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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 6, February 4, 2023

Happiness In its Living Social Context | Kobad Ghandy

Saturday 4 February 2023, by Kobad Ghandy


Happiness has many interpretations. The first is the vulgar materialist approach to it, where we seek happiness for ourselves in luxuries, consumer products, personal gratifications of various types, etc. - most of these with a selfish self-interest, very often at the cost of others. When this does not give the desired results we seek it in spiritualism, promoted by most religions and gurus, where we are called upon to suppress all desires and worldly interests as the source of happiness. While these two extremes are the main interpretation of happiness in today’s world, for real happiness we need to look elsewhere.

In my interpretation of happiness, it is to seek its fulfilment mostly in the eyes of others, or, at least together with others. While the vulgar materialists equate pleasures with happiness; the spiritualist seeks the suppression of all desires and worldly pleasures as the only source for happiness; I see pleasures — both instinctive and social - as one aspect of happiness, but not its only source. When I say in my book (Fractured Freedom) that activists need to incorporate into the social project — the Anuradha Model of values, freedom with a goal of happiness I am not seeing happiness in isolation from the other two, but as its end product.

The Anuradha Model values I have defined as those of straightforwardness, honesty, simplicity (no ego), etc. This value system is the basis for trying to build both a free and democratic environment as also acquiring true happiness for oneself and those in our surroundings. If I don’t seek to acquire the Anuradha model of values, and achieve the naturalness of such a being, neither can I be really free nor gain happiness for myself and those in my circle. Freedom will be warped and happiness will tend to fall within the first category — as vulgar materialist.

Next, if I am not free, I cannot help others achieve it or build truly free/democratic relationships. As it is, even if relatively free some complexities will always arise in our interactions with our ego, pretences, defences, one-upmanship, etc coming in the way of naturalness. The measure of our achieving freedom and naturalness can be the extent to which I feel that I can open up my inner-most emotions and mind (as it is) to others around me. The extent to which I feel reticent to that extent I am unfree and there is unnaturalness in the atmosphere. Of course this does not come easily and has to be worked upon as we have so many inhibitions even with our closest associates, and with many others we fear that our vulnerabilities may be used against us.

As Marx says: Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers — he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities — as instincts. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. ... A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being, and plays no part in the system of nature. A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being. —Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General (1844)

 In my concept of happiness, the main source of happiness, within the framework of the Anuradha Model of values, would be in making others happy. I derive my happiness by seeing happiness/pleasure lit up on the faces of others. Most people confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure can be one aspect of happiness but it is a passing enjoyment while happiness is an overall mental make-up of any person. More on this later.

Search For Happiness Through The Ages

The issue of ‘happiness’ has been discussed since the time of Socrates about 2,500 years ago. It is raised by most religious gurus and spiritual healers and yet there is greater and greater unhappiness in the world today. Why?
Socrates (as seen through the lens of Plato) can be said to espouse the following ideas about happiness:

  • All human beings naturally desire happiness
  • Happiness is obtainable and teachable through human effort
  • Happiness is directive rather than additive: it depends not on external goods, but how we use these external goods (whether wisely or unwisely)
  • Happiness depends on the “education of desire” whereby the soul learns how to harmonize its desires, redirecting its gaze away from physical pleasures to the love of knowledge and virtue
  • Virtue and Happiness are inextricably linked, such that it would be impossible to have one without the other.
  • The pleasures that result from pursuing virtue and knowledge are of a higher quality than the pleasures resulting from satisfying mere animal desires. Pleasure is not the goal of existence, however, but rather an integral aspect of the exercise of virtue in a fully human life.
    In fact, in religions too this trend has continued and we are told that controlling all desires and abstaining from all pleasures leads to nirvana as the Buddhists say or moksha as the Hindus say. Buddhist say mental (manasika) happiness, or anandam arises from a sense of fulfilment and freedom from worries, afflictions, and anxieties. Spiritual (adhyatmika) happiness, or atmanandam, arises from freedom from the cycle of births and deaths, and union with Self.

 In fact, Hindu philosophy goes so far as to say that if happiness is dependent on outside factors, it will end up in suffering. According to them, the happiness provided by sense objects will perish like dew in the morning. They ask us to aim for bliss which cannot be taken away by any external force. They further say, there can be no happiness when there is attachment and fear. All search for happiness in the world around us is misery and leads to more misery. The impediments to peace and happiness are egoism (aham), ignorance (avidya), impurities (malas), delusion (maya), past actions (karma), desires (kama) and attachments (pasas). In other words, just looking within and detaching from the external world can give happiness. But this is a form of escapism and most who seek out spiritual gurus are those already afflicted by unhappiness and depression. But this is an irrational approach as we are in continuous interaction with the external world and this must necessarily impact us.

Like Socrates, Hinduism and Buddhism says that basically happiness can be gained by forsaking desire and through detachment from the real world. Thus, chasing happiness upon earth by worldly means is like chasing a mirage. To escape from this predicament, one should subordinate earthly happiness to spiritual happiness, and, earthly goals to spiritual goals, and aim for permanent happiness, which can be secured only when a being is completely free from all attachments, and the limitations of mortal life. They claim that true happiness of the divine kind arises not from having things or fulfilling our desires, but by restraining our minds and bodies, and becoming free from our dependence upon them. A central aspect of the Hindu concept of happiness is that when we are free from all attachments, from the impurity of maya and desires, we return to our soul’s essential nature, which is permanent bliss. Reaching this state is called liberation or moksha or nirvana. Such advice may be ok for the idle rich but for those who have to earn a living it is impractical. Even for others, one cannot escape the impact of the outside world, more so in this era of the internet / mobiles to which many get attached to the point of obsession.

So, basically there is a continuous search for happiness but the focus has always been inwards alone, by cutting us off from reality. There is not much difference between what Socrates says or the Hindu and Buddhist religions in this aspect. But this search has been illusive precisely because the reality keeps haunting us. 

So, the search for happiness has gone on eternally but the theme is mostly one — it cannot be achieved in real life but through detachment and cutting off from society and, often, in aligning with god. The only exception to this view was probably the Lokayatas/ Charvakas who certainly made more sense looking for happiness in the real world, rather than all this mumbo jumbo; but their relation to happiness was linked more to sensual pleasures (which would only be a partial truth).

Marxism or Economic Determinism

 Given this importance of happiness for a man’s being/existence, how can Marxists say it should be ignored. Do we not strive for a society where the majority of the people are happy? If Marxists deny happiness as their aim; what then should be their goal, this needs to be clearly defined. Should it be limited to equality and/or getting the necessities of life. But that is merely an economic construct, to achieving happiness. I have explained that this must obviously be the starting point for gaining happiness but is it the be-all and end-all of life. Have all those who have acquired the necessities of life become happy? If that is so why have depression reached peak levels in today’s consumerist world. No doubt if we don’t have sufficient food, clothing and shelter there is no question of happiness. But if we keep this alone as the goal, our approach is limited to an economic dimension and does not encompass the entire person. Is it not an economic determinist standpoint? There are so many other aspects to life like say self-respect, social interaction (including man-woman or other sexual relations), sports, music, entertainment, art/culture, reading, religion, spiritual solace and other sources of enjoyment and contentment. Then there are instinctive needs and pleasures like sex, food, drinks, etc. Are all these other aspects of life to be ignored or taken for granted? The Marxists need to answer these points clearly.

If we now turn to the revolutionary project in today’s world, is it to be seen as a mere duty to serve the poor? This seems the main approach of most leftists of all hues. If we take it as a duty, it amounts to a sort of imposition on ourselves and we shall never derive happiness/pleasure from it. We will never be able to flower in the course of our activities. That is why most activists tend to cease being creative and act ‘like the monk tolling the bell’ doing routine tasks day-in and day-out in a dull and drab way. While even most left leaders today are devoid of any ability of trying to understand the changing world and merely repeat hackneyed formulae which are meaningless, unless made concrete. They say, for example something like “ big capital always oppresses the people whatever the form of politics they tend to adopt — fascist or liberal democracy. They are but two sides of the same coin”. Do we not know this since the very birth of capitalism? They should say what in the present context is the situation, and what precisely needs to be done; also, for the democratic/left forces which of the two alternatives is preferable in which to be able to act.

To target imperialism generally has no meaning without analysing it in its present living context where a handful of the billionaire club call the shots led by the Cabal (big financiers, digital moguls, war machine chiefs, etc) and the direction in which they are moving towards the GREAT RESET. So the left/democrats that fell prey to the corona capitalism agenda, will again fall prey to what new schemes this Cabal are bound to bring given the depth of their crisis. The extent of the left’s blindness is to be seen that not one sees the writing on the wall of a horrifying GREAT RESET, and merely repeat hackneyed statements on imperialism in general, like the economists Jayati Gosh, C.P Chandrashekhar, Prabhat Patnaik and other left economists. This is meaningless as it, in essence, says nothing concrete.

 On the other hand, there are many left intellectuals who go to the other extreme and try to render Marx more profound. Their theorisation has nothing connected with reality and their abstractions tend to be esoteric and vague. They too are equally distant from being able to synthesise the present as the dogmatists mentioned above are, let alone able to predict the future. Here the intellectuals may no doubt be satisfied with their intellectualism, like that of the spiritual guru, but rarely happy — the more honest tend to be at their creative best when under some intoxication, the dishonest live in ivory towers thinking themselves superior to normal human beings. Marxists linked with life and the class struggle need to be creative - to always not only analyse the present in the continuously changing context of the situation, but also to predict the future. If unable to do so, their tactics will always be a delayed reaction to what unfolds and too late to be effective.

Actually, only if we are happy in the work we do and derive pleasure from it — whether it is revolution, art, literature, science, anything — only then will we be creative and flower in that particular line. No doubt for the bulk of society a drab job of earning a living will not allow for creativity. But earn we must as otherwise we become part of the exploitative rich or at least leisurely class. Yet in the existing set-up, due to a more scientific approach (dialectical materialism), if we are able to build within our circle an atmosphere of cooperation amongst individuals, the basis is created for not only greater creativity of all but also happiness — as in a relaxed atmosphere people can flower the best. In today’s society where some time may go in earning which may or may not involve creativity, the rest of our time, if not wasted on frivolous obsessions, we can also generate miracles if there is a focus and dedication.

Now, to turn to life itself, before coming to the different facets of happiness, including pleasure. Today, inspite of these teachings by the gurus, through the ages, people are more unhappy than ever before. Why? The reason is that the suggestions of the scriptures are not for the material world and are impractical, yet the striving for happiness will continue as long as man exists in this world. Why then are the Marxists so fearful of addressing the issue?
 Some say there is so much suffering in this world so how can one be happy. But the Buddha also felt so and found the answer in an escape to Nirvana. We have to find it in the present existing world. It is not that suffering goes away but the happiness is to be sought in the confidence that what we are doing and the way in which we are acting is the only real way to rid the world of that suffering — and not by escaping the real world and meditating on some mountain top. Nor is it by being happy living in isolation, absorbed in our own world, oblivious to the suffering all around us.

It is not that some are not happy in this system. A few are. In the existing social system, generally people who hold positions of power and control over money, are the ‘happy’ ones, while all their subordinates and associates live in fear and insecurity. Many in authority in society dominate others and destroy their self-respect and are ‘happy’ with the power they wield. Whether we like it or not, in this system, some are happy (like leaders and the powerful), while others are not. This applies as much to the left as to bourgeois society. Many leaders of left groups are happy in the control they wield and could not care about their cadre except that they should be loyal to them. So, to ignore the issue of happiness, defacto means perpetuating the existing state of affairs where only some are happy at the expense of most.

The point is to work for the happiness of the majority and not just allow a handful be happy while most others are not. Selfish people too seek their happiness at the cost of others happiness. What concerns them is that they should gain, enjoy, dominate, control - and use any means to achieve these — and thereby seek happiness for themselves without any concern for others. Unhappiness for them comes only once their status quo begins to shake.

In essence, to ignore the issue of happiness, means to perpetuate what exists - the happiness of the rich and powerful, as also those dominating any section of society (like leaders, intellectuals, etc), at the cost of the ordinary people.

Consumerism and Extreme Alienation

 Now if we turn to the present, in this consumerist/neo-liberal world, besides the unhappiness caused by excruciating poverty of the masses; extreme forms of individualism and alienation are pushing large sections of the middle classes (even sections of the upper) to isolation, loneliness and insecurity that breeds the worst forms of unhappiness only to be drowned in drinks, drugs and/or religion (if they have the money). The consumerist and internet/mobile mania is creating such acute levels of alienation not only from others but even from ourselves that it destroys any chance of true happiness. This escape into a make-believe world, sort of numbs our senses, and encourages interaction with things rather than people. And this alienation is very much part of the economic system in existence and was consciously aggravated to extreme levels through isolation in the name of social-distancing during the pandemic/lockdown. Afterall, the powers that be, know that an insecure and fragile person will be least equipped to stand up to the injustices all around or even equipped to counter their fake propaganda and the system that promotes it. Insecure people are the most vulnerable to propaganda unleashed, and extreme isolation prevents unity to fight injustice.

Therefore, in today’s world an important part of the revolutionary agenda is to not merely fight for the basic necessities of life but to build a counter narrative to the atmosphere being promoted by the establishment which seeks to keep all in a state of insecurity, alienation, suppressed and distant from one another. Anyone who promotes these, either consciously or unconsciously, is, in essence, assisting the system as it detracts from brotherhood, unity and love for one’s fellow beings. Marxists/communists who sit in ivory towers and consider themselves superior to other human beings in fact fall prey to this agenda, without realising it, and thereby assist the status quo as it just builds on the isolation people already face in their lives. 

It is here that the question of freedom and happiness comes in, in the agenda for change and peoples’ emancipation. In today’s context, in order to build a counter narrative to that promoted by the rulers and elite, we need to consciously counter our alienated selves, with the values of the Anuradha Model in order to create an atmosphere of happiness and wellbeing within our circles. Without consciously making the attempt to break the walls that exist between us, they will only grow further, creating disharmony and we will tend to fall prey to all that divides us in the form of individualism, ego, possessiveness, jealousies, etc.

Pleasure & Happiness

Pleasure is an aspect of happiness but not its indulgence. Instinctive needs/desires are a major source of pleasure and they should be enjoyed without a feeling of guilt. The essence of happiness in the Socrates/religious context is to free ourselves from these worldly pleasures and only then can we achieve happiness. On the contrary the instinctive needs are not only necessary but also enjoyable. There is no real logic to suppress them, but going to the other extreme, through indulgence can turn an enjoyment into a drab routine. Satisfying alone the instinctive desires reduces us to the level of any other animal; humans are thinking beings and social (or scientific, cultural etc) goals should be the objective, while satisfying instinctive needs are a mere aspect of our life existence. So, for example, sex is an instinctive need and people should be free to enjoy it without inhibitions but it should be mutually satisfying and not harmful to anyone. Food, another instinctive need, too is to be enjoyed and this depends on our taste buds developed through childhood; though we, as social activists, should be prepared to eat whatever the masses give us, there is no need for guilt in enjoying a good meal of choice.

But mere indulgence defeats the purpose and infact can make instinctive pleasures monotonous. It was Freud who focussed more on instinctive pleasures as the main source of happiness. But, after all, man is a superior being and even animals derive pleasure from full-filling their instinctive needs. besides, as conscious beings, there are other sources of pleasure for man, like music, sports, science, art, painting, reading, etc and most importantly the goal to work for a better society where we seek the happiness of others as the main source of happiness for ourselves. Even sex and food can be focused on giving others pleasure and deriving happiness from that, rather than merely satisfying our urges/desires. So, for example sexual pleasure of the partner or preparing food that others too enjoy can be a more satisfying experience than just indulgence of oneself.

No doubt I feel pleasure with a good meal, having a mithai, taking a drink, having sex, listening to music, and, for some, in this consumerist society buying exotic items to satisfy the senses and urges. But these pleasures are fleeting, not to be shunned if they do not harm ourselves or anyone else. But, more often than not they act either to distract from our existing (unhappy) frame of mind, with us tending to go back to our earlier mood once the enjoyment of it is over. Take for example an extreme example in drugs/booze; most often it acts to numb our existing state of mind, giving a temporary high and also, often, enormous amounts of temporary pleasure.

Many, do drown their sorrows thus, in fact often get addicted to it as only then are they able to face themselves; for, when they return to the sober state they are once again plagued by negative thoughts. These are, of course, harmful to one’s health if taken in excess and so to be avoided as a regular habit, as is smoking. Other pleasures of the instincts, which are not harmful to ourselves and/or others should certainly be enjoyed but if made an obsession it will also detract from the beauty of that experience.

Also, if material good things of life are the main source of pleasure and happiness, this will be then directly tied to the quantum of money one possesses. For, the more money one has the more we can acquire items like luxury items, food and entertainment in the market. So, if so measured, the quotient of happiness would then become directly proportional to the level of money. The richer a person the happier. But as Marx says in Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation?” Also, there is no end to the craving, and the more one gets the more one tends to want.

 For humans, happiness comes from a state of mind which is in sync with their surroundings and also able to enjoy all the pleasures available. Ascetics are rarely able to find true happiness by suppression of their desires and abstinence from all joys and human interactions. But this is what the gurus demand of them, and is a convenient suggestion for those who cannot enjoy even the basic necessities of life due to poverty. They say that happiness is solely a state of mind and has no connection with material existence. One should see if these gurus can live even a day without food, clothing and shelter, and whether then their philosophising remains the same. Even for those who are well off; through such advice of these gurus they are pushed to get desensitized about their fellow human beings who live in abject poverty — as they are told by these same gurus, that the man on the street is happier than you with all your wealth!!!!


As we have seen there are many interpretations to happiness. As already mentioned, there is the spiritual approach to suppress all ones desires and pleasures; there is the vulgar materialist approach in seeking personal pleasure (whether in consumerist items of personal gratification) even at the cost of others; and there is what I am trying to say where we seek happiness for ourselves through happiness of others. In my concept of happiness, the greatest source of pleasure/happiness for ourselves is derived from making others happy. It is in others happiness that we should derive the maximum pleasure. In that way we also counter our selfishness and ego which are the most prevalent values in today’s capitalist system. And in India when combined with brahminical values, the persona becomes a “crippled monstrosity”, far detached from the natural being that alone gives us a basis of true happiness.

Happiness is to be seen in this living context (to free ourselves from our alienations and live in an atmosphere where all are seeking happiness together and not at the expense of others) and neither in mere material joys nor some esoteric, spiritual, self-indulgence but a social construct inextricably linked to questions of freedom and the values of the Anuradha Model (of straightforwardness, honesty, simplicity, and commitment to a just cause).

 One cannot exist without the other; the three are inter-related and intertwined in the model of happiness I am presenting. The starting point for which is the value system. If I acquire the values of the Anuradha Model, I will first use it to understand myself and counter the alienation from which I suffer. Having successfully done that I will, only then, become a free being, what Marx calls natural. Once I am a free being I can better interact with others to help also release others from bondage and break the chains that destroy inter-personal relations, to build an atmosphere of joy and happiness free from the divisive influences of individualism, ego, possessiveness, jealousies, etc. and move towards a commune like existence.

In essence, to free our alienated lives, to live in harmony, and strive, at least, for the happiness of those around us — could be the central aspect of achieving happiness in the immediate sense; for ourselves and others. Within this, gaining pleasure and giving it to others, is one aspect of an overall happy state of mind. And while striving for this, inevitably we begin to acquire the new vales (Anuradha Model) and grow to become natural human beings flowering in the bloom of a new social — humane — environment. It is a dialectical relationship — beginning to change our values into the Anuradha Model, and on that basis building a new social environment, which in turn acts to facilitate the further change in values and so on till we evolve commune like structures.

Lastly, if we are involved in the project to change society from what it is today, we could gain the maximum in happiness. As Marx says in Reflections of a Young Man (1835):

If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.....History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.

Feb 2nd 2023

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