Why is Happiness so Unhappy? Part 2
The current research into what makes people happy has uncovered some interesting facts, as we saw in the last post. Certain goals, such as getting rich or earning a raise, don’t turn out to make much difference in a person’s level of happiness. In general we aren’t good predictors of what will make us happy in the future. The other findings tend to be just as gloomy and debunking. The new field of so-called “Positive psychology” is better at erasing myths than in creating a new basis for happiness.
And yet the need for a new kind of happiness grows every day. The world’s supply of material goods grows slimmer and yet billions more people in China and India want them. As traditional society crumbles, the rise of materialism fills in the vacuum, making it more likely that rampant consumerism will keep spreading. Yet consumerism, although it provides little fixes of pleasure, is one of the worse ways to achieve lasting happiness.
The other reason we need a new kind of happiness is the epidemic of depression and anxiety we see all around us, with record numbers of prescriptions being written for drugs to fight these conditions. Such drugs, although touted by big pharma, have been shown to be ineffective in around 50% of cases, and in some studies they were no more effective than the placebo effect.
What, then, would a new kind of happiness look like?
The world’s wisdom traditions all point inward. They state that there is a level of the mind which serves as the source of happiness. When a person locates this core self, there is peace and silence. One feels safe and cared for. Love and bliss are available as normal aspects of life, not as intermittent experiences that arrive at random.
At present, many supporters of positive psychology seem to accept that happiness is a random event that cannot be relied upon; therefore, we should abandon our illusion about reaching a state of permanent happiness. It’s further asserted that happiness has nothing to do with “higher” notions of the self but is rooted entirely in brain chemistry. As you can see, the new kind of happiness could hardly be more different. And since our society is addicted to consumerism and popping pills for every malady, the road ahead is likely to become more unhappy even as medical science promises that the answers are just around the corner.
A wisdom tradition isn’t the same as a religion. It isn’t faith or the grace of God that is needed to create the kind of happiness that no one can take away from you. For that is the ultimate goal, to be so established in your core self that external events cannot take away your own inner peace and contentment. Whether you turn to Socrates or Buddha, this is a matter of making choices along one road and not another.
The first road is the road of pleasure. When you follow it, you maximize the nice things in your life while minimizing the painful things. Even though every wisdom tradition points out that pain cannot be eliminated from life and that pleasure is always temporary, millions choose this path. In the end it is actually a source of pain. Any addict can tell you that after a phase in which their drug of choice brings a high, there follows a period in which the fix is used merely to keep away pain. Even if your fix is a new car or a sugary dessert instead of heroin, the brain becomes used to its old fixes, requiring larger and larger doses to get even a fraction of the old high. (This is also what video game makers count on, that the thrill of the game will quickly wear off, leading to a craving for newer, more exciting games.)
The other path is called the path of wisdom, which isn’t the best term, since it implies the placid state of old men with long white beards. In Sanskrit there is a better term, vidya, which means knowledge but is more richly defined as “the way to reach the truth.” In terms of happiness, the path of vidya would include those choices, values, and beliefs that actually succeed in making us happy. If children can be guided from an early age, they can be taught to make such choices. The rest of us will have to unlearn and undo our past errors as a first step.
What kinds of choices and values lead to real happiness?
— Meditation, which opens up deeper levels of the mind.
— Actions that benefit others.
— Social relationships that support intimacy and bonding.
— Inspiration through reading the world’s scriptures and poetry.
— Taking enjoyment in natural beauty.
— Having a vision of personal fulfillment that you follow every day.
— Aiming for inner fulfillment rather than external fulfillment.
— Reducing stress.
— Taking time for peaceful reflection.
— Learning to love your own company, cultivating the self as a state of Being.
— Eschewing violence and anger in all its forms, gross and subtle.
— Resolving conflicts, both inner and outer, rather than letting them build up.
— Paying one’s debt to the past, which means healing old hurts and grievances.
— Stepping away from group think and second-hand opinions.
— Giving up a belief in enemies and us-versus-them thinking.
— Cultivating kindness and compassion.
— Being generous of spirit, learning to give.
— Seeing yourself as part of a larger humanity, and humanity itself as an expression of the divine, despite our flaws.
This may seem like a long list, but once you begin to walk the path of Vidya, a new perspective opens up, and everything you once thought and believed begins to be seen in a new light. This only makes sense, since your old pursuit of happiness “out there” is completely reversed.
I’m encouraged that psychology has turned to the positive aspects of the self. But the current findings barely point in the right direction, which is a shame, since the storehouse of the world’s wisdom remains locked. Until we unlock it, the state of unhappiness may not grow worse — none of us can predict that one way or another — yet for certain a new kind of happiness will not emerge.
Published at San Francisco Chronicle