Everyone wants to be happy. “The very purpose of our life is to seek happiness,” the Dalai Lama states in The Art of Happiness.
Research suggests that our seeking is, on the whole, successful: most people report they’re happy most of the time. But if we’re so happy, how come there’s so much strife in the world? How do we explain escalating poverty, social disintegration, and environmental degradation—or $76 billion a year in antidepressant sales? If our lives are so content, how do we account for a happiness industry that has gone into overdrive, with psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, sociologists, self-help mavens, spiritual teachers, and pundits of every stripe proffering insights, observations, and advice? Once, philosophers and religious leaders were the arbiters of human well-being. Now, with the media, the entertainment industry, and the government weighing in, happiness is an all-pervading, 24/7 concern. The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has even placed happiness at the top of its agenda: prosperity is measured in gross national happiness, rather than gross national product.
What’s this happiness craze all about? And what is true happiness anyway? If the pursuit of happiness is the essential human project, how should we go about it? And how can Buddhism help us find happiness that is lasting? These are just some of the questions that prompted this special section.
Happiness per se is an age-old concern. The early Greeks were of two minds about it, laying out two different paths to the good life. One has come down to us as “hedonics”—happiness as pleasure. The downside here is adaptation: in time, even the greatest pleasures start to pall, and like drug addicts, we have to up the dose to feel much of anything at all. This, of course, is the wheel of samsara—worldly desire—that the Buddha described so well. The other view, one closer to the Buddha’s, is that happiness is a higher calling, an expression of virtue. It isn’t hard to guess which view has prevailed. Our culture’s preoccupation with happiness has turned it into a commodity. Try going into a bookstore or opening a magazine or professional journal without stumbling across something with happiness in the title. A spate of recent cover stories—Time, O: The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, Daedalus, Scientific American, National Geographic—have made dinner-table conversation out of everything from the neuroscience of positive emotion to cheery psychobabble on foolproof ways to keep your spirits up. New books continue to pile up on the happiness shelf. (In the interests of full disclosure, one of those books is mine.) Even respected academics are aiming their books at the seemingly insatiable mainstream happiness audience.
Meanwhile, Buddhism is building its own library of happiness volumes. The Art of Happinessand The Art of Happiness at Work—the Dalai Lama’s two collaborations with psychiatrist Howard Cutler—together have sold over two million copies. One of the latest additions isGenuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment, by Buddhist scholar-teacher B. Alan Wallace, whose Santa Barbara Institute is co-sponsoring joint research involving Buddhist practitioners and the scientific community. One long-term study is looking at “human flourishing”—happiness that extends well beyond ordinary sense pleasure. Earlier this year, Tricycle Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen spent a day with Wallace discussing the Buddha’s views on happiness and how practice can uncover our innate capacity for joy (“What Is True Happiness?” ).
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