Secret of Happiness: One Simple Rule

I was taught a very important rule about the secret of happiness and its relationship with expectations, the hard way, by my mother when I had returned back in 1995 from USA after having been there for over seven years. The lesson threw me on the ground, flat, and got the steam out of me. Bear with me as I connect the dots below.

A student coming from a third world country to USA has this great temptation to obtain immigration and settle down. This was not very difficult in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was there. The decision to move back to Pakistan also becomes difficult if one has wife and children who had stayed in USA for so many years as the experience of a very prominent Pakistani in Austin exemplified. He had lived in USA for over fifteen years and wanted to serve Pakistan so he moved to Karachi with a lot of enthusiasm but had to return back to USA within a couple of years, as his family had become too much accustomed to the American Dream of enjoying the comfortable amenities of life in a suburb, with ease of outings and excursions, open spaces, visits to parks and malls, and above all, living away from the prying and interfering eyes of the relatives and their uninvited comments and “keeping up with the appearances”. And of course, without the daily irritants of load shedding, water supply disruptions, and wheel jam strikes, coupled with the environment of fear formed from mobile snatching, car-jacking, kidnappings for ransom, dacoities, bomb blasts and target killings. However, throughout my stay in USA I was under this great pressure of compulsion to return to my duty to my parents; to be with them, to take care of them in their old age and in their sickness.

When I came back I found my father old, frail and quite depressed because both of his sons had gone

to USA and people had been telling him not to expect anyone to return back as none ever do, especially once they have experienced the comforts of life there. The first week in Karachi, I saw him mostly confined to his room and in bed, even praying in his room, not even trying to join the ba-jamaat prayer in the mosque next doors citing one problem or the other, or asking for assistance. However, within a week of my coming, his spirits have lifted and he was his old self, going on his own to the mosque regularly. I know, he was proud that his son has proven many of those naysayers wrong.

Settling back in Pakistan at that time was quite tough. 1994-95 was the peak of random communal violence in Karachi, with news of 10-20 killings emanating from different localities regularly. There was no guarantee of what may happen next. The era of personal mobile phones had not yet arrived, so before I used to venture out I would give my itinerary to my father. He would track my movements and would call the landlines at every place I was scheduled to be to ensure that I have reached there safely. In fact, his concern was so great that the phone that I would hear ringing as I would reach a particular destination, would always invariably be from him! In case, I was late in reaching a place, people would tell me that they have already received so many calls from my father, and later I would of course get that reprimand from him. People, then, would not go out unless it was extremely necessary. The roads would wear a deserted look at around sundown which is the peak shopping time in Karachi. I remember driving full speed at 6-8pm through Tariq Road, which is one of the busiest commercial centers of Karachi, where on any regular day there is always bumper to bumper traffic moving at snail pace, stuck in traffic jams.

I had joined IBA full time, where salaries of teachers at that time were still at the level of paltry government grades; they had not shot up the way they did a decade later thanks to HEC, and thereafter to what they are currently. The building and work environment at IBA was still stuck in the early 1970s, with no major extensions or renovations having taken place for decades. A scene much different from the transformation that has taken place there during the last five years.

It was end of 1995 or 1996. I must have made some remark regarding how difficult it was returning back from USA and how much difficulty I was having in settling down. It was then that my mother asked me to sit down with her and in her gentle manner brought me to my senses. She said, “Son, you did very well to come back and stay with us, your old parents, and becoming our support in our old age. But, you know, I, personally, had no expectations in this regard. I love you and pray for your success and would always pray for your happiness because you are my son. However, I would have loved you the same and prayed for your success and happiness the same way even if you had decided to stay in USA, and you had not come back permanently.” In this gentle manner she described the ultimate essence of how to be happy, and how to avoid disappointments, and how to keep away from daily discouragements and setbacks in life that often fill our lives with misery and sadness.

What she was telling me was the simple rule that she had followed all her life: If you want to be happy never keep expectations from people; however close they are and however much they are indebted to you. Although the rule is simple, but understanding it first and then implementing it is difficult. It is often difficult for people to digest it because this is how they have been trained to think by our environment. This rule was driven in me that day in a very powerful personal context. I often think about this rule and its relationships to my other experiences as I try below to connect with the prevlanent attitudes towards life and interpersonal relations.

There are four important principles or corollaries of this rule:

  1. People are weak and tempted. You are bound to be disappointed if you build such expectations with people. When they are not able to come up to your expectations, you will be sad and miserable. Why do this in the first place, if you want to be happy! 
  2. If you have to keep an expectation then build that expectation with your creator, the  Omnipotent. He is the One who does not need you, but you need Him. “Allah us Samad” [Ikhlas].
  3. When you do some favor, never do it with an expectation of any return. 
  4. If you do a favor with an expectation of a return, it is not a favor, it is a trade! 

We had lived in Islamabad during the sixties and the seventies before moving to Karachi. Karachi was the city, with socialites and with social commitments. Islamabad was just a small  town of government servants mostly belonging to adjoining areas who would come during the week days for work, and the town would empty on the weekends as most of them would leave for their villages/cities to spend time with their families and in their social circles. When we moved to Karachi, my mother was often told that life in Karachi is different, and her principles and philosophies of life are not suited for this big city, where it is must to “keep up with the Joneses” and keeping up with the appearances is crucial, and people have to be responded in kind. She was reminded that her principles may have been useful or applicable in small towns or villages such as Islamabad, but definitely not in Karachi. She used to try to convince that these are not abstract philosophies. These are the tried and tested principles that have come down to us from various credible sources.

Practice of these principles gave her that internal happiness and glow in her face that people would often be surprised and taken aback when they came to know about the series of serious illnesses, operations and extensive hospitalizations that she had to go through during the last forty-four years of her life. Often during her hospitalizations after such serious operations, a new nurse or a doctor would mistake her young attendant to be the patient instead of her when per chance both would be sitting on the couch.

Essence of the first principle is derived from our culture and sufistic thought about “faqr o ghana“:

The point of contention in our interpersonal relations is that someone has done or said such and such and therefore they had to be responded in kind. This principle says one should be above any expectations from people, good or bad and this would lift you up.

As Meer Taqi Meer below describes beautifully the state of faqr (obliviousness) resulting from not having any expectations with people whom we ask for help, the common meaning of “jo dey us ka bhi bhala, jo na dey uss ka bhi bhala“:

Faqeerana Aaye Sada Kar Chale
Miyan khush raho ham dua ker chale 
Like a Faqeer I came and having voiced my desire, am leaving
Keep happy. I am praying for your happiness as I leave
Please note that there is a fine distinction between asking for help and building expectations from the people. We must ask for help from whoever can help us, whenever we need it, but we should do so without building the expectations that the person would actually help us. If he does help us, well and good, we would pray for his happiness. If he does not help us, then again well and good, we would continue to pray for him! I often relate this quote: “Success of a person depends upon his ability to ask for help!” Asking for help is recommended, however, building expectation that they would reciprocate is not recommended. It may lead to sorrow and disappointment. This is the meaning of jo dey us ka bhi bhala, jo na dey uss ka bhi bhala. 

Or as Ghalib would put it, and take it to the next level:

Na suno gar bura kahe koi, 
na kaho gar bura kare koi. 
Hear not if evil someone speaks, 
Retaliate not if evil someone does. 
Rok lo gar ghalat chale koi, 
Baksh do gar khata kare koi. 
Restrain the man who goes astray, 
Forgive, if someone is at fault.

And then of course Iqbal, who would like to lift you up to become the master of the world:

Ek Faqr Sikhata Hai Sayyad Ko Nakhcheeri 
Ek Faqr Se Khulte Hain Asrar-e-Jahangeeri
(Bal e Jibril 176)
There is a faqr that teaches the hunter to be a prey;
There is another faqr that opens the secrets of mastery over the world!
The second principle is the essence of “taluq billah“. All our worldly associations, relationships and interactions should be determined by the criteria of pleasing the creator. You help someone, you take care of your elders, you love the kids, you do good unto others only because this has been commanded and is the pleasure of Allah. With all expectations and rewards tied to the Will of Allah, you rise above all the worldly failures and successes. Nothing that happens in this world can make you worry, afraid or sad (“La khaufun alaihim wala hum yahzanoon” 11-62, Surah Yunus). This also connects with the secrets of the mastery of the worlds.

The third principle is also known as “Neki kar darya may daal”. Give so that your left hand does not know it from the right hand. A good deed should be done and forgotton. There is even an advice that when you give loan to help someone, you should forget it considering it as a sadaqa. The moment we expect something in return, the good deed becomes a transaction, a trade and loses its original intent.

The last point is the most difficult to digest, and the hardest of them all. There is a famous saying attributed to Hazrat Ali. It says that “ahsanmund kay shar say daro“; be afraid of the malice of someone who is indebted to you. This saying is difficult to digest because it relates to people whom we often love the most and are closest to them the most. We love them, we help them and we nurture them, they become our “ahsanmund“. When we help someone or give someone a favor, there is an unsaid expectation that naturally develops which suggests that there would be some reciprocation when we are in need of help. This expectation is dangerous because it opens our flank from the side from where we least expect. In our giving to someone we reveal ourselves and even expose our weakness. It is this weakness that gets often exploited from the side from where we least expect. Hence, we should be careful from all those who are indebted to us.

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  1. A very beautiful and enlightening post 🙂 You are always an inspiration and a source of knowledge 🙂

  2. Just one query. The sufistic way of 'bhala karo bura kare koi' is very good for personal contentment and develops the softness of heart. But reformers and revolutionaries have a knack of usurping the social order. Doesn't this 'forgiving' and 'loving everyone' tendency hinder the development of the reformers' instinct?

  3. Well written Dr Saheb. Lessons to be learnt and applied.

  4. Revolutions and reformations can only happen through transformations of hearts. There is no coercion in deen.

  5. A guideline that one has to adopt if want to be happy. Very well written.

  6. what if we are working in an environment where we cant do everything on our own so if i help someone should i not expect or ask him to help me out when i am in need ?

  7. Golden rules and golden worlds.
    Honoured to have these great sharing.Keep posting.

  8. I am sorry, I think I did not make it clear in this post. This point is so important that I will make the following a part of this post also:
    There is a fine distinction between asking for help and building expectations from the people. We must ask for help from whoever can help us whenever we need it, but we should do so without building the expectations that the person would actually help us. If he does help us, well and good, we would pray for his happiness. If he does not help us, then again well and good, we would continue to pray for him! Actually, I I heard this quote first from my brother and relate it to others often: Success of a person depends upon his ability to ask for help! Asking for help is recommended, however, building expectation that they would reciprocate is not recommended.

  9. Dear Dr sahib:
    Just two quotes:
    "Be wary of the mischief of a person whom you have favored"
    "Ungratefulness is the default social behavior"
    M Mohiuddin

  10. Whereas I agree with the first (which is the point made in the final paragraph of the post), the second one, I think, suffers from the same problem as the two following quotes:

    1. The grass is always greener on the other side of the river!
    2. In a traffic jam, it is always the other lane that moves faster!

    The problem is that we mostly notice the things that hurt us, and we ignore all the things when they go right in our favor.

  11. Dear Dr Sahib:
    What I meant was that whenever you do a favor expect ungratefulness as the default response in return. In case it happens to be otherwise, it will be a pleasant surprise :).

  12. Just reflecting on your comment I think the basic thrust of "Speed of Trust" by Stephen Covey Jr, is diametrically opposite to the relationships based on mistrust i.e. "ungratefulness is the default social behavior". One such a negative expectation is going to give rise to self-fulfilled prophecy, and two it would increase the cost and increase the delays in any organizational setting. I think our relationships should not be based on such negative expectations.

  13. Worth reading 🙂

  14. Thanks for the appreciation. I am trying to gather the wisdom that is often sprinkled around us and we do not notice it. I try to emphasize this as reflection that we must all be doing, connecting observations with ideas and thoughts.

  15. really worth reading . i heard this experience from you once but to read it had more impact. thanks for sharing it with all.

  16. Thanks a lot for reading this. Comments like these urge me to write.

  17. This is the first time I understood what exactly Hadhrat Ali meant by saying Ehsanmand k sher say bacho….as it kept me confused whenever I used to think abt its meanings

    Beautiful piece of writing!

  18. This is the first time I understood what exactly Hadhrat Ali meant by saying Ehsanmand k sher say bacho….as it kept me confused whenever I used to think abt its meanings

    Beautiful piece of writing!

  19. Often it takes a long time to absorb the wisdom from great people, and much longer is than required to make it a part of our life. The saying also got me off balanced for a long time till I understood its significance.

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    Assalamo Alaikum. I have recently started following your posts. I have a question, hoping to get an intellectual answer but with no expectations 🙂

    I understand that asking for help is good. However, this part confuses me,…After asking for help and then them helping, what should we do? Shall we be ready to help them in return / return the favor? Pray and move on? What should be our psychological condition after getting the help we asked for? Maybe its got to do something with whom we ask for help from? Kindly explain Hadzrat Ali's qawl e mubarak!

  21. JazakAllah sir

  22. Good to hear from you

  23. A very positive and inspirational post. So good to know our very own dean's such a great blogger. I'm always looking forward to read posts on optimism and happiness as inspirations for my own blog.

  24. I absolutely agree that asking for help is ok, however do not expect to be helped, because it can be refused, either due to lack of ability to help(because we think grass is greener on the other side, but not be so in reality) or the person's lack of trust in you.Sometimes expectations fail you, but Allah has other plans.You get help from people who you not expect from. Key is, do not give up, when it comes to seeking help.This will not only get you the help needed, but also bless the other person to perform a good deed.Also seeking gratitude from people you were blessed to help, is not be considered as good deed.In fact the helper should be grateful to get the opportunity to perform a good deed and thus seek Allah's pleasure.

  25. Assalamualaikum Sir,
    I just discovered this blog and it has come as such a huge source of guidance. Determined to read each and every post, inshaAllah. Having learnt a lot – formally and informally – from people like Dr Wahab Suri, Mr Tayyab Zaidi, Salman Asif Siddiqui Sb and Dr Zeeshan Ahmed, I had always heard about you from their students/acquaintances. However, reading you has been a very insightful experience, which cannot really be described. Jazaakumullah Khair.

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