Thursday 24 January 2013

Some reflections on peace versus happiness

Mo Chaudhury

Peace versus happiness

January 24, 2013
Photo: Hassan Bipul
The state of our life at any given point in time is defined in two spaces, the multidimensional state of physicality we are in and the multidimensional state of our mental being. The chances of a good state in the latter space is generally enhanced by a good state in the physical space, such as good health, clean environment, nice home, negligible incidence of crime, and seamless physical mobility, etc.  However, a good physical state is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good mental state. For example, various surveys indicate that the people of Bangladesh rank high globally in terms of happiness despite living in a low ranking state of physicality. We even see many people face their imminent expiration with an astounding state of inner peace. The intriguing question is then what are the key dimensions of our mental being, and how do we rank and manage these dimensions.
While dimensions of our mental being are numerous, two key dimensions seem to dominate in defining our mental state, namely, peace and happiness/joy. Clearly, most of us prefer a state with more of both peace and happiness to one with less of each. What is not clear is how the state of greater peace with lesser happiness compares to lesser peace with greater happiness. If we have to trade-off one for the other, peace vs. happiness, which one we would rather have more of for a better state of our mental being?
An example should facilitate visualizing the peace vs. happiness trade-off. Consider a Bangladeshi couple from Dhaka with two school going children, husband and wife are both established mid-level professionals, the family lives in their decent small apartment (60% mortgage financed) and use their small car for daily mobility needs. The family recently learnt that their application for immigration into Canada has been successful and is currently pondering whether to avail the opportunity to move to Toronto, Canada. The couple is aware that in terms of physical (lesser crime), financial (better social safety net), and medical security (free, advanced and dependable medical care, albeit longer wait time), and educational opportunity (low cost, high quality, cutting edge) for the children, moving to Canada will provide them with great peace of mind that they never had living in Dhaka. On the other hand, they will dearly miss their very lively social life amidst family, long time friends and colleagues, the sumptuous feasts and festivities, the discriminating array of Dhaka cuisine and of course their very enjoyable and successful careers in Dhaka (professionally they have to struggle all new in Canada). In other words, the couple evaluates that they have to give up a great deal of happiness/joy leaving Dhaka for Toronto. The couple is thus tormented facing the choice of physicality of their life, Dhaka versus Toronto, they themselves have created, and its implication for their mental being, jagged happiness in Dhaka versus vanilla peace in Toronto.
The trade-off above starts tilting toward Toronto, once the prospects over time are factored in. In time Toronto life may not be as insipid after all. There is a large Bangladeshi expatriate community in Toronto with ever growing amenities (including eateries, fashion aisles, salons, cultural outlets, etc.) of Dhaka life, the rich multicultural mosaic of Toronto offers the exhilarating and diverse experience of living in a global village, you can actually enjoy driving around in Toronto, numerous neighbourhood parks and vast and panoramic outdoors can give immigrants a new meaning of family fun, and of course it is a matter of some years only to experience the consummate bliss of seeing the children graduating from world class universities to launch their professional careers practically anywhere in the world. Further, the happiness/joy of Dhaka life need not be lost altogether if occasional trips back home is within means.
If revealed preferences are any guide, it seems that a great many Bangladeshi families do in the end favour the immediate peace (and longer term happiness prospects) of Toronto over the peppy and effervescent life of Dhaka. In fact, such peace versus happiness choices are quite commonplace everywhere in many different spheres of life. Examples influenced by the multidimensional state of physicality include suburban versus downtown life, metropolitan versus small town life, urban versus rural life, etc. The meta-physical examples involve our workplace associates, neighbours, friends, etc. Typically we find peace and harmony in dealing with some colleagues, neighbours and friends while others are more fun, and occasionally but rarely we get lucky to encounter both aspects in the same person.
In the examples so far, a better peace versus happiness outcome is attainable by changing the physicality. But what if changing physicality is not feasible? For example, most Bangladeshis do not have the option of a Toronto life, employment circumstances may only permit living in a metropolitan area, a farmer needs to live in a rural area, a government employee may be assigned to a remote location, etc. Even more restrictive are the meta-physical bindings of the nearest and dearest ones like the parents, siblings, spouse and children.
For illustrative purpose, consider first a mid-age couple (with two school going children) working as mid-level employees of a private business enterprise operating out of Dhaka only, as such the physicality of Dhaka life is inescapable for this couple. This means that their happiness along the savoury social, cultural and culinary dimensions is conflicted with their dwindling peace due to trepidation about physical, financial and medical security, clogged up education systems for their children, compromised food chain, frenzied pace of life, etc. Between peace and happiness, it seems that, for this couple, there is relatively more room for greater peace than for happiness.
This brings us to the question of managing peace, given the multidimensional state of physicality. Oddly enough, it is our mind that we human beings have the most control over, and as such we ourselves are in a powerful position of managing our own peace, essentially by refracting the negative vibes into neutrality or possibly even into positivity. Lacking a magic wand, the process of refraction could simply start with the hackneyed and still useful phrase, the glass is half full, not half empty. For the Dhaka couple, for example, the security situation could have been worse. Second, the couple could recognize that they are not alone, most others around them face the same challenging physicality of security and in fact many others have it worse. Third, being perturbed about things would not make them go away. Fourth, while the society at large needs a sense of inspired citizenship to mend the circumstances, that collective process is often painfully slow. Except for the politically charged and the exceptionally gifted, the ordinary citizens are perhaps better off resisting the prophetic and restive urge to rectify things that are beyond immediate and fast repair. Lastly, those who believe in divinity, may find peace by being fatalistic about the physicality, believing it to be ordained so.
Managing the peace and happiness impact of the constricted meta-physical reality of relations with the nearest ones is, however, daunting.  This is, because, here peace and happiness are profusely tangled. For conjugal relationship, based on general experience, it appears that a couple can be at peace without being happy in the sense that there is no bitterness between the two and each is quite at comfort with the other, but one or both may feel that their relationship is not sweet enough or animated enough. However, it seems implausible that conjugal happiness is attainable without peace. In other words, peace is a necessary condition for conjugal happiness, making peace a higher priority in this context, especially considering the welfare of the children. In managing conjugal peace, in addition to the recommendations mentioned earlier, it might be useful to avoid a blame game, to allow sufficient time and space for any burst of bitterness to die down, and to avoid projecting a sense of mistrust. Essentially, patience and forgiveness are together the elixir vitae of conjugal peace.
Given peace, the vaccine for happiness is managing expectation since happiness is dictated by the expected thresholds or benchmarks. In this context, a common and controversial yardstick of conjugal happiness adopted by many couples is the fun time the two spend together, more such time often taken to mean greater happiness. The pitfalls here include underestimating the importance of the quality of time spent together and disregard for happiness beyond the conjugal sphere. There are times and things (e.g., eating out, shopping, going to movies or sports events, travelling, attending festivities, etc.) we enjoy sharing with friends, family and children, all separately, and some just by our individual self (like reading, contemplating, praying, ..). Thus, setting lower thresholds for each other and importantly respecting the happiness of the spouse in other legitimate spheres may go a long away to boost happiness for both.
When it comes to parents, and siblings and children (especially when they are married), peace clearly dominates over happiness as a priority. Frictions and irritations with them can easily disrupt our peace, and hence our happiness as well. Once again the earlier principles of advancing peace largely apply. Additionally, the concept of "too close for comfort" perhaps applies more so in managing peace here than in other relationships. With respect to children, too often we ignore their individuality and privacy, and overly protrude ourselves into their life, albeit with the best of intentions, only to see peace and happiness destroyed at both ends. It might indeed pay to be minimalist in terms of setting thresholds of happiness here. After all, children are the greatest blessings in our life, and even when we might not be the happiest with their behaviour and performance, every morning we wake up just to know that they are alive, healthy and secure, it should be another beautiful day in our life with incomparable peace and happiness, and also to be thankful (if we believe in a Creator).
Ultimately, the greatest peace and happiness medicine is perhaps the realization that life is beautiful (re: Italian film, La vita e bella) the way it is in its totality. The next time we feel annoyed or unhappy about our nearest and dearest ones, let us think of what it would be like for us or them to return from a near death experience. In this author's opinion, almost surely even the deepest of disappointments would then appear hare-brained. The next time we feel wasted stuck in an insane traffic jam, just look out at the canopy of the sky or a tree waving its leaves or a structure/street hawker that has hitherto escaped our notice. Even these nondescript symbols may suddenly appear meaningful and beautiful since they essentially define the physicality of our life that is too brittle to extend into the next moment.
Mo Chaudhury is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

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