World Happiness Report

The annual World Happiness Report is out.  This year Norway ranks as the happiest place on earth.  That’s strange because I always thought it was supposed to be Disneyland.

At any rate, each year the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations initiative, measures world happiness country by country based on such factors as “income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”  The United Sates is now number 14.

According to SDSN, social well-being is the best gauge of a country’s progress.  John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the report, told the Associated Press:  “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, is it worth it?  The material can stand in the way of the human.”

To read the World Happiness Report, go to their website.

It seems to me, though, that happiness is a difficult thing to measure.  At least on a personal level.  While happiness means generally the same thing to most folks, each of us can have a slightly different definition.  And, of course, since time immemorial, philosophers and other folk have been weighing in with their take on the meaning of happiness…

Marcus Aurelius said, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

And Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Both of these “definitions” correspond with the Buddhist/Taoist notion of happiness, which is not the absence of suffering, but rather the ability to find joy and tranquility in the midst of suffering.

Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher from around the 4th century BCE, believed that happiness or the ultimate satisfaction in life came from doing nothing, that is, the practice of wu-wei (not-doing, non-action):

“I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this.  It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise.  The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong.  And yet doing nothing can determine it.  Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way.  Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace.  Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life.  Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere!  Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction.  So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done.  But who among us can attain this inaction?”

In the United States, the pursuit of happiness is one of humankind’s basic rights.  It’s guaranteed by the Constitution.  But this is not the greatest goal in life.   When we calm our mind and when what we do is in harmony, we do not need to seek happiness, for we realize that it is already all around us.


Happy Mind

Everyone wants happiness. There is no question that it is a paramount quest in life.

The Journal of Positive Psychology just published a new study by Paulina Pchelin and Ryan T. Howel, “The hidden cost of value-seeking: People do not accurately forecast the economic benefits of experiential purchases.” Long title, huh? The conclusion they reached is this: “In spite of the experiential advantage, people consume material items in the pursuit of happiness.”

In other words, although most people know that an afternoon spent in a park is a more enjoyable experience, they will still head for the mall. I don’t know how much money it costs to conduct studies like this, but any of us could have told them that for free. It seems they did not accurately forecast the economic downside of their experiential study.

Anyway, we all know the old adage “money can’t buy you happiness.” But there are plenty of folks who either ignore it or don’t believe it’s true. Perhaps the problem is that people are confused about what constitutes happiness and how to go about getting it.

In another recent study, Stanford researcher Jennifer Aaaker says, “Although the desire for personal happiness may be clear, the path to achieving it is indefinite. One reason for this hazy route to happiness is that although people often think they know what leads to happiness, their predictions about what will make them happy are often inaccurate.”

What’s more, she suggests that searching for happiness can lead to less happiness.

The Tao Te Ching says that “sages do not contend.”  The word “contend,” in addition to the sense of contentiousness, means to “go after” or “push for.”  So, a sage or a buddha does not go after happiness and they are happy, or maybe they don’t even look at life in terms of happiness, it is satisfying enough to just be.

Well, we all know this, right?  And yet, we often find ourselves grasping after some sort of self-gratification or pleasure, and then feeling disappointed when it isn’t all we hoped for.  Buddhism defines happiness as achieving a state that is free of suffering. Buddha said that suffering comes from wanting things. He said the greatest suffering comes from not getting what you want, and that the second greatest suffering comes when you get what you want.

The solution, then, seems rather simple: stop chasing after happiness. In The Book of Life, Jiddu Krishnamurti is quoted as saying,

The moment you are conscious that you are happy, it is not happiness, is it? So you cannot go after happiness. The moment you are conscious that you are humble, you are not humble. So happiness is not a thing to be pursued; it comes. But if you seek it, it will evade you.”

To stop chasing after happiness is easier said than done, for happiness takes on many forms, and many of the myriad ways in which we search for it are so subtle that we are not aware of what we are doing, or we can be so busy seeking whatever is happiness means to us, that we fail to see that it is all around.

This is one reason why meditation is such a valuable tool, because it helps us see the happiness present in the now.  As Nagarjuna said in his Commentary of Bodhicitta,

A happy mind is tranquil. A tranquil mind is not confused. To be unperplexed is to understand the truth. By understanding truth, one obtains freedom from suffering.”


The Happiness Equation

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published a study titled “A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being.” In other words, researchers have developed a mathematical model for happiness.


Yes, this is an instant of happiness, reduced to arithmetic.

The study says, “Using computational modeling, we show that emotional reactivity in the form of momentary happiness in response to outcomes of a probabilistic reward task is explained not by current task earnings, but by the combined influence of recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations.” Frankly, I have no idea what that means. But if I were to hazard a guess, I would say it probably means that happiness is somewhat dependent upon our expectations, or that happiness is determined by how we experience it.

Buddhism teaches a path to happiness but also maintains that happiness cannot be known. It’s not something we can grasp with our intellect. We can’t “know” happiness like we know a table, or a chair. It is a state of mind, a life condition. Therefore, we can experience happiness.

According to Buddhism, any experience of happiness must include all living beings. It is not an individual thing, separate from others. Shantideva said,

All happiness in this world comes from desiring the happiness of others. Why say more?

Indeed. ‘Nuff said.


True Happiness Pt. Two

Monday I shared some thoughts on the subject of true happiness by Chuang Tzu. According to this Chinese sage, happiness was found in wu-wei or “not doing.” Chuang Tzu said, “I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness.”

19th Century Tibetan Tangka of Shantideva
19th Century Tibetan Tangka of Shantideva

For Shantideva, the 8th century Indian Buddhist philosopher, there was no greater happiness than generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. Bodhicitta, the aspirational wish to relieve the sufferings of all beings, is considered the first and leading step toward awakening or Buddhahood.

In the first chapter of the “Bodhicaryavatara” (“A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”), in which Shantideva describes the benefits of bodhicitta, he writes, “The jewel that is this thought is the true cause of happiness for all wandering beings.”

The selection below was included in a Mahayana liturgy based on Shantideva’s book. In the Wallace annotated translation this section has three headings: meditating on the happiness of fulfilling one’s own wishes, meditating on the happiness of benefiting others and fulfilling their wishes, and exhorting others to meditate on happiness.

This selection is roughly the last nine or ten verses (depending on the version) of Chapter Three. This version is my own, based on various translations.

Embracing the Thought of Awakening

After generating the thought of awakening, a person with a sincere and seeking mind will strengthen the aspiration with such thoughts as these:

Today my life is fruitful, my human existence a blessing. This day I joined the family of the Awakened, and now am I their heir.

In every way, now, I should undertake the tasks of my family, and never stain this pure lineage.

Like a blind man who has found a gem in a pile of rubbish, somehow this thought of awakening has arisen within me.

It is an elixir made to alleviate death in the world, an inexhaustible treasure to relieve the world’s poverty, a supreme balm to heal the world’s sickness.

It is a tree under which all living beings who wander over life’s paths may rest; the universal bridge open to all wayfarers.

It is the rising moon of the mind that soothes the afflictions of the mind; the great sun dispelling the darkness of ignorance. It is the fresh butter churned from the milk of dharma.

For the caravan of beings traveling the road of life hungering for the taste of happiness, this is the feast of true happiness that provides sustenance to all.

Today, I summon the world to the state of awakening, and enter into the true meaning of happiness, and may this cause all celestial beings, titans, and others to rejoice.


Life is a Carnival

“Life is a carnival,” sang The Band on a recording from their 4th album that featured horn arrangements by the great New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint. “Life is a carnival — believe it or not.”

Deep inside, I am a believer. So was the Buddha, and he said so.


Not in those words, of course. Actually, in his first dharma talk, the Buddha said that life is very un-carnival like, that life is suffering (dukkha). The first of the Four Noble Truths. With the other Truths, he said suffering has a cause, there is freedom from suffering, and then he laid out a path to obtain that freedom. Now, assuming that Buddha understood non-duality, and I think we can, then it is fair to say that he was implying that life is also not-suffering. It’s a bit of a stretch to get to the carnival bit, but I’m using that as a synonym for happiness, joy, and not-suffering.

This first discourse of the Buddha is found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“Wheel of Dhamma”). In this text, he calls the search for worldly pleasures, the Ignoble Quest, and naturally, the opposite of that is the Noble Quest. The sutta talks about “the renunciation of the Bodhisattva,” which in this case refers to Gautama before he became Buddha. The sutta says, “it occurred to the Buddha to renounce worldly life, and become a recluse.” Which he did, practicing extreme austerities, yet we know from this same text that that he came to realize that it was better to avoid extremes, whether it be severe austerity or indulgence in sensual pleasure. This became his Middle Way, the path between extremes.

Still, the Buddha and his bhikkhus lived what we would regard today as a rather austere life. That was another time and it’s not realistic to think that we must fare on the Way exactly as they did 2500 years ago. Besides, there is a deeper understanding of renunciation to consider.

I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.” Suffering, too, is largely a state of mind. When we recognize the inevitability of suffering, when we know that suffering is sometimes necessary, that in the long run the experience of suffering can contribute our growth and overall well being, that’s when we can truly transcend it. Not an easy task, at least I haven’t always found it easy. True renunciation is overthrowing the state of mind that acquiesces under the domination of suffering. It’s the inner revolution where we topple one state of mind and replace it with another, the liberated state of mind.

One who is free from the sufferings of existence, which are fixed in graspingness, is said to be liberated, and attains through infinite, immeasurable, countless ways, worldly and transcendental, showers of happiness and bliss.”

Kshayamati Sutra

The kind of happiness I’m talking about is not a temporary or limited happiness, but one that is deep and lasting. “Life is a carnival” doesn’t mean to view our existence as some sort of traveling amusement show. At the same time, it seems that there are many people in this world who see their life as a painful austerity that must be endured, and that is the crux of the malaise we call dukkha or suffering.

Speaking of carnivals (how’s this for a segue?), tomorrow in New Orleans life will be a carnival, with a capital C. Yep, it’s Mardi Gras once again. Or, Fat Tuesday, the day that immediately precedes Lent, for Catholics that annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. Since Catholics are expected to give something up for Lent, they decided to have one last day-long orgy of hedonism.

It’s good to give something up every so often, but it’s good to have some fun, too. Here’s an opportunity to get in the carnival state of mind New Orleans style, with one of my favorite Mardi Gras songs as performed by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson: