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FAMILY TIES: Mothers may not contribute to a country's gross domestic product, but they add much to its happiness index
LAST Saturday, my family contributed to Malaysia's happiness index: we celebrated my mother's 85th birthday.
Because we wanted our neighbours to also improve our national happiness ranking, we kept the decibel levels down, mainly by not playing loud music or consuming alcohol.
Malaysia is the 51st happiest country in the world, according to the United Nations's World Happiness Report. And if laughter and cheer can contribute, why not?
Her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren watched as she lighted the kutthuvilakku, or standing oil lamp. It has been a tradition in my family for the birthday celebrant to light the kutthuvilakku before cutting the birthday cake.
We think it is improper to light a candle and then blow it out, for light, in Hindu culture, symbolises auspiciousness and God.
Several party games were played before the screening of a simple documentary on the life and times of Madam Valli, produced by my computer-savvy niece Praba and my brother.
My mother has weathered the vicissitudes of life well, and has managed to remain contented, if not happy, 24/7. Is happiness a physiological reaction, a product of whirring neurotransmitters? Is it inexplicable, as some romantics would have us believe? Or is it in our genes, as some researchers suggest?
The World Happiness Report says physical and mental health, family relationships, education, age, religion, values, income, work, community and governance are among the sources of happiness and misery.
My mother, thankfully, suffers no illness or disablement. This is partly a result of the forced exercises she performed -- in washing clothes, grinding flour, cooking food and doing other such household tasks -- before the advent of the washing machine, the blender and the gas stove.
I believe it also has to do with the close contact her generation had with nature.
That was a time when condominiums and apartments were not in the vocabulary and everyone walked the earth , sometimes barefoot.
Also, the many friendly neighbours and the fresh vegetables and fruits that the vendors brought daily to our house, and other houses, contributed to her health and disposition. I suppose knowing that all her children love her is another reason for her sanguine disposition.
Or perhaps, it is her age. Some studies suggest that as people age, they tend to become contented, largely because they would rather spend the time living in the present than worrying about the future.
One thing is certain though: happiness is a subjective experience that depends largely on attitude.
My mother has an innate awareness of an eternal reality and seems to intuit a cosmic pattern woven by this reality, which she refers to as Lord Muruga.
If things do not go the way she wants, she does not get angry or upset; she simply assigns responsibility to this cosmic architect and moves on.
This awareness of a higher presence gives her strength and succour. But it is not fatalism. It is more like: give your best, let God handle the rest.
Also, she is happy with what she has. I have to almost force her to ask me for something or other. Her answer is always: "I don't need anything. I have everything I need." And her needs are exceedingly simple.
On her birthday, I asked her: "Don't you ever worry?" She replied: "Why should I worry? I just remember that life has its ups and downs.
"If I am sad today, the sadness cannot last; the pendulum will swing the other way to bring me joy, maybe tomorrow, maybe the following week. It is a waste of life to get depressed.
"Similarly, if there is joy today, I accept that there will be certain periods of sadness. If you remember that ups follow downs and downs follow ups, and if your needs are few, you can be contented.
"Also, only take the good and positive in every conversation and event, and forget the bad and negative."
What else? "Blaming people or circumstances is not going to help, so don't."
Every morning at 6, she has a long conversation with God -- at least for 30 minutes -- beseeching him to shower his grace upon all her children, her children's children and her great grandchildren.
I think this nourishes her, and us too.
Another integrant of happiness was evident that day: family relationship. All of us had come together because of my mother. The mother is the hub of every family, the children the spokes.
When the mother is no more, the wheel of consanguinity often wobbles, and sometimes breaks. Which is why we all came together for her that day: to not only show our appreciation and our love, but also keep the wheel oiled. And to be happy.
There are many people out there who, like my mother, may not be contributing to the nation's gross domestic product but who, like my mother, are contributing to the nation's happiness index. I salute them.
"One is never as unhappy as one thinks, or as happy as one hopes to be. -- François de La Rochefoucauld