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The economics of happiness

  • Published at 10:35 pm September 5th, 2018
Money on our minds Bigstock
Money on our minds Bigstock

How fulfilling is materialism?

I would like to begin with a quote from the legend himself -- Kofi Annan - as we mourn his recent demise and fondly remember him for his outstanding contribution to the world, as he emphasizes the importance of having an identity. 

“To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go, and why you want to get there.”

It is definitely true that in a world where we constantly fight to overcome our existential crises, it is rather difficult to win the uphill battle against identity crises. But once you win it, you are very much likely to independently generate your own source of happiness.                 

Unfortunately, in this materialistic world today, many people make the mistake of searching for happiness from the wrong sources. Skipping the identity generation step, they jump to the happiness generation step. 

So, they are prone to put more effort into finding external happiness by fulfilling their materialistic desires rather than generating internal happiness by creating and embracing their individual identities; this distorts both the definition of identity as well as the expectation of happiness. I wholeheartedly agree with Dalai Lama XIV on happiness: 

“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”

Only a few days ago, I went out to watch a film with a friend. It was a romantic film where a slum girl is faced with the dilemma of choosing a partner. Two men, one being the only son of an elite industrialist and the other being a middle-class storekeeper, love her dearly. 

Stuck in this big conundrum, she listens to her mother’s advice: “If you marry the storekeeper, you’ll find peace but if you marry the rich guy, you’ll find happiness. You know, we can’t dream of happiness belonging to this class of the society.”

I can go on and on about the logical fallacies in the above piece of advice. 

Firstly, there is the expectation of happiness from gaining wealth. Then there is the expectation of happiness from being elevated to an upper social status, following which there is the expectation of happiness from a romantic relationship which is, in this case, marriage. 

Finally, there is the expectation of happiness from following elderly advice in making a decision, instead of following one’s own heart. Of course, there is undeniably a gender perspective to the whole issue (as both the mother and daughter are not empowered figures in this story). 

But keeping that aside, the expectation of happiness, with its total entirety, is dependent upon external sources. And this is due to the influence of materialism. 

Why are we, as individuals, so dependent on external sources for our own happiness? Is there a way to become independent of these sources? 

What makes me so confident that the expectation of happiness needs to be shifted towards internal sources? Are we internally as much inclined towards gaining materialistic fulfillment as we are externally? 

How is it impeding our journey of creating a separate identity for ourselves, regardless of our gender? 

Starting from weddings to everyday kitty party gossip, the jewelry talk is on among women, whereas men take pride in boasting about their income, expensive cars, and lavish sunglasses. High-maintenance pets, doll-houses, make-up kits, sportswear, sneakers, and stationery are no longer a luxury for kids. 

But do they really derive happiness through this vicious display of materialism? Had it been the case, wouldn’t the man with that Mercedes-Benz or the woman with that heavy diamond necklace or the kid with that latest pair of Nikes be the happiest of us?

There have been numerous instances during the past few months in my life which have made me come to these questions.

Just a few days ago, I stumbled upon the road and tore my pair of casual sandals. In such a situation, a person belonging to an upper or upper-middle income background would have gone to the mall to buy a new pair. Struggling to manage my finances as a new professional, I thought of saving my pennies and going to the cobbler instead.  

I walked to a superstore in my checkered shirt, old pair of jeans, and repaired pair of sandals to buy a drink after work. The guard on duty thought I was a salesperson from some reputed company and was continuously checking my bag before letting me in. 

It seemed like she thought I had a hidden agenda behind coming to the store. The case would have been completely different had I got down from an expensive car wearing fancy shoes and lavish clothes. 

Why did I get judged based on my looks and possessions? Are my materialistic belongings the only yardstick by which to evaluate my identity? What if I was the CEO of Google instead of being an apprentice sub-editor at Dhaka Tribune? 

Would I still have been treated this way had I chosen to walk to the superstore wearing my old jeans and repaired pair of sandals? 

If our society uses materialism to measure/perceive our identity, why do most of us give materialism the power to govern our individual happiness? The answer is that we live in a world comprised of insecure individuals, insecure in our own skin, our own identities.

Instead of coming out of our comfort zones, we resort to finding happiness through external means, and as a result, are prone to being internally unhappy. As the American author Dale Carnegie said in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People : “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.” 

I would like to conclude by proposing that we, as humans of the 21st century, should never be ashamed of our separate identities. It is only when we embrace and accept ourselves for who we are that we get to love what we have and thereby find happiness. 

After all, the happiness that comes from within is more permanent than the happiness that comes from outside. 


Maisha Mehzabeen works at the Dhaka Tribune and is a graduate in economics.