Everyone wants to be happy. “The very purpose of our life is to seek happiness,” the Dalai Lama states in The Art of Happiness.

L + E, Mary Heilmann, 2002, oil on canvas, 40 × 30 inches
L + E, Mary Heilmann, 2002, oil on canvas, 40 × 30 inches

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?” ).

Buddhist psychology holds that happiness is not only possible but is our natural state—masked by our ignorance and attachments until awakening clears our view. Western psychology, on the other hand, has long been saddled with the Freudian view that the best psychotherapy can offer in the happiness department is “ordinary suffering.” Hope, however, is on the horizon. Once psychologists Martin E. P. Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, jump-started the positive psychology movement seven years ago, happiness and other positive emotions became hot topics for study. Now, Buddhists and Western psychologists not only collaborate in the laboratory (see “The Lama in the Lab,”Tricycle, Spring 2003) but regularly share the podium when the pursuit of happiness is the subject. At last year’s $4,000-a-head Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference in northern California, Seligman, together with Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert and Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, galvanized the gathering of techno geeks and entertainment moguls with what will and won’t affect our happiness potential.

None of this fully explains what’s driving the happiness craze. Are we desperate for good news in a world wracked with sorrow? Are we tired of dwelling on our shortcomings and keen to develop our optimum potential, as positive psychology seems to promise? Is it that science is now confirming what Buddhist practitioners have long known—that meditation can change our minds by reconfiguring our brains, and make us happier in the process? Or does all this hint at an even deeper yearning?

Americans cling to the belief that happiness is our due, thanks to a collective misreading of the Declaration of Independence, which only asserts our inalienable right to pursue happiness; it doesn’t guarantee we’ll find it. Life-satisfaction studies can be misleading. “Self-reports”—a primary tool of happiness surveys—leave plenty of room for error. We may identify ourselves as happy for a variety of reasons, not least because in this culture, unhappiness is seen as a kind of failure. But true happiness remains resolutely subjective and hard to quantify. And whose definition of happiness are we measuring anyway? Even the Buddha identified at least six kinds of happiness, outlined here by Joseph Goldstein in “The Evolution of Happiness”.

On one level, it is easier to define what happiness isn’t than what it is. Just as the Buddha saw that clinging to unrealizable or unhealthy desires gives rise to dukkha—dissatisfaction—research by Daniel Gilbert and others suggests that a major cause of our unhappiness is “miswanting.” We’re doomed by our false beliefs to look for happiness in all the wrong places, as Gilbert explains in “The Pleasure Paradox”.

No one who’s recently spent ten minutes in a shopping mall would argue. America is perhaps the only country that has elevated shopping to a national pastime, outperforming football, golf, and NASCAR combined. Since World War II, per capita income has doubled. Yet despite greater prosperity and access to more goods and better healthcare, studies show that comparatively speaking, we’re no happier than our forebears were fifty years ago. Poverty breeds unhappiness, no question. But once our essential needs are met, more money doesn’t increase life satisfaction. Even lottery winners, polled after a year or so, weren’t appreciably happier than before they cashed in the winning ticket. As psychologist Tim Kasser has found, people with material values are notably less happy than their not-so-materialistic peers. In fact, research overwhelmingly shows that of all the factors we presume (or hope) will make us happy—including health, wealth, job, success, youth, beauty, religious beliefs, and personal freedom—only intimate relationships and a sense of purpose assure us more than a momentary lift. In Buddhist terms, even these can change and become the seeds of our unhappiness instead. The only safe ground is no ground—the meditative path within.

Conventional wisdom holds that each of us has a genetic “set point” for happiness—a baseline to which our mood returns, regardless of what befalls us. But newer research suggests that we can shift the set point by boosting the areas of the brain’s left neo-cortex that are involved in positive emotion. The method? Mindfulness and other techniques derived from Buddhist meditation. (See “Meeting of the Minds,” Tricycle, Spring 2005.)

So if we’ve got the potential for happiness, and the desire, why aren’t we happier more of the time? How can we gain, or regain, a sense of joy and well-being? As researchers peer into the brain for clues to enhancing positive mind states, Buddhists can take refuge in twenty-five hundred years of practical experience. Happily, the Buddha knew a thing or two about sukkha—happiness—as well as dukkha, and left instructions on training for “long-lasting bliss” (“The Buddha on Happiness”). For contemporary examples of how Buddhist practice fosters happiness, we turned to three of Tricycle’s contributing editors. In “Passing It On”, Mark Magill plumbs the nuanced pleasures of parenting. Clark Strand discovers bodhisattvas in his own backyard (“The Wisdom of Frogs,”). Poet Jane Hirshfield brings Zen insight to the happiness question.

And what of the happiness experts—Buddhist and non-Buddhist? How do they define happiness? From their responses, on the pages that follow, it’s clear that no one definition fits all. Still, many point to a deeper happiness that is everyone’s birthright. This was the Buddha’s promise, the culmination of meditation practice.

“If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart, then happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves,” the Dhammapada says. Happiness may be the trend of the moment, but true happiness is lasting—and a far from trivial pursuit.

Temple
Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

Liberate this article!

You’ve read all three of your free articles for the month. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.