In May 2006 I saw a new Honda Accord (a luxury car in India) in my home town of Bangalore sporting the bumper sticker: “Anyone who says money can’t buy happiness doesn’t know where to shop.” It is a worrying rationale for a country such as India – for many reasons.

First, it provokes an immediate question: can happiness be bought as a commodity? This is an important question in India, where the middle class of approximately 250 million (if some numbers are to believed) has newly acquired purchasing power and a taste for luxury goods.

Secondly, what exactly is the relationship between money and happiness? Economics takes it as self-evident that higher incomes provide higher happiness indices. Moreover, it is assumed that people’s satisfaction depends on what they have in absolute terms. But is more actually better? Given the global economic downturn since 2008, and the uncertainty in everyone’s lives, what is the place of happiness in the narrative of globalization?

On New Year’s Day in 1999, Ghani Shastry, a priest in Bangalore, suggested an alternative way of looking at money and happiness. I found him in the temple surrounded by different currencies in piles of brightly coloured notes. He was using them to decorate the deity, traditionally called Alankaram. This decoration was unusual for the temple, particularly as it was not in the national currency of Indian rupees. He had made elaborately folded fans of Thai bhat, Indonesian rupiah, Saudi dinars, British pounds, US dollars and German deutschmarks.

I assumed that festooning the temple with global currencies made the devotees more aware of the global marketplace they lived in, but I was critical of Ghani’s blatant consumerism, which I saw as antithetical to his priestly position. I asked him about it. He said: “Yes, that is part of it. But more important is that having money is God’s will. It is His grace.”

Ghani was suggesting that prosperity is not merely a product of hard work. He shifted the focus from entitlement (that money comes as a reward to those who work hard and deserve it) to vagary (that money comes to those who have God’s grace, which is unpredictable and unknowable). The uncertain nature of a blessing, that element of luck or whimsy, suggests that prosperity is not a right but an oddity.

In suggesting this, Ghani was bringing those less fortunate into view. Being poor and unhappy was not a flaw for which one should be blamed, but simply a circumstance. After all, without God’s grace, any rich man would be poor and destitute. In this small decoration, Ghani was creating a space for empathy for others who were less blessed.

Social psychologists have proven time and again that empathy provides longer-lasting happiness than thinking only of ourselves. It allows us to look beyond our own well-being to the common good. At its core, it is care for the community to which we belong, and perhaps even for a society to which we do not.

This fundamental ingenuity – the ability to work with what we are given to create new worlds – is what I am interested in. Ingenuity is about making power where none exists and creating a world yet unseen. It is to make people consider a higher purpose and deeper meaning. It is about well-being, happiness, empathy, meaningful action and agency. These are unmeasurable indices of good.

True happiness for Ghani Shastry – as well as the other priests I study and the devotees of the temples they serve – is not merely about earning a living or satiating desires, it is about agency in creating a better world. It is where a fleeting experience or vision can serve as a driving force in transformative change, prompting others to want to sustain life and livelihood, restore dignity, make peace and dream of a better place. This, by any standards, is a dynamic measure of happiness.

Tulasi Srinivas is an Indian anthropologist, an academic at Emerson College in Boston and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda on the Role of Faith. Her new book “Forging Worlds: Ingenious Ritual and Ambivalent Globalization in the Temple Publics of Bangalore” will be out in 2015. 

Image: A Hindu woman daubed in coloured powder takes part in Holi celebrations at the Bankey Bihari temple in Vrindavan, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee .