Buddhist and Western Concepts of Happiness
Buddhist ideas of the social basis for happiness differ greatly from the Western perspective. Buddhism holds that happiness is not something measured as a qualitative comparison with others. Each and every individual’s desire to be happy is just as viable and true as the pursuit of anybody else’s (Ricard). In order to achieve true happiness, individuals must release themselves from the cycle of dukkha or suffering. In this context, it must be understood that the Buddhist idea of happiness it not related to the traditional “smiles and laughs notion”. It relates to the strengthening of the mind through constructive guidance.
According to tenets of Buddhism, the concept of a person as a distinct entity does not exist. The person is seen as a fluid progression of experiences and moments in time. While it is common and understandable to attribute aspects of personality and emotion to an entity, that entity does not exist. Even so, viewed from a vibrational or energy standpoint, the greatest disruption and disturbance that one can face is adherence to the idea of self. It promotes greed, and therefore clinging to the items that seem naturally attractive. This greed does not initially seem to be “greed-like”. It may lull individuals into a false belief that they are protected from sadness and suffering by retreating inside their personal wants and desires (Ricard). In actuality however, this internal retreat leads to greater upset and disconnect with the other dynamic entities of the world. This retreat does not work because of the impermanent nature of everything in a Buddhist perspective. Finding a temporary haven does not grant a permanent solution.
The Western World places the concept of happiness in the context of positive psychology and social well-being. Ed Diener, a pioneer in this field, has done extensive work on how creating an index of Subjective Well Being may be helpful (Diener 36). It refers to people’s evaluations of their lives. As individuals’ basic material needs are met, especially in relation to others, they move to a post-materialistic phase that they think will increase their happiness. There seems to be a cross-cultural and cross-continental consensus regarding the importance that personal happiness weighs in individuals’ relationships Feelings of happiness appear to be one of the strongest factors influencing long-term levels of comfort and satisfaction (Diener 38). There has been a considerable amount of research on how societal variables influence Subjective Well Being. Socioeconomic factors seem to be strong positive correlates with happiness/subjective well-being. There does, however, seem to be a gap in terms of the types of traits that make people happy according to their surroundings (Diener 41). For example, in heavily collectivist cultures there is more happiness in individually receiving something whereas in individualistic cultures, receiving something as part of a team may generate more happiness (Diener 40).
The emotional basis for happiness is, in Buddhism, partly related to an internal conflict between the root afflictions of ignorance, hatred and craving. Individuals practicing tenets of Buddhism tend to initially think that negative affects such as ignorance and greed must be somehow eradicated from the mind. Other newcomers presume that there must be a high threshold of mental focus and precision that must be achieved in order to get to the high level of only allowing positive thoughts inside. Fighting back negative thoughts it not seen as the solution in almost any practice of Buddhism (Ricard). The true virtue and corresponding route to happiness lies in allowing all thoughts to come to the mind and having experiences that underlie all of them. This involves reacting to trauma and, for example a Nobel Prize in the same way and not letting either affect personal happiness in the long term. One might cause grief and the other pleasure, but these are typically temporary states. Through gradual practice and accumulation of counters to each type of emotion that a thought brings forth, individuals can completely eliminate hatred and greed. Their resting state would be a state of happiness.
The Western World views the emotional basis for happiness in a different light. Emotions seem to be inherently related to the feeling of happiness. When individuals place themselves or exercise in activities that would yield in achievement or success or acceptance, or friendship, they are bound to be happier (Lambert 27). The irony lies in the fact that most hours that individuals spend during their day are not related to their pursuits of happiness. Individuals are not intrinsically motivated to work or learn or study. They are more interested in the effects and how those effects might make them happy. Even though the avenues to feel the emotion of happiness are understood, they are not sought out prolifically.
This is partially due to the impracticality of seeking purely happiness-inducing activities daily when families need to put food on the table or provide from themselves. But part of this is potentially a conscious acknowledgement that people perhaps should not be happy all the time. It could somehow diminish the value that the happiness holds to the person, and therefore not feel the same way. A sphere that this is commonly seen in is medicine. Doctors seem to be some of the most anti-pleasure and happiness both in the work realm and the home realm (Collier E1242). It is hypothesized that this could be due to the complete desensitization that doctors face on a day to day basis with patients who are not well. Most people that doctors see are suffering in some capacity, and the doctors try to be as empathetic as they can. It is not appropriate in these situations for the doctors to be happy or excited. This could translate into home life as the tendency to get genuinely excited about something is rare (Collier E1243). It is also possible that doctors are completely desensitized to the idea of expressing extremes in emotion as they become veterans at their jobs. Many see death, destruction of family dynamics, and devastation upon communicating bad news. These experiences have a true psychological cost.
Doctors tend to be perfectionists and much of their job is composed of the satisfaction that their patients feel in their performance. Many, through OSHA and HIPAA guidelines, are prohibited from talking about their mentally heavy experiences at work in the home sphere (Collier E1242). Without an outlet to manifest their emotions, the negative emotions sink in deeper and deeper. While expressing emotion may actually increase its intensity rather than diminish it, negative emotions can still be grueling to sit with. This particular career route is risky because of the potential negative effects on happiness.
From a more analytical and psychological perspective, happiness has always been attributed to different functional values and predictors of future health. This began in the time of Freud and the age of psychotherapy. During this time, humans were seen as troubled and in need of repair. Emotional manifestations were potential signs of unresolved conflicts from within. Later on, over the course of history, genocides and fascist movements ended up with periods of time where scapegoats were labeled with psychological problems associated with a lack of emotion. For example, after World War 2, internationally people were horrified that Germans could allow someone like Hitler to take over their country and mindset so quickly (Lambert 38). After several movements and periods of blame, the realm of positive psychology emerged.
Seligman urged the field of psychology to build human strength and heal the damage that many races and minorities faced. He became an international laureate in the field of maximizing virtue and happiness in life. He was inspired by the field of humanistic psychology propagated by Abraham Maslow and the self-help movement. Seligman declared that the world was run by neoclassical economics and it was time to improve and fix the way in which humans related to one another.
In order to do this, although it may seem counterintuitive, Seligman proposed that individuals should work on their emotional weaknesses instead of consistently aiming to achieve their emotional strengths (Lambert 90). In addition, keeping a diary allows the different psychological drives hidden in the mind that prevent and promote happiness to come through.
Seligman broke down the concept of happiness in terms of the pleasure system. Also, known as the desire system, the opioid system triggers feelings of pleasure (Seligman 6). It is associated partially with the amygdala and thus the opposite of happiness would be dread or devastation. The opioid system is also associated with the limbic system. Seligman has drawn an important distinction between the neurological associations with the feeling of happiness versus the feeling of joy. The feeling of happiness is associated with an activation in the sympathetic “fight or flight” system, and the feeling of joy is associated with an activation in the parasympathetic “rest or digest” system. In addition, happiness is something that can substitute the mental feeling of pain in the mind, whereas joy is something that can amplify or bring the pain into a positive light. Seligman does not truly distinguish between happiness and pleasure, a controversial decision in Buddhist terms because they are seen as separate processes. Perhaps this is standard in Western terms, because happiness is associated and described in terms of the amount of pleasure that it provides. In the realm of positive psychology, the importance of being in a state of happiness only on occasion has been highlighted. It can lose its value if it is always experienced by individuals (Lambert 34). Happiness is seen as a place to visit, and the occasional nature of it makes it much more special.
Despite their great differences, Buddhist and Western ideas have some great similarities in their approaches to understanding the pitfalls associated with the feelings of happiness. Specifically, there are similarities in terms of happiness-related pitfalls, the intensity of happiness, and its effects. The biggest pitfall from the Buddhist standpoint is positive emotions and true happiness. Individuals will frequently have enjoyable and pleasurable experiences, assuming that in those moments they are truly and unconditionally happy. The reality is that happiness or sukha is almost unrelated to this concept (Ricard). Sukha deals with true understanding — of realizing the true knowledge of the world, the true nature of how the world operates, free of preconceptions and afflictions. It is a skill that is achieved by a select few bodhisattvas who have practiced for years and years. But there is also application to humans and everyday life. Humans can attain a level of sukha that is not perfect sukha, but still full of understanding and knowledge about life’s realities.
Achieving the true state of happiness cannot be attained in a Westernized sense of being mindful. One cannot simply peer at nature and try to observe and describe the features as is. When individuals simply observe nature and try to ascribe definite value to aspects of nature, they fall back into the cycle of samsara due to their ignorance (Ricard). Mindfulness, even in the Buddhist sense is not the sole route to happiness. The reality is that without peace inside our minds and satisfaction with how our mind works, we are not capable of being completely happy. From a Buddhist perspective, this happiness and understanding cannot be brought forth without mindfulness and attention to the details in life for what they are.
According to the Western perspective, people frequently make the mistake of presentism, thinking that they will feel in the future just as they do now. Therefore, the actions and determinants of happiness in the present moment are not necessarily correlated with those determinants in the future. In addition, people tend to be strong at rationalizing their decisions because they feel like they need to (Seligman 8). For example, after enduring an accident that might popularly be seen as decreasing one’s level of happiness and satisfaction, individuals may try to overcompensate by explaining how they personally feel at ease.
In reality, people fare surprisingly well in tragic and difficult situations. The plasticity of their minds is incredible and their adaptations to “new normals” after initial moments of grief and happiness is far beyond they think. The human mind is “constituted to make the best of almost any situation it finds itself in.”
The intensity and extended duration of happiness is something that is also similar in the mindset of Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy. Whether it be related to a feeling of genuine wellbeing or of understanding of life functions, happiness can be an intense feeling. It has been previously acknowledged that it does not occur very often, and therefore its incidence is something that fills the whole mind and body. From both perspectives it is as though color has been introduced to a previously black and white setting.
During the moments that there is not happiness, there is a resting state of duty that accompanies day to day tasks. Of course, from the Buddhist perspective this is seen as dukkha or suffering. This part of life can be frustrating to live through because a life without meaning can be seen as useless or invaluable. From the Western perspective, individuals who are not particularly inclined to be happy can be seen as stoic, performing robotic functions without ever seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
Another aspect of intensity and duration of happiness is the understood universality of it. From the early principles of Buddhism, it has been recognized that each individual, no matter the trouble or suffering that he or she may have caused to others, is capable of feeling and being happy. Each individual has the potential to find understanding in his or her life, but it requires dedication. The same applies to Western philosophy — one can say that the United States Declaration of Independence openly stated the right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but the idea that anybody can be happy has never been doubted.
The effects of happiness, especially over time is a point of agreement between Buddhist and Western ideas. It is acknowledged universally that the effects of happiness, while in the moment they are great, are ultimately short-lived. In fact, studies in both realms reveal that the positive effects of happiness wear away faster than the effects of disgust go away. We have three primary reactions including attraction, disgust, and lack of attention and the intensity of all three wear away in a short amount of time.
In the vein of Buddhist thought, when individuals are aspiring to reach a level of happiness, they have negative afflictions and positive afflictions all the time in their minds. Of course, they do not occur at the same time, but they have a strong role in polarizing the mind’s thought processes. As individuals hone their minds more and more and practice, the ignorance and lack of attention, eventual lack of existence of negative thoughts occurs. When the mind is filled with eventual understanding of the world and of happiness, there is no alternative to fall back to. For boddhisatvas who are continually training themselves, there is no way to truly appreciate the value of a true world (Ricard). Individuals are merely existing in their new state, but there is no additional addendum of joy for the level achieved.
Over time, the human brain has nearly tripled in size. The frontal lobe has gotten bigger, and as its role as an experience simulator is very important. In Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk and analysis of happiness, he commented on a study where one year after paraplegics lost their legs and people won the lottery, they were equally happy with their lives (Gilbert). Through simulator tests, he has shockingly discovered that humans believe different outcomes are more different than they really are.
Happiness can be synthesized, and yet humans still think that the original is something truly valuable and separate. They think that pure, unadulterated happiness is a treasure to be found in the dust. In this vein, the choices and preferences that humans have in the true sense are what they hold onto, what they convince themselves are the happiness-inducing options (Gilbert). The honest realizations that happiness is always the same as long as it triggers the right neurological areas is most evident when individuals feel stuck and trapped. Gilbert concludes with an interesting note that perhaps bounded ambition leads to the potential for unbounded happiness.
This is similar to the positive psychology concept that the increase that one might see in happiness in a jump from $5 to $50,000 is much bigger than $50,000 to $500,000. Much of this is because the 5 to 50,000 gap crosses the poverty line into a standard and livable amount of money. People can provide for their families, afford special items and live normal lives (Lambert 94). But in the jump from 50,000 to 500,000, there is a threshold beyond which the extra money means less. It is all reserved for saving or luxury items or non-necessities. These items that are not necessary for day to day living do not hold strong biological or evolutionary value, and thus correlate less with the happiness associated with living.
Buddhist spheres and Western spheres have historically been regarded as polar opposite entities that cannot universally cater to a single audience. Perhaps the social, emotional and physical make-up of what constitutes are different. Western psychology and biology take a more neural basis for each incidence of happiness whereas Buddhism takes a more holistic and integrated mind and body approach. Even both areas’ ideas of what constitutes happiness is a bit different.
But in fact, the two are interrelated in several ways, and an analogy from one example of Buddhism may help to understand a Western idea of happiness and vice versa. It is easy to say that one sphere is back up by science and the other is not. But in reality, the science of mindfulness, meditation, and recognizing of the indefinites is a highly valuable science in its own right. Taken together, they can help humans achieved a more balanced approach regarding how to attain happiness in life.
Collier, Roger. “Physician Health: Beyond Wellness to Happiness.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal 189.39 (2017): E1242–E1243. PMC. Web. 9 Nov. 2017.
Diener, Ed. “Subjective Well Being: The Science of Happiness and a Proposal for a National Index.” American Psychologist, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 2000, pp. 34–43.
Gilbert, Dan, director. The Surprising Science of Happiness. Feb. 2004, www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy?language=en.
Lambert, Craig. “The Science of Happiness: Psychologists Explore Humans at Their Best.” Harvard Magazine, Jan. 2007, pp. 26–94.
Ricard, Matthieu. A Buddhist View of Happiness. Atlantic Books, 2013.
Seligman, Martin, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Positive Psychology: An Introduction.” American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 1–14.