Happiness may be elusive, but it is the one thing we all want. Many notable thinkers have argued that the search for happiness is the supreme motivator of human life and that all the other things humans feverishly spend their time and energy acquiring – money, power, possessions - are redirections of this innate happiness instinct. As it is clear to see that all the hard work put in attaining these secondary goals doesn’t guarantee happiness, so the question arises: would less striving - i.e. more idleness – make us happier? Does the answer to our perpetual quest lie in less doing and more just being? For many of us, this question has been brought into sharp focus by the current pandemic.
One of the heroes of would-be idlers must be the US academic Benjamin Hunnicutt, whose book Free Time chronicles the two hundred-year-old campaign to reduce working hours. He tells us ‘There might be an alternative to living our lives in thrall to the wealthiest among us, serving their profit. Maybe there are other things to do with our lives than piling up profits for those that are ultra-rich, and taking that time, reclaiming that time.’ In other words, stop working for others and find something you really want to do instead. Then the barrier between ‘work’ and ‘play’ largely disappears. Welcome to homo ludens.
Perhaps the ancient Greek philosophers were the first Westerners to link happiness to less work. People such as Socrates appeared to live very well despite not having a job. He certainly had a lot of fun drinking wine and setting the world to rights with his fellow philosophers, though his wife Xanthippe reputedly emptied a chamber pot over his head when he rolled home bleary-eyed one morning after a night on the metaphysical tiles. Perhaps philosophical idling and the demands of family life are not always the best of bedfellows.
Then there was Diogenes the founder of the Cynic school, who, like some Indian sadhu, was so ascetic he lived happily in a barrel, with dogs as his closest companions. It is said that he was once visited by Alexander the Great, who thought he could gain more happiness by conquering India (he failed on both counts). Diogenes was sunbathing when the all-powerful conqueror arrived. Alexander asked if there was anything he could do for him. “Yes” the sage replied “Please could you step aside, you are blocking out the sun”. Alexander was so impressed by the sage’s cool that he declared: "Ah! If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes!" "And if I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes,” came the trenchant reply.
The connection between happiness and simplicity is underlined by another Diogenes story. He had only one possession, a wooden bowl. One day while out walking in the woods he came across a peasant who was kneeling by a stream and drinking water from it using his cupped hands. On seeing this admirable example of non-attachment, Diogenes looked at his bowl, announced ‘What an absurd encumbrance!’ and flung it away.
But the classical philosopher we most associate with the search for happiness is Epicurus, (c. 3rd century BC) the founder of the Stoic school. History has not done him any favours, as he is today remembered for teaching ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. But there was more to him than mere hedonism. For Epicurus, philosophy was a practical tool to help people attain a happy, tranquil life characterized by peace, freedom from fear, and the absence of pain. He taught that people were best able to live this way by being self-sufficient and surrounded by friends. He also believed that it is our unconscious fear of death which causes the unnecessary anxiety and selfish, self-protective behaviour so characteristic of our species. Epicurus added that we should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behaviour will burden us with guilt and prevent us from attaining true happiness.
There have been many modern thinkers who link less work to more joy. Nineteenth-century anarchists and socialists such as William Morris used the term ‘wage slavery’ to describe miserable jobs which people did simply for the money, working as fragile human cogs to turn the grinding wheels of the industrial revolution. In the early twentieth century, philosopher Bertrand Russell (who wrote a book called In Praise of Idleness) and economist Maynard Keynes dreamed of a shorter working week, a topic still being debated today. In the 1960s the happy-go-lucky Hippies took up the mantle, though an astonishing number of them soon sobered up when flower power began to wilt, moving on to become either voracious Wall Street wolves or Silicone Valley start-ups. Thanks to their combined efforts our labouring has certainly become speedier and more efficient but has the sum total of human happiness really been improved by the frenetic growth of digital distraction?
Modern governments, preoccupied with social engineering, have had to admit that as there is no universally accepted indicator to evaluate happiness—it is always a subjective affair - structuring the collective happiness of a nation remains a very tough task. But in 1972, the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, drawing on its roots in Buddhism which teaches that the only lasting contentment is the transcendental state of nirvana, pioneered prioritising happiness as the measure of national success, rather than the usual suspects of wealth and economic growth. In 2012, the Global Happiness Council, a group of independent academics, devised their own methodology to measure the happiness of countries, and in 2022, the India Today ‘State of the State’ Survey introduced a new ranking of states based on a ‘happiness index'. The best performing states in this index are either Goa (tiny) or Kerala (relatively large). The criteria are objective data on prosperity, such as per capita income and unemployment rate, together with rankings in education, health governance, law and order, environment, and cleanliness. Presumably, the collective smile is wider with good scores in these areas, but that is not guaranteed. After all, people can still be miserable even when they live in an immaculate palace.
For some unaccountable reason, the India Today survey overlooked a major happiness hub in Kerala – Neeleshwar Hermitage. We at The Hermitage have always taken an Epicurean line in recognising the connection between judicious idleness and well-being. So, to solve the age-old riddle of where true felicity resides, we heartily invite you all to come and sample our particular way of taking life easily. For those who desire some physical activity, there is yoga followed by beach or forest walks, while the mental sort is fuelled by meditation lessons and our intelligently stocked library. For the determined idler, there are sumptuously flat-out ayurvedic treatments and comfy hammocks suspended between the gently rustling palm trees. And of course, there is regular ingestion of our delicious food, garnished with long conversations and much laughter – all of which are also pleasurable forms of activity. All in all, Diogenes in his barrel might not have approved of our civilised brand of enjoyment, but that’s his loss…