Mohamedarif Suleman (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)
The age-old debate if money can buy happiness, stands unresolved. Now more than ever, as the world reels from the devastating effects of a global pandemic, this philosophical question, will be put to test again and again.
The state of happiness of a people is generally measured against their physical, mental or emotional state, and correlates to the rates of depression or other mental conditions, often resultant of living conditions, innate and inherited value systems as well as earnings per household. For instance, Plano in Texas, USA was declared as the happiest state amongst US states because it has one of the lowest depression rates at 14%, and the smallest share of adults (13%) whose physical, mental or emotional problems affect their personal happiness. Additionally, Plano has one of the lowest poverty rates in the country (7%) and the lowest unemployment rate (3%). “Another indicator of Plano’s residents’ happiness is its low separation and divorce rate.
Of course, you would expect margins of errors as well as prejudices in many such surveys especially where data is hard to come buy, hence general statements like Taipei in Taiwan being the best city in the world, is suspect because the survey subjects are usually expatriates whose earnings are better than if they were in their home countries and so all the other socioeconomic factors, seem stable and harmonious. Yes, empirically speaking, these are some of the best available methods to measure happiness today.
For those with more spiritual persuasions, happiness is conceived as transcendence beyond the physical or the sensual to achieve the long-lasting eternal happiness which is with the mercy of God and His heavens. So, earthly life is just a path toward the eternal home. In this vein, and with respect to the Muslim ummah, the Holy Qur’an suggests an alternative cure for this malaise – In Chapter 13, verse 38 “Truly, only through the remembrance of Allah, do hearts find peace (satisfaction)”, alluding to a whole new dimension about what our pursuits in this life ought to be about.
The 24-hour news media and the self publishing audio-visual world population is busy weaving stories arising from the different dimensions of the crisis, prominent amongst which are the economic battery to individual and family incomes, the mental and psychological impact consequential of a life in isolation and the overarching fear of the infection that knows no bounds. One of the stories that caught my eye was the way couples and parents have been grumbling about the difficulty they face in cohabiting in unlimited time within a confined space. This has led to a rise in the rates of divorce petitions across New York, for example, where the new normal in which couples have to ‘forcibly’ be around each other for more than 4-5 hours of wakeful time, is leading to a domestic pandemic on its own. The lack of tolerance with nagging children and the inability to find any me-time away from the hustle and bustle of family life, all attest to the vastly changed human mentality in which the roles of family and society have changed completely.
In a meme published by the THE MUSLIM FAMILY to remind us of the role of the family in Islam, we read as follows – the family plays an important role in the life of a Muslim and is a foundation of Islamic society A family unit is highly valued The peace stability and security it offers is seen as essential for the spiritual growth of Muslims They are encouraged to look after elderly members of their community in particular those of their immediate family. Hence the reason why most Muslims live in extended families. Caring for parents is considered an honour, blessing, duty, and an opportunity for great spiritual growth.
The problem is our attitude to life. And it really does not matter if you are from the East or the West. The ubiquitous element that seems to be all of our ambitions is money, status, power and fame such that even those in whose names we purport to be working hard, are last on to-do-lists. We go the mile in extending a public show of love for our families, we admit our children in high status schools, we weigh our women in gold and jewellery only but we build the pillars of our families in separate units or compartments. The husband has his own set of friends with whom he congregates for hours on end for the purpose of amusement and of recovering from hard work at our workplaces and at home. We encourage our wives, sons and daughters to follow a similar pattern of life, where privacy, social activity, possessions et al are given eminence over family togetherness, homely together activities and discussions that can spur intelligence at home. Yes if there were a balance, things would be different, but the current pictures we see show that our lives are actually skewed to an extreme that Islam does not recognise nor condone, an you do not have to be a Sheikh to understand that the family is the most important unit of a society and any investment you make inwards will reap untold benefits both in this transient world and the permanent hereafter.
“Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.” – Alain De Botton. Alas, the other pandemic that we continually experience, in the same pursuit of power and fame and wealth is our profound dedication to advising others, whereas we have not fulfilled ourselves first. Imam ‘Ali (AS) showed us by example that even advising a boy against over consumption of dates, had to be preceded by one’s own conscious practice, but the number of self proclaimed advisors in the world, is perhaps another reason why this ship we call life is going aground. For even if the counseling is all sagacious and well meaning, the mere abundant supply of the same, is clearly leading to an undervaluation of the essence of their words.
The concept of happiness is very superficial amongst humankind, for true happiness is more than just doing fun things, rather it forms the bedrock of doing meaningful things. Let us see, who is happier, the brave doctor working round the clock to treat patients even at the risk of his own well being? Or the one who is at the beach having the time of his life? You be the judge. And your answer will indicate the bracket of Maslow’s hierarchy you belong to knowing well that the doctor is using knowledge to save others with all his or her ability and the beach-goer is obsessive of his own personal amusement, one lasts longer then the other. In utopia, both would be admissible answers, but this is earth, a transient station of trials and tests.
With all the incorrect aspirations of attaining happiness in this life, as we scramble for every crumb and dime, the purpose of creation is lost to our senses, and we therefore become unkind, keeping ourselves before others. Allah (SWT), the most kind, could not have created us for the level of unkindness we see today, but if you do not believe in divinity in the first place, then please start reading over.