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‘Happiness…it’s as easy as mathematics’: Dr Rajesh K Pillania aka ‘India’s Happiness Professor’

Happiness: an emotion most of us constantly strive to attain in every single moment of our lives. An ever-elusive state of being that even the most spiritual people are unable to achieve. But what truly is happiness? This thought often lingers throughout our lives.

So, on International Happiness Day, when indianexpress.com had the opportunity to sit down with Dr Rajesh K Pillania, the leading researcher and trainer on happiness in India, popularly known as India’s Happiness Professor, we delved into various aspects of happiness — from its definition to whether happiness can be considered ‘learned behaviour’. Excerpts:

Q. What does happiness mean to you?
Dr Pillania: Happiness, for me, entails finding a balance between two essential elements — purpose and pleasure. These elements are universally common, comprising 99% of our genetic makeup, yet it is the 1% difference that distinguishes what is purposeful and pleasurable for each individual. By identifying the places, activities, things and people that bring us happiness, whether through pleasure, purpose, or both, we can create our own personalised definition of happiness. For me, it involves taking care of my parents, spending quality time with my wife, and indulging in activities like travelling, sports, and spending time with my friends.

Q. Do you have any advice for the Gen Z population?
Dr Pillania: I am personally optimistic about the Gen Z population due to their heightened social awareness, environmental consciousness, and socialising skills. Since happiness largely stems from meaningful relationships, I would advise the current generation to prioritise nurturing these connections. Here are a few practical steps they can take:

Allocate time, energy and attention (TEA) wisely, giving prominence to relationships amidst other commitments.
Emphasise honesty in relationships to foster trust and understanding.
Cultivate forgiveness and empathy, recognising that mistakes are inherent to being human.
Strengthening interpersonal bonds will invariably lead to greater happiness.

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Q. Are there additional parameters of happiness beyond pleasure and purpose?
Dr Pillania: While my focus primarily revolves around simplifying the concept of happiness — centered on enjoying life (pleasure) and finding purpose — research also sheds light on other dimensions. Studies examining individuals on their deathbeds reveal insights into life satisfaction, emphasising the pursuit of pleasure and purpose in terms of their relationships, enjoyment of life, and contributions to society. However, essentially, happiness can be categorised into two broad buckets: pleasure and purpose.

Q. ‘Reconnecting for Happiness: Building Resilient Communities’ — the theme of International Happiness Day 2024. How can we achieve happiness together?

Dr Pillania: The pervasive use of mobile phones and social media poses a significant challenge to our sense of communal happiness. Implementing simple guidelines within families or friend circles, such as designated times for device-free interaction during meals or engaging in physical activities together, can lead to stronger connections. By creating opportunities for multi-generational participation in shared activities, specifically physical activities — whether it is cleaning your home together or going out for a picnic — we can enhance our communal happiness and live more fully in the present moment.

happiness definition,how to be happy, is happiness learned, what brings happiness, international happiness day, happiness research, psychology of happiness The theme for International Happiness Day 2024 is ‘Reconnecting for Happiness: Building Resilient Communities’. (Representative Image: Freepik)

Q. How can we manage our social media consumption?
Dr Pillania: Digital detox. Basically, take time off your phone. So, I teach a course of ‘Happiness Strategy’, and there I tell my students that multitasking is possible, but not necessarily healthy. Keep your mobile phone switched off. You have to make rules. And research shows that gradual, incremental changes help, so you can take small steps. Can you perhaps take half an hour or 1 hour off your mobile phone every week and slowly decrease the usage? I understand that social media is becoming an indispensable part of our lives, but there are much more important things in life such as your health, relationships, studies, and even work. Strike a delicate balance.

Q. When you talk about strategy, you suggest that happiness can be learnt. We have been taught that happiness is internal. So, how can we teach people to be happy?

Dr Pillania: Extensive research across psychology, neuroscience, and social sciences has illuminated the mechanisms behind happiness. So, it’s as easy as mathematics due to the causal nature it possesses. All of us want more happiness, less sadness; companies strive for more profit, less loss; and countries aim for increased GDP and reduced recession. As individuals, we prioritise three things: our health, relationships, and work. Over the last 50 years, research on happiness has shown that when we are happy, we tend to be more innovative, creative, and healthier. Given that many health issues today are linked to mental health, investing time in nurturing relationships and engaging in activities such as exercise and meditation can release happiness hormones. Therefore, anyone can learn the ‘why’, ‘what’, and ‘how’ of happiness.

Q. There is a constant imbalance of ‘happiness hormones’, which leads to many mental health issues. What can be done to counter this?
Dr Pillania: Firstly, we need to destigmatise mental health issues. We should accept and acknowledge them and seek mental health support from trained psychologists. This is crucial, as stress is the biggest and silent killer.

Q. In today’s fast-paced work environment, how can we navigate stress and prioritise happiness?

Dr Pillania: Firstly, we need to mentally choose to prioritise happiness. Define happiness for yourself in terms of pleasure and purpose, considering how you allocate your time and energy. Surround yourself with reminders of what brings you happiness and document it everywhere on different surfaces — mirrors or laptop screens as affirmations. By reframing our perspective, similar to viewing a rainbow through a prism instead of staring directly at the sun which can eventually blind us, we can make happiness a byproduct of pursuing pleasure and purpose in our lives.

Q. The World Happiness Report ranks Finland as the #1 country for happiness. Why is that?

Dr Pillania: The World Happiness Report utilises a country ladder scale, ranging from 0 to 10, where individuals rate their life satisfaction. Finland consistently ranks at the top due to several factors. Their close affinity with nature, robust social security systems, strong GDP, high levels of trust in the government, and low levels of corruption all contribute to their overall happiness.

Q. Where does India stand on the happiness index?
Dr Pillania: India’s position on the happiness index must be viewed with some caution due to inherent limitations in such studies. The field of happiness research is relatively nascent. Historically, discussions on happiness were relegated to philosophers and poets. Despite these limitations, India can be considered a relatively happy country for several reasons. Our strong interpersonal relationships, as evidenced by extensive research, contribute significantly to our overall happiness. The Harvard University study on happiness (Harvard Study of Adult Development done by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School), for instance, underscores the importance of quality relationships in fostering happiness, an area where India excels where there exist strong kinship networks and familial bonds. Additionally, the prevalence of faith and hopefulness, often linked to a fear of God, further bolsters our sense of well-being.

Q. Could you elaborate on the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development?

Dr Pillania: The landmark Harvard University study spanning over 80 years underscores the pivotal role of quality relationships in fostering happiness. It emphasises that the longevity and fulfillment experienced by individuals correlate strongly with the depth and authenticity of their interpersonal connections, rather than the sheer quantity of relationships.

Q. Could you offer three tips for cultivating contentment in life, especially in the age of social media — full of constant comparison and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)?

Dr Pillania: Certainly.

Focus on the ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ of happiness, emphasising on activities that bring pleasure and purpose.
Establish boundaries with social media to reclaim time for meaningful interactions and experiences.
Prioritise your health and relationships and cultivate gratitude for life’s blessings through practices like journaling and reflection.
By integrating these strategies into your daily life, you can cultivate greater contentment and fulfillment.

Q. Practicing gratitude journaling can be a task. Any advice to help us hone our gratitude journaling practice?

Dr Pillania: Variety and creativity are key to sustaining gratitude journaling practices. Monotony is boring, so try mixing things up — experiment with photographs, memories, sketches. There is no need to do it daily, find the time that best suits you.

Q. There is a famous quote, ‘Happiness lies in the journey and not the destination’ — Do you believe the same?

Dr Pillania: Absolutely. Since life is a journey, so is happiness.

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