more fortunate than yourself. The instability of social status in the modern world, and the equalitarian doctrine of democracy have greatly extended the range of envy.

The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realisation of the world in which we live.

The writer is a former member of the Provincial Civil Service, and an author of Moments in Silence