Satish Kumar is one of my favourite people in the world. He is an Indian monk and editor, more famous as a pacifist. But it is his brave, original thinking that really gets to me, and his disinterest in the games of accolade and accomplishment that humans play, more focused on the things that truly matter.
And of course, not surprisingly, for this, some people have dismissed him as idealist (as if the word is intrinsically bad) and unrealistic. His answer to them comes from that place of confidence that makes him one of my people in the world.
“Look at what realists have done for us,” he told the UK Guardian a few years ago. “They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me “unrealistic” to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I have spent the past two years poring over the data, the evidence and some of the oldest and latest thinking about human beings, human nature and human progress, and I am struck by how much scholarship exists about where the world should turn, and how at variance what we actually do (because ‘realistic’) is from what we should be doing; from what we know to do – whether it is climate change, capitalism or building our cities.
Take happiness studies for instance. The more I began to find out about what makes human beings truly happy and flourish, amid the throve of reproduced and peer-reviewed research across the world, from economics to psychology, validated by everything from anthropology through evolutionary biology, the more I was shocked: How did I not know this? How do we not know this? How do we not know, for instance, that everything ‘flow’ researchers know about happiness today confirms everything Plato or Aristotle, or Jesus and Mohammed told us about happiness millennia ago?
How can what science and scholarship know and what we do as human beings be so fundamentally misaligned?
Na because we no dey hear word.
What appears instinctively to us to be true, and what we discover to be true by contemplation and observation, and the full power of our intuitive grasps of the universe are completely different. But we chose to go with base instincts over whole truths.
So we insist that the only reason we are one of the unhappiest people in the world is simple and straightforward: it’s because we are poor. Which is either untrue or incomplete to the level of malpractice, because the data from the World Happiness Report over the past few years,including this year’s report released last week proves to us that China is wealthy but very unhappy, and that Botswana is one of the wealthiest African nations looking at GDP per capita, but is at the bottom of the rankings when it comes to happiness in the world.
We know that happiness is a scalar variable, it can be isolated, it can be measured, and it can be increased. We know that sustainable happiness (which is a state of being, no matter the situation), what the Greek called eudaimonia, is what humans seek, not hedonism, which is often what we get from the materials we possess. We know from decades of research into what makes people happy that because of the twin devils of social comparison (otherwise called envy) and habituation (which you can call boredom) a new car, or a new boob won’t make you any happier after period of time, unless somehow you convince yourself that other people are less happy than you i.e. it is not sustainable.
The philosophy confirms the theology, the theology confirms the anthropology and the anthropology confirms the psychology.
We know intuitively that many of our leaders acquired and acquired and acquired – power, wealth, sex – and died unhappily, between two prostitutes who didn’t care less, or after being arrested for theft in foreign airports. We see them wealthy but still stealing, powerful but still unsatisfied, humiliating themselves by a constant state of hustle, and their poor copies, doing everything for one more slice of fame, one more blog headline, one more public accolade.
Something tells us that cannot be the way to happiness. And that thing is right.
What leads to happiness at the core of it can be linked to two things: loving, strong, committed relationships, and the ability to give of ourselves to those around us, to those who need us and to strangers. We know from one of the longest studies of human beings, the almost 80-year Harvard Grant Study that the one thing that makes people happy and healthy is love.
But we see our friend, our ‘mentor’, our ‘role model’, our political leaders, our parents, we see them reach for other things but what truly matters, and we kill that inner voice that tells us what is proper, what is beautiful, and what is true.
Or is it poverty that you pay your gateman as little as $60?
And so we have the nation that we have today: that is both poor and unhappy, even though we know that money doesn’t lead to happiness. Even though we know that if people find happiness, whatever their situation, through meaning and relationships and reframing, then they can face adversity with dignity, then they can transcend difficulty, then they can find joy that helps them grow, even build wealth, and build a more inclusive, equitable society.
Today is the International Day for Happiness, and my team at Joy, Inc. and I think you should know – many Africans should know – these facts for yourself, you should know that the pursuit of pleasure and money will not help you find joy, or peace, or calm.
You should know and then you should begin this journey.
You can get books that can help you on this journey via ourjoystore.com, you can join The Joy Masterclass – we hold one every month in Nigeria (we are on a break now, and resume in May) and you can register via [email protected], or you can just watch any of the free videos that I have on my personal YouTube playlist here or the free reading material on the website here.
And then you can share this with your friends, and let’s see if, person by person, we can truly transform many of our communities, across the continent, into wholesome, loving, nurturing, safe spaces.
Happy Happiness Day, fellow travellers. And may your journeys lead you to joy, everyday.