to be happy

I came across an interview from 2018, where the late David Graeber talks about his earlier book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, that I hadn’t heard of until today, because that’s not my area of obsession, unlike his new title The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. This was recently released by his co-author David Wengrow, and I was looking for a review of it.

The interview is full of great insights, but this line especially jumped out at me:

David Graeber: “I think most people really do want to believe that they’re contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable.”


What he says is a thought that has kept many of us awake nights at some point in our youth. To be happy we need to contribute to the world, we need to have a purpose so we don’t “go crazy or become quietly miserable”, as he says.

We are often told, “If you want to be happy, try to make someone else happy.” Ethical altruism.

For the longest time I accepted this. I believed it was the answer to the age-old question of the purpose of life. This truism dovetailed beautifully with my work as a doctor, so there was no dissonance. Over time though, I stopped being so certain that ethical altruism towards people – or animals as the case may be – was the only way for anyone to find meaning.

My faith in us as a civilisation has been shaken in recent years. Ignorance used to be bliss before Internet. Information was simply not available. Not anymore. It’s frustrating to have an abundance of information about something, say COVID, and still be ignorant because of the contradictions.

Though I know that worse things have happened over centuries past, I have lived most of my life in a period of peace and predictability in the world. The Cold War, and then a couple of wars involving India but restricted to border areas, hardly impacted me. Most importantly, news came only once a day, in the morning newspaper.

I visited many countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia in the eighties and nineties. Boarding an international flight was as simple as boarding a city bus, and it was all fun. The world was a friendly, trusting place overall.

Ever since oil- and terrorism-related events erupted in the world, the sense of safety that I used to have is gone. Now the world doesn’t even make sense at times. For example, I find things like prison-industrial complex and military-industrial complex pathological. Just thinking of their ramifications makes my head hurt.

With so much stacked in our favour as an advanced species, this is not who we are supposed to be. We can be so much better. Or I wish it were so – for the sake of my children’s generation.

Governments are squandering away human achievements of the last few hundred years by indulging in all sorts of brinkmanship. This needs to be fixed, but can’t be. The beacon has gone out in the UN lighthouse and the G20’s declarations sound like pipedreams. Sure, on an individual level a lot of people, including me, are happy with their lot.


I wrote this but didn’t hit ‘Publish’ because I was still mulling over what I had jotted down.


It’s Saturday. There is a weekend curfew on because of Omicron.

We decided to watch a movie. We picked one without reading reviews. Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, and young Timothée Chalamet in a small role as well. It had to be a good movie, right?

Well, it was. Don’t Look Up is its name. But it left me with more of the same feeling, that we are wrecking the earth through greed and short-sightedness.

No more mulling. Hitting ‘Publish’ now.

6 thoughts on “to be happy

  1. Hello Dr. Vatsa: Your views are quite timely. A few days before I was reading Elon Musk’s interview in The Economic Times. His essence is : Try to do something useful. It is v hard to be useful. On the other hand, Darwin’s theory says something like survival of the fittest; etc.

    My own simplistic/simple view point is to take life superficially like P G Wodehouse says in his opinion and another quote comes to my mind: I can sum up life in three words. It goes on ! (Robert Frost).


  2. Ethical conundrums have vexed humans through history. They have responded with philosophical systems that have only kept increasing over time. They appear to answer some questions while raising fresh ones. Is it really a need to be constantly questioning to reinvent oneself? The collective wisdom over the ages still leaves unanswered questions.


  3. Very well written, like the way you have compared how it was those days getting on to an international flight and how complicated it’s now.


  4. Very well written Dr. Shyamala. After oil and terrorism related events erupted, gone are the safety days, very true. The way you have summed up is excellent.


  5. This is … what I would call ‘social evolution’.. no guarantees that it is for better or worse… right now the individual freedom in Europe is determined by a QR code and all our data is accessible with a click on a computer and the paranoia of COVID seems right out of the movies…

    the idea of ‘feeling’ important is another human trait of boosting our self-esteem … this is interestimg because we see now that self-indulgence in our pleasures is more important than self-esteem… which is what various governments are using as a tool to get people to be vaccinated…

    I could discuss this a whole lot more… but your article was good because it brings up things which make people think…


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