As I See It: The Elusive Pursuit of Happiness
by Victor Rozek
It's January, the time of the year when the season of hope runs headlong into disinterested reality. A lot of dreams die in the cold, dark days of January, when habit and inertia conspire to overwhelm good intentions. The Christmas bills arrive long after delight has departed, and many are left with the familiar feeling of letdown and the eternal question, "What now?" Discontent prowls below the surface of consciousness, persistent as a hungry shark, searching, wondering, "What will make me happy now?"
Who would argue that sustained happiness is an ephemeral thing, as cruelly elusive as a free-range chicken chased by a one-legged man. Our very nation was built upon the premise that happiness is not a birthright, but rather a quarry to be stalked. The Declaration clearly spells it out: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." No ambiguity there. Unlike life and liberty, happiness, at least according to Thomas Jefferson, is an iffy proposition. "Pursuit" may be unalienable, but the outcome of that pursuit is not. Different paths lead to different destinations; different choices yield different results, so pay your money and take your chances.
True to our Jeffersonian roots, Americans have been chasing their bliss ever since. In the land of the free, happiness is pursued with unrelenting activity that often appears frenetic. Move. Search. Improve. Advance. Buy. Trade up. Attain. Achieve. Acquire. Happiness awaits just beyond the next verb.
Without a doubt, many of us have managed to capture the accouterments of happiness: luxury cars, over-sized homes, prestigious jobs, exotic vacations, designer clothes, and earlobes drooping with bling-bling. But, as clinical psychologist Patricia Dalton notes, writing for The Washington Post, even though the gross domestic product per capita has tripled since World War II, making more money and buying more does not appear to impact reported levels of happiness. In fact, "a comprehensive review of more than 150 studies on happiness and wealth . . . showed no appreciable rise in life satisfaction over the past decades, despite our increased material wealth."
The reality is that, for most of us, happiness comes in spurts--a craving satisfied, an anxiety relieved, a longing expressed. Prolonged happiness, however, remains elusive, always seemingly beyond our reach. It is the proverbial rainbow's end--compelling from afar, but no more substantial than a trick of light and moisture.
So what can we conclude from these studies? One possibility is that intermittent happiness is all humans are capable of. Another is that there is little correlation between material comfort and happiness. But neither of these conclusions offers much in the way of direction or hope. But what if science could identify the specific conditions and behaviors that made sustained happiness possible. Could they not, then, be duplicated, making prolonged happiness an attainable state rather than a desirable stranger?
That's what scientists at MIT wanted to know, and to find out they turned to a man named Tenzin Gyatso, whose demeanor suggests he may know things about happiness that others do not. Tenzin Gyatso is a man of many names and many burdens. In his native Tibet he is known as Yeshe Norby, the "wish-fulfilling gem," or simply Kundun, "The Presence." To Westerners he is more commonly referred to as the Dalai Lama.
It was precisely the Dalai Lama's presence that intrigued the scientists and psychologists who attended the "Mind and Life" conference at MIT this past September. Writing in Smithsonian, Chip Brown concedes that intellectually stimulating exchanges were only part of the story. "I was struck by how happy he seemed," Brown writes. "And it was not the witless cheer of a Pollyanna with no grasp of man's cruelty. It seemed, rather, the happiness of someone who reveres life despite sound reasons not to--a man whose philosophy has not led him into despair. Happiness was in him like ginger in a cookie."
Apparently, the mental discipline practiced by Buddhists allows them to achieve a state of happy equilibrium not easily shaken by life events or "negative" emotions. If happiness is a condition, scientists reasoned, could it be medically addressed? Could we, in a manner of speaking, "cure" unhappiness? As one researcher at the conference mused, "could we define happiness like a subatomic particle?" What behaviors and beliefs lead to it, and which ones lead to suffering? In short, could Buddhism "solve unhappiness the way antibiotics solved tuberculosis?"
A stunning question for science to ponder, much less investigate.
The scientific study of Buddhism began in earnest in 1987, when the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist scholars began a series of conversations with Western scientists "seeking to bridge two philosophies and traditions with different concepts of the mind and different methods of exploring mental phenomena." Then, as now, the Dalai Lama's premise was at once simple and profound: "We should learn what makes a happy mind and teach those methods so that all of humanity will be happy." He was seeking scientific underpinnings for his beliefs, and a scientific explanation for the efficacy of Buddhist practices. The Dalai Lama observed that "everybody is making an effort for material comfort but not as much effort to be happy." Accordingly, much of his writings since have been concerned with what Brown describes as "the gospel of cultivated happiness."
If the essence of Buddhist practice is the disciplining of the mind, the question being explored by science is: can the mind be disciplined to be happy? Particularly, can certain practices be effectively used by people who have no connection to Buddhism and may hold vastly different beliefs?
One of the dilemmas of bridging religious practice and science is simply identifying what to study. Associated Press writer Justin Pope reports that, on several occasions, scientists asked for suggestions on what kinds of studies to do, and how to apply new technology like brain imaging, to study consciousness. "I can think of a million things to measure, but what I am interested in is, what do you think are the right things to measure?" asked Jonathan Cohen, a Princeton University brain expert.
One particularly fascinating suggestion was offered by Ajahn Amaro, co-abbot of a Buddhist monastery in California. "Use the new technology," he said, "to measure whether the brain's level of comfort is associated with how honestly you live." The implication is that a person living in integrity with his own values will be happier than one who does not. Not coincidentally, it is ethical behavior that is at the heart of the Buddhist belief in taking "right action," a guideline Western science may find limiting, since scientific research frequently exhibits fluid ethical boundaries. As Brown notes, quoting Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness, "The pursuit of knowledge in Buddhism is inextricably related to the pursuit of virtue, and the pursuit of virtue is inextricably related to the pursuit of happiness." Western science, Brown observes, "makes no such connection. It can as easily weaponize smallpox as cure it." Nor, I suspect, does the average Westerner necessarily equate the practice of virtue with happiness.
Until science can provide some answers, perhaps the place to start is to examine our relationship with our work. What is work, after all, if not the paid pursuit of happiness? As we sit in front of computer screens, typing on keyboards, bringing the awesome power of computing to a vast range of human endeavors, are we metaphorically curing smallpox or weaponizing it? Do our working hours contribute to our happiness, or keep us from it?
The Minneapolis Star Tribune published a remarkable New Year's editorial. In part it said, "There's something about the hanging of a new calendar that makes us mull how we'll fill the days and months to come. We cannot help but wonder whether stepping over the threshold between last year and this can spur us to live as we'd truly like to live. It's strange, isn't it, how many of us inhabit an existence we don't prefer? There are scores of reasons why we do it--because of habit or duty, dedication or inertia, and too often because we don't dare to imagine we might rise up from the ashes of the past as some lovelier creature than we were yesterday. We abide with what we know--not just because we must, but because we can't see beyond our own circumstances."
One of the ways to see beyond our circumstances is to practice the virtue so championed by the Dalai Lama and claimed by him to be a vital source of happiness: compassion. "Compassion is not religious business," he said. "It is human business; it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability; it is essential for human survival. This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."
If science can move us in that direction, perhaps one New Year in the not too distant future, as we map the prospects for the coming cycle of seasons, we will be able to abandon the frenetic happiness chase in favor of simply being happy.