Meaningful lives

Happiness is the goal of human life. In our quest to give substance to our independence, our leaders have focused all our efforts towards increasing the production of goods and services that comprise our “Gross National Product” (GDP).

The presumption is that those goods and services form the basis of happiness. Other countries, including some in Europe however, have since followed the lead of Nepal, which insists that governments must work to improve the “happiness” of their citizens.

But even apart from the difficulties of measuring “happiness” there are disagreement as to how exactly do we pursue it. Studies have shown the manner in which citizens seek and respond to those material rewards which make up much of the GDP is part of what determines their overall happiness. Aristotle famously said there were two basic types of joys that mankind seeks. The first is “hedonia” – from which we have the word “hedonistic” – the path of wine, women (or men) and song. This is the dominant conception of “happiness” in the modern world. But there was also eudemonia, or the pleasure that comes from helping others, doing meaningful work, and otherwise leading a life well-lived.

While this is not spoken about much nowadays, recent psychological research has suggested that this second category is more likely to produce a lasting increase in happiness. Hedonic rewards may generate a short-term burst of pleasure, but it dissipates more quickly than the surge created by the more selfless eudemonic rewards.

This suggests that the suggestions made by some concerned citizens to introduce “civic” education back into our school curriculum are on the right track both in terms of creating happier citizens and also a more cohesive nation.

This approach is not based only on speculations but has recently been backed by scientific evidence. Over the years, scientists have found they can measure the quantum of a person’s enjoyment of something by taking MRIs of activation levels in the ventral striatum—the “reward centre” nestled in the bullseye of the brain. It seems this part of the brain of teens is particularly sensitive in responding to all kinds of rewards. It is because of this phenomenon late adolescence is also when depression peaks for many youths, because of being frustrated in not getting enough “enjoyment”.

In one study, researchers aimed to figure out how the brains of adolescents reacted to the more consumption-based rewards, like video games and drugs, versus the more pro-social ones, like “helping others in need, expressing gratitude, and working toward long-term goals.” Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudemonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

It turned out the teens who were more giving of their efforts had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of reward the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behaviour in ways that altered their overall well-being.

While it might not be possible to change the ingrained reactions of our adults, we have to begin to inculcate our youths, who are two/thirds of our population, with civic virtues.

After we commemorated our fifty years of Independence, there are few who will gainsay we have not achieved the goals set on May 26, 1966. But as we embark on rectifying that circumstance let us at least incorporate in our plans what we have discovered as to be the meaning of the “good life”.

While man does need “bread” for living, being a social being he needs to find meaning for his life in his relationships with others even as he works for that bread.