The Joy Paradox: Why does happiness seem so elusive?

You are at your happiest before you know it.

Even the consciousness of pleasure may partake of it, as the elusive burst of thought subdues: how long will it last; When will I feel again; Is it working, so I can duplicate it?

We closely examine joy because it is hard to come by, and equally hard to pursue or define. “We live our lives,” as the playwright Samuel Beckett said, “trying to bring sunshine and a free bench at the same moment.” That can be happiness.

It may be the sudden aroma of hot coffee on a peaceful morning. A loved one’s smile, a child’s laugh that no one knows, the glitter of gift wrapping paper.

People have been studying happiness for as long as history has allowed us to see. The Vedas associate it with the search for the eternal, true goal of humanity. Ancient Greek philosophers compared it to virtue.

The fondest memories can be so simple, they're hard to describe.  A winning image submitted by Miriam Darmstadter of the US.
The fondest memories can be so simple, they’re hard to describe. A winning image submitted by Miriam Darmstadter of the US.

It feels elusive because we often fail to recognize it’s there, or even acknowledge what’s causing it,” says life coach Chetna Chakraborty, who also completed a happiness studies course run by Tal Ben-Shahar at his Happiness Studies Academy in 2021. Ben- Shahar launched his first such course as a professor of positive psychology and leadership at Harvard University in 2006. Our pursuit of joy is so profound that it has become the most popular course in the university’s history.

“We are fixated on what event or desire will bring us joy and make us happy,” says Chakraborty. “The false belief we live in is that only the things on our list can bring us joy. We think those things are security, wealth, and status, because that’s what society has taught us. If we just observe our day, and we see that we’ve smiled, laughed, and If we make a note of all the times we are excited about something, we will realize how much happiness is available to us, and we can more easily and accurately find out how to increase it. This.”

That’s part of the mission of a new coffee-table book based on a happiness-themed photo contest. The book and the contest are launched by Rajesh K Pilania’s Happiness Strategy Foundation. Pilania, 48, holds a PhD in strategy, is a researcher in the field of happiness and lectures on the subject at management schools such as the Institute of Management Development, Gurgaon and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Kozhikode. He established the foundation in 2020, amid the pandemic, as a means of promoting a more effective approach to happiness in India.

The photo contest began as a way to pay tribute to the resilience of the human spirit in the midst of a pandemic. Photos, says Pilania, are an ideal way to show how simple happiness can be in general.

Another winner, Vishwas Rajput, in a selfie taken at his college in Uttar Pradesh.
Another winner, Vishwas Rajput, in a selfie taken at his college in Uttar Pradesh.

Starting in September 2022, the foundation used LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, as well as offline networks and communities, to invite people across India to send in photos of their moments of joy. 50 winners will be featured in the initiative’s first homemade coffee table book.

A total of 769 responses were received. A panel was invited to select the best 50. Among the judges was Samadu Chhetri, happiness researcher and founder-director of the non-profit Gross National Happiness Center, Bhutan. Geeta Dharmarajan, founder and president of Katha Nathan Mancha Katha; acclaimed poet and novelist Mamang Dai; Ajay Chaudhary, Founder Member, HCL Technologies; and Aditya Arya, Founding Director of Museo Camera.

“What I saw (in the pictures): a multitude of different expressions of happiness,” Chhetri says. “Smiles can hide a lot…but here were genuine expressions of happiness. I judged on the basis of reality, because real happiness arises from within and is natural.”

The winning images are just what you’d imagine: young people smiling in a selfie, a little boy smiling in the rain, a family by the river, a moment of silence between a woman and her son in a shop window.

The book is available for free download at On January 1, entries for a new round of the competition opened, with winners to be announced in August.

A quiet moment of silliness between a woman and a child.  Presented by Anshu Lochab from Delhi.
A quiet moment of silliness between a woman and a child. Presented by Anshu Lochab from Delhi.

In addition, the foundation has published World Happiness coffee table books, the first in 2021 and the second in 2022. The first contained 25 pictures; 2022 volume, 100, from countries ranging from Australia, Bangladesh, Japan and Kenya to US, UK, UAE, Romania, Colombia and Latvia. It opens with a preface in the form of a letter from the Dalai Lama. “It is our basic instinct to be happy and joyful and to avoid suffering,” the letter says. “In my own life, I have found love and compassion to be key.”

These public initiatives are a starting point, Pilania says. “Sharing research findings doesn’t have the same effect. Show people what happiness looks like among their own photos, and they may develop an interest in our research, or think more clearly and more honestly about happiness, and that’s our whole goal.”

What does Pilania think is the secret to true happiness? “It’s always been: health, love, community, purpose,” he says. “We’ve made it really complicated, when what we need to do is keep it simple.”

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