Monday, June 08, 2009

Pico Iyer's Journey to Happiness

Pico Iyer, a travel writer (among other things) is someone whose writings I make it a point to read whenever I come across them. The topics he writes about are not raging controversies nor the latest hot-button issues of the day, but they do offer a unique view of the world and offer food for thought. In yesterday's New York Times, he wrote about living with less and getting wants to match with needs.
I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives [Etty Hillesum, a Dutchwoman on the way to a Nazi death camp, Ralph Waldo Emerson and a Japanese poet Issa] when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.”
Towards the end of the essay he says,
The constitution of Japan, refreshingly, says nothing about the pursuit of happiness, as if to suggest that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most when it isn’t pursued.
There is something vaguely discordant about that idea, am not sure what it is. His giving up his life in New York and seeking a life in Japan seems like the pursuit of something. And anyone giving a thought to whether they are happy or not (which is the only way you'll know you're happy) must be seeking it. And if they don't give a thought to whether they are happy or not, then more power to them and their detachment, but it is not the same as being happy. I guess what I'm trying to ask is, Can you be happy without seeking happiness?

I know this must seem like a nit picky point, but it was, perhaps, unnecessary on the author's part to ding all things American, including the Constitution, in order to make his point. I'm sure there are a lot of genuinely happy people in the Western World working and living within its value system.

Related post: What Makes You Happy?

[Update June 9, 2009: The New York Times carries reader reactions to the original Pico Iyer article, some in agreement and some in disagreement (such as, It takes a boat load of money to go off and live a simple life). Worth reading. Thanks, BPSK, for pointing me to the revision of the original article.]

[Update #2, June 9, 2009: The revision to the original article was to remove the reference to the Japanese Constitution. Thought I'd put it here in case you don't make it back to the original article or to BPSK's comment to this post. At some point during the day yesterday I got to wondering whether Japan even had a constitution given that they had emperors 'n all. NYT's note just says that the reference to the Japanese Constitution was 'incorrect' without elaborating.]


Jinksy said...

Something I wrote years ago keeps making more sense to me in many situations...

'That which is sought is oftem elusive. That which comes unbidden, is reality before it is recognised'

Think it applies here, too...

sujata sengupta said...

Happiness is state of mind..I can actually push a mental button and decide to be happy a moment and again at times the button doest work and i am in the pits..ppl say it s mood swings, I call it will power. But yes..if we try too hard, I think happiness can be elusive. Great post as always!! havent read the full article of Pico Iyer..will do shortly.

Rosaria Williams said...

I get what you're saying: even when you consciously give up looking for happiness, you are making a choice related to that concept; so, no use denying the concept is part of our consciousness, regardless.

We are all for his toning down his lifestyle. But, what exactly is he getting by moving?

Sylvia K said...

Great post as always, Sujatha. I do try to focus on the things in my life that lift my spirits, make me smile, laugh. I don't think it's a search for happiness as much as it is opening a door within yourself to allow happiness to enter as it comes to us from many directions, in many ways.

Have a lovely week!

Sniffles and Smiles said... are a deep thinker!!! I love the way you use your analytical talents to make us look at things with a fresh perspective, and to challenge what you see, hear and read!!! You are wonderful! ~Janine XO

DotThoughts said...

I soo agree. very very unwarranted. I used to love pico iyer. haven't read him in a while though. and yes, we pursue happiness, in small things and big. To think to the contrary is too fool oneself.

Kavi said...

I am reading an interesting book titled 'Us & them' ! We tend to look at others through the lens that we wears. Which we can add on, or remove as per our convenience. Somehow, i am reminded of that.

And this gives me a pointer to search, as to which constitution talks about happiness ? I am not sure.

Does the Indian one do ? I thought those were limited to the realms of election manifestos.

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Pico must have read your post, because the article on the NYT website now says the reference to the Japanese constitution was a mistake.

I did find his article preachy and not very well written.

Oddly enough, this past weekend driving down to DC, I was listening to a podcast interview he had given to Kamla Bhatt on his latest book about the Dalai Lama:

@kavi- the US constitution says that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that
all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these
are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” - probably the only constitution in the world that says so.

Also, did you know that Bhutan is the only country that measures its progress by "Gross National Happiness"?

Ugich Konitari said...

Every weekend , the Indian Express Mumbai Newsline supplement features short interviews with people from different countries who are working here. So many of them have mentioned as a fact, that they feel that people (like those you meet travelling by trains, on the road shopping etc)in Mumbai, always seem to be very happy and friendly.

You only have to see my household help "bai" to believe that.

I just read it, and Pico Iyer's article sounds a bit pretentious. Forget constitutions (they can always be amended), but happiness cannot be about leaving NY and shifting to a pricey city , praising a tiny accomodation, and constantly looking within oneself. The world over, typically, happiness has a huge amount to do with people who are close to you, and who laugh and cry with you. Needs are really not an issue.

Anonymous said...

You can't go wrong by dinging all things American.

Viyoma said...

Wow..your whole blog has a very nice feel..
I have come across many blogs from people away from Homeland, yet your blog leaves a soft touch, that kindles the heart!

Looking forward for more...If u permit me, i would like to add ur blog link, in my blog roll.

Sniffles and Smiles said...

My dear, beautiful friend~ Thank you for your lovely words of kindness, and means so much to does your friendship! I truly treasure it!!! ~Janine XO

Eleonora Baldwin said...

Ignorance is bliss...

Interesting topic and I agree with your point, Sujatha. It's easy to play zen Gauguin with money and a job at the NYT... I'd be more than happy.

Ciao my friend, you've again hit a winner with this one.
Lola xx

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Jinksy, there's wisdom and truth in that. Will serve me well to remember.

@ Sujata, wow, that is indeeded something! More power to you, girl!

@ Rosaria, for most of us there is a huge cost associated with moving, too, making it even more forbidding. The comments to that article are very interesting.

@ Sylvia, I appreciate your viewpoint in matters such as these. There's nothing like statements made out of experience to give weight to an issue. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful notes.

@ Janine, thanks!

@ Dottie, this is another one on the growing list of things we seem to agree on! Me like! :)

@ Kavi, yes, that seems like a relevant point even if tangential. What is happiness to him may not be to be. If he had left his essay at that - a description of how he got to happiness - without turning it into a diagnosis of the malaise that afflicts western society and how there is no happiness, then I guess there would be no disagreement! :) I really like his writings; just this one aspect of his essay was jarring. As for the 'happiness' component of constitutions, BPSK has the relevant text in his comment.

@ BPSK, according to the essay, he has no internet connection. So I doubt it. :) Thanks for pointing to the revised version and for linking to Kamla's podcast.

@ Ugich, when you said "The world over, typically, happiness has a huge amount to do with people who are close to you, and who laugh and cry with you. Needs are really not an issue" you could have been talking about me! Whenever I sulk and go off and be by myself for a couple of hours, may be. And then I cannot stand it. I need to be around people and talking nineteen to the dozen, be involved. But to each his own, I guess.

@ Mohan, that statement has a rather large element of truth in it. :) Thanks for reading and commenting.

@ Viyoma, what a lovely comment! Thank you! Welcome to my blog! I've blogrolled you as well.

@ Janine, you're welcome. I hope you feel better soon.

@ Lola, I just got the feeling that he was trying too hard - to convince himself and us. He has a very unique perspective of the world, but I felt that it was a stretch to declare that what was not good for him was not good, period. Thanks for reading and for your comment. :)