By Dr. Ian Clarke
Since most people want to be happy, I have read several articles on what makes human beings happy. I will start by saying that not everyone seeks happiness, and there are some people who only seem to be happy if they are miserable and making other people miserable. But most of us think that if we could attain a permanent state of happiness we would have achieved bliss. When we envision the afterlife, we hope to spend it in that place above, where we will live in an eternal state of happiness. The other option, which we fear, is that we will be sent down below to be consigned to eternal misery ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Research has shown that happiness is not really what we think it is, and that it is never a permanent state. Perhaps this is why the bible says that ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain.’ It doesn’t mention happiness, only contentment, which seems a much lower standard. Contentment is more to do with acceptance of our state, whether happy, sad, poor, fair, or unfair, than striving after happiness. I have been described as a restless person, someone who is continually striving after the next goal, but perhaps if I was a contented person I might not have achieved very much.
Happiness is more to do with experiencing contrasts than being at a level and steady state. The person who is parched and thirsty is happy when he gets a cold drink, the person who is hungry is happy when he gets a satisfying meal. In other words one has to experience discomfort in order to experience the happiness that comes with assuaging that discomfort. I remember the feeling of happiness when I finished my exams.
I felt light, free and happy, the contrast was that I did not have to carry the burden of studying and worrying about exams. Another factor that contributes to happiness is our expectations. If we have low expectations and receive more than we expected, we are happy, but if we have high expectation and get less, we become unhappy. Take the example of the old UEB and the new UMEME. The level of service of UMEME actually far exceeds the old UEB, but now our expectations have risen higher than the level of service we are offered, hence people are still unhappy with UMEME.
This is also the reason why Ugandans are rated as happy people, yet hard working Koreans are often miserable – because Ugandans have very low expectations of what life will offer them, so when they get a little more than they expected they are happy. Many Ugandans don’t know where the next few shillings are coming from, so when they ‘score’ some money they are happy.
On the other hand Koreans have worked so hard to achieve a high standard of living in order to be happy that they are normally miserable because all they do is work. Some Ugandans have had the experience of doing ‘kyeyo’ in the promised land of the UK, but when they get there they discover that even though there is a welfare state, everyone seems pretty miserable, the days are grey, no one wants to talk, and no one seems particularly happy. So they come home on holidays to Uganda, pretend that they have been successful, put on a few airs and graces and party till they drop – in pursuit of happiness.
Seeking after pleasure in order to be happy is described as hedonism and there are many who follow this route. Some stars have pursued happiness in the high life, in falling in love with multiple partners or in drugs, and it has usually ended badly. Even in Uganda if one passes through Kabalagala at seven on any morning one will find the remains of the party-goers still partying in pursuit of happiness.
We simply need to accept that we cannot be happy all the time, that it is a transient state and it is better to find a purpose in life, other than the pursuit of happiness itself, then happiness will follow, or at least satisfaction, as a by-product.
The writer is the Chairman at International Medical Group, Uganda and Board Member at East Africa Healthcare Federation (EAHF)