Die to be happy

Posted on: December 6, 2011

What do those who have reached the pinnacles of success — in terms of money, job satisfaction and domestic bliss — do? Many are afraid of what lies ahead and leave their jobs and homes to find happiness elsewhere. Some, sadly, embrace death, as a couple in Goa recently did. Gradually, I discovered the phrase – ontological anxiety — a state of mind which leaves people confused about the meaning of life…

For many, life begins at 40. For 42-year old Delhi-based media professional Mrinal Mitra, the age beckons death. He’s been there, and done that — and now believes all that he has to do is “kiss” death. He has even chosen what he believes is the right time for taking his life. Immediately after his first book goes into print, he’ll deal with it.

On the face of it, Mitra (name changed) has everything going for him. A well-paying job. A happy marriage. A robust 12-year-old son. But Mitra feels that looking at all that he achieved — he has even won two coveted international awards for his short films — there is nothing left to aspire for anymore. Death, he often tells his anxious friends, is better than living a dull life.

Mitra’s thoughts are still in the realm of the mind. But earlier in October, a couple went beyond that and took the extreme step of committing suicide. Having “achieved everything and with nothing more to achieve”, as they said in their suicide note, they hanged themselves at their residence in Merces, just outside Panaji in Goa. In the note, Anand, 39, and Deepa Ranthidevan, 36, mentioned they had “lived a very eventful and happy life together”.

The police say the couple had recently purchased their house after staying at a five-star hotel for two months. The investigations revealed that they led a “good” life with no dearth of money. “They had prepared a will which said the flat would go to Deepa’s mother and there was a cheque written in her favour too. They even left Rs 10,000 for their cremation,” says the public relations officer of the Goa police, John Aguiar.

The Ranthidevans and Mitra do not indicate a trend. But they mirror the growing group of people who have reached the pinnacles of success — in terms of money, job satisfaction and domestic bliss — and are afraid of what lies ahead. Many leave their jobs and homes to find happiness elsewhere. Some, sadly, embrace death.

Experts refer to it as anomic suicide — self death because of alienation and the purposelessness experienced by a person. “This can happen when everything in life is achieved and there is nothing left to be pursued. Such people think that only death can bring them the ultimate happiness,” says Vijay Nagaswami, a Chennai-based marital therapist and author.

Depression, adds Delhi-based psychiatrist Rajat Mitra, comes with success. “With each success, there is a feeling of loss — loss of time and loss of value-based relationships. This is when guilt pangs work and people get depressed despite their achievements,” says the director of the Swanchetan Society for Mental Health.

Achievers can also suffer from what experts call ontological anxiety — a state of mind which leaves them confused about the meaning of life. Dr Manju Mehta, professor, department of psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, fears that Mitra could be a victim of this.

When successful young people chart out their lives — and meet triumphs all the way — they can be tempted to feel that not just their lives, but death too is in their hands. “We believe in the philosophy that our life belongs to us and only us, and we have the right to choose to die as much as we have the right to live,” said the Ranthidevans’ suicide note.

Dr Mehta reads in it a tendency to want to rule both life and death. “Some successful people are apprehensive about the future. Since they have remained unbeaten in their life, they want to dictate in death as well.”

Ali Khwaja, head of Banjara Academy, a Bangalore-based counselling centre, says he gets cases — on and off — of people who want to commit suicide because they feel they’ve achieved what they wanted to and seek to go happily. These people, he says, are generally above 60 and have no family responsibilities.

Three years ago, a highly decorated army officer in his late 60s consulted him. He had lost his wife and his daughter was settled abroad. “With age, he was losing his strength. He loved riding his motorbike and going on long walks, but felt that he was unable to do so as he got older,” remembers Khwaja.

The army officer often said he wanted to die with his boots on. “He maintained that he did not find the world a bad place to live in. He just wanted to choose when to die,” says Khwaja.

After a year, the officer suddenly stopped visiting the counsellor. Khwaja saw his obituary in the newspapers a few weeks later.

Clearly, there are different ways of coping with success. Some ride on it, some take it in their stride, and some flounder under it. For those who can’t cope with success, the way out takes different routes. There are numerous cases of people leaving high posts and salaries for social work, donating all their money to charity, joining an ashram or simply chilling in Goa.

In the West, the incidence of disillusionment is higher. Charity is a safety valve, while thousands of Westerners flock to countries like India seeking spiritual solace. In India too people have started opting out of a so-called happy life.

“Recently, a well-known information technology (IT) expert from Calcutta gave up his job and moved to Kalimpong to build a school,” says Calcutta-based psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram. “Another young music producer has been in the Himalayas for the last two months, reviewing the goals in his life.”

The problem is with those who can’t find a way out. A great many factors add to their sense of despair. The fact that most young couples live in nuclear families means there are no safety nets in the form of older relatives. Sociologist Radhika Chopra stresses that the structure of societal set-up is fast changing, leading to complications. “Previously, there were mothers to manage the personal front. But nuclear families have forced working couples to manage both work and family alone. It is an ‘either this or that’ option. And work gets priority for obvious materialistic reasons,” she explains.

In the olden days, when families lived in the same house in the same city for generations, neighbours were as good as family. In today’s peripatetic world, the experts stress, people change jobs as often as their cities, and have little interaction with neighbours. The Ranthidevans, for instance, kept to themselves, and few in the locality knew anything about them. The police later found that Anand used to teach IT in a Goa institute.

“Workaholics often tend to ignore their emotional needs. But when the rat race is over, they want to fall back on a stable family, and find that they don’t have that buffer,” says Nagaswami.

Dr Mehta points out that strained personal relationships are common among achievers. “In the past, we have seen successful men neglecting their families. Now the level of stress is high as both the partners work.”

A successful career often also means high work pressure, and thus little time for sex or other tension-releasing activities. “Often, working couples feel distanced from each other. One of the reasons for this is their poor sex drive because of stressful work life,” points out Dr Ram, who says that in a month, he counsels at least five such IT couples.

But psychiatrists also warn that what seems like happiness isn’t always that. “Going by the suicide note, everything seemed to be perfect in the Ranthidevans’ life. But the cops should do a psychological autopsy in which a death is investigated by reconstructing what the person thought, felt and did before death, based on information gathered from personal documents, medical and coroner’s records and interaction with families. The real reason may be hidden,” says Prabhat Sitholey, professor of psychiatry, Chhatrapati Sahu Ji Maharaj Medical University, Mumbai.

The way out of such ambition-driven depression is not an easy one. Lata Jacob, clinical manager of the Bangalore-based Medico Pastoral Association, a centre for mental health problems, stresses that achievers should aim at striking a balance between work and personal life. “When one shares success, one feels grounded. Similarly, it is important for people to share their depression. Once it is shared, the problem is halved,” says Jacob.

For the Ranthidevans, perhaps, there was no one to share their happiness and sorrow with. Three weeks after their death, nobody has come to collect the bodies.

I thank my colleagues – Varuna Verma in Bangalore and Smitha Verma in New Delhi to provide me some inputs  for the story)

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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
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