Aristotle points out in Nicomachean Ethics that while we desire every other thing for being instrumental and serving some other end, happiness is the only thing that we desire in and of itself for itself, and all the other things aim at happiness as their final end. Hence, if we are happy then there is nothing else left to be desired.
Buddha preached that “Craving is the cause of suffering”. Some object to this saying, “Desire is not the cause of misery. The cause is unfulfilled desire.” Buddha anticipated this line of thinking and said that even when one is experiencing pleasure due to the fulfillment of a desire, one is not content, because one fears that this feeling of happiness might soon disappear, and craves for this feeling to stay put and get intensified.
But, we know better. Satisfaction from the fulfillment of a desire rarely lasts for long and is soon replaced by discontent due to some other desire(s) starting to make their presence felt in the firmament of our conscious thinking. And, we are off on another merry-go-round of trying to fulfill those desires, and until they are fulfilled we remain unhappy or less happy. Note that when a desire is fulfilled, the mind becomes calm, leading to happiness being experienced, and the unhappiness is only due to the presence of desires which make the mind turbulent. So, happiness is a calm mind.
Buddha’s solution to this is the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which culminates in concentration and meditation. Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “In [Buddhist] meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realize how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear, and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasizing about what might have been. The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.” The operative idea or insight here is “living in the present moment”. How so?
You see, we rarely live in the present. Most often, we live in the future by anticipating the fulfillment of some desires or dreading the possibility of some misfortune; and we live in the past, by regretting some decisions and actions of ours, or wishing for a repeat of the past pleasant feelings and circumstances. This being the case, we are bound to be unhappy in the present because our mind is not calm. However, if we could arrest this flow of thinking into the past and future and stay rooted in the present then it is akin to meditation or being in a state of “flow” (if we are engaged in a task) and that will eliminate all the blocks to happiness in the form of discursive thinking.
It gets even better in that if you understand the above existential situation, then that very understanding will propel you into the present without you having to spend hours and hours, nay, years and years, in meditation. As J. Krishnamurti observes, we should not look to methods and techniques to make the mind still or calm (which is the same as living in the present) but rather the very understanding of the need for the mind to be still or calm to attain to a state of happiness will suffice. That is, we should come to realize that happiness is not got through running after the objects and pleasures of this world, but rather it is got through realizing that happiness is a calm mind.
Now, one may think it is well and good if we become happy but how will it solve society’s problems? Ask yourself what are the three most pernicious ills that plague Indian society today. You will be entirely right if you pick casteism, corruption, and contempt. Contempt comes in many flavors – contempt for people with a different ideology, class, caste, religion, language, ethnicity, and what have you, from your own.
It may seem that these three problems need to be tackled differently, stemming as they seem to do from different causes, and hence needing different solutions. Such traditional wisdom notwithstanding I propose that there is a single solution to these three problems. The reason I say so is that I see the causes of these three problems being the same – unhappy people.
The unhappiness itself can be due to many reasons, but it manifests in the Indian society as this three-headed monster – casteism, corruption, and contempt. Hence, I submit that if we make people happy irrespective of their outward circumstances and personal identities, then we would have found a way to transcend casteism, corruption, and contempt. Let me elaborate.
Have you ever come across a truly happy person being mean-spirited, greedy, and full of hatred? Of course, you have not. That is because mean-spiritedness, greed, and hate lodge in oneself when one is not satisfied with the way things are or threaten to become, that is, in short, one is unhappy.
But, we have already explained above, happiness is not due to external circumstances or one’s lot in life but rather due to the state of one’s mind. And, we showed that the mere understanding of the need to live in the present will render your mind calm and you will attain happiness. And, if a sufficient number of people in our society understand this, then we would have gone a long way towards solving or whittling away the three cardinal ills of our society mentioned here.