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Happiness?

October 25, 2011

More from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, October 2011

Australian comedian Corinne Grant performing the poems of the unruly Iraqi-Dutch writer Rodaan al Galidi – where else but at Ubud? The quirky collaboration happened when Corinne chaired a session on “Happiness in Human Nature” at the Writers Festival.

Rodaan’s poignant, funny, exuberant poems best caught the ironies in trying to say anything about happiness, but all the panellists made entertaining attempts. Distinguished Balinese poet Ketut Yuliarsa observed that we fear being sad, and that’s why happiness is such big business. But, he says, we should be sad sometimes, otherwise how can we know happiness?

French psychiatrist Francois Lelord described how writing an essay about happiness made him depressed, and how he recovered when he came to Asia and got the idea of writing fiction about it.

Japanese Manga creator Eiji Han Shimizu told us about a Hollywood film producer who read that Bangladesh is the happiest place in the world. He looked at the people around him who had achieved their dreams but still complained, and he asked: if wealth, power and beauty do not make us happy, what does? He commissioned Eiji and director Roko Belic to make a film to answer the question, and they travelled the world interviewing experts and personally trying out their prescriptions – meditation, volunteering, positive psychology. The resulting film, Happy, has won several “best documentary” awards and will be screened in Brisbane on 29th October.

But is there really a prescription for happiness? Isn’t it a by-product of other qualities in our lives, something that cannot be directly strived for?

Eiji acknowledges this. Happy, he says, is really about compassion. Happy people are altruistic, they have connections, something bigger than themselves – community, family, work or nature. Ketut Yuliarsa also believes that personal happiness is not possible without collective happiness, and that we may need to put personal happiness aside when working towards collective, community happiness.

All this seems rather obvious, almost trite – small attempts to understand a sphinx-like concept. However, as Rodaan says, “Big things make you powerful, but little things make you happy.”

Perhaps poetry is the only way. Ketut Yuliarsa says happiness and sadness cannot be separated – they are two sides of the same feeling. Somehow, his poem Jatuh Bisu (Falling in Silence) captures this for me:

a dry leaf falls
a breath of wind
holding its sway
ever so slightly

wait and listen
but do not stumble
into the depths
of serenity

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