Happiness Kicks Butt
(This post is the second in a row of choice selections from older essays I have written, on the older blog—partly to allow me to direct my energies towards attending to worldly necessities (like I have been editing like mad, and very recently went out and bought furniture), and also to "hype" my upcoming second book by providing you, good reader, with a teaser. So this essay will also appear as a chapter in my second collection of essays: Philosophical Dharma: Writings of an Incendiary Buddhist Monk, by Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu (John David Reynolds, i.e. me). The first book, Essays in Theravada, has very recently gone "live" on Amazon.com, and is available here. The second volume, from which, as I say, the following essay is extracted, will be more "edgy" than the first, sometimes even verging into the realm of political incorrectness that this here blog wallows in extravagantly from time to time. So much so that I doubt I could advertise it in mainstream western Buddhist publications. So if you appreciate this sort of stuff, and know of a platform on which I could advertise it to make it known to folks that don't already know me, feel free to share your valuable information in the comments below. Be happy.)
There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. —Richard Layard, in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, 2005)
It has occurred to me that most posts that I have written over the past several months have been inspired by something I've read. Living alone at a monastery, especially a forest monastery, is not so conducive to intellectual stimulation otherwise (and emotions are harder to write about, since their native language is not verbal). Anyway, this post is no exception to the general trend.
I recently finished reading The Idea of Justice (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2009) by Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in Economics, which a nice Bangladeshi lady gave to me a long time ago. His thinking, or at least his writing, is rather dry and plods a bit, using a lot of erudite words to say what he wants to say, but his ideas tend to be worked out very methodically and sensibly, and he appears to be an honest man. Furthermore, he has a broad, though worldly, wisdom. By midway through the book I was of the impression that Dr. Sen should be president—it didn't even matter of which country, just president of somewhere.
Then, as I was grinding through a rather dull section of the book, laced with lots of economics jargon I was not familiar with, like "utility" and "Pareto," I came upon Chapter 13: "Happiness, Well-being and Capabilities." I shook myself out of the verbiage-induced stupor I was in and perked up, figuring this might be an interesting one. However, the farther I got with it the more frustrated I got; and, to be fair to the author of the New Age manuscript I criticized recently, while reading that 13th chapter I indulged in a little frustrated cussing, and even, at one point, helped to relieve my feelings by drawing a mustache and an absurd, jagged beard on Sen's picture on the back cover. In fact I became a little angry, which is ridiculous, since the chapter is, after all, about happiness.
Dr. Sen mentions that a primary emphasis on happiness has been standard practice in economics for over a hundred years, beginning with Jeremy Bentham and English utilitarianism, although that is changing now. He also mentions the "paradox" that more money does not make people happier, referring to this as "a neglected area of research." He mentions his old friend Richard Layard, who is quoted above, and who agrees heartily with the utilitarian notion that happiness is all that really matters, that it is the common denominator to all of human endeavor. As Layard says in the same book as the one quoted above, "If we are asked why happiness matters, we can give no further, external reason. It just obviously does matter." In other words, it is the elemental foundation or bedrock to our motivations. I happen to agree with Richard Layard—and as a Buddhist, I see no paradox at all in the fact that greater wealth does not automatically create greater happiness. In fact it appears, in general, to create greater unhappiness.
But Sen begs to differ with his old friend Layard. He does not disagree with the idea that happiness is important; he simply disagrees that it is all that really matters. Sen maintains that there are other priorities in life that are not necessarily based on happiness. For example he says,
Happiness, important as it is, can hardly be the only thing that we have reason to value, nor the only metric for measuring other things that we value. But when being happy is not given such an imperialist role, it can, with good reason, be seen as a very important human functioning, among others.
Furthermore, and possibly more importantly, being an economist by profession, someone who tries to improve the world through outward manipulation, he has immense difficulty in accepting the possibility that poor people, or people who don't enjoy what modern Western political correctness insists upon, can really be happy. He puts forth a two-page-long argument to this effect, including the following:
The utilitarian calculus based on happiness or desire-fulfilment can be deeply unfair to those who are persistently deprived, since our mental make-up and desires tend to adjust to circumstances, particularly to make life bearable in adverse situations. It is through 'coming to terms' with one's hopeless predicament that life is made somewhat bearable….The hopelessly deprived people may lack the courage to desire any radical change and typically tend to adjust their desires and expectations to what little they see as feasible. They train themselves to take pleasure in small mercies….The adaptive phenomenon…tend[s] to downplay the assessment of the hardship of the chronically deprived, because the small breaks in which they try to take pleasure tend to reduce their mental distress without removing — or even substantially reducing — the actual deprivations that characterize their impoverished lives.
Over the course of two pages this argument features words beginning with "depriv-" a total of eleven times. It struck me as biased sophistry based on a very superficial view of the nature of well-being, apparently assuming as axiomatic that advanced healthcare, outward opportunities, and lack of trouble are absolutely necessary for genuine happiness. It was around this point in the book, where Sen is trying to maintain that poor, unwesternized people can't really be happy, or at least shouldn't be (after admitting and then promptly forgetting that rich, westernized people should be happy, but aren't), that I closed it, turned it face down, and started drawing the beard and mustache on his picture on the back.
On another page he gives a very politically correct example of his take on the invalidity of any happiness a "deprived" person might feel:
What the critics of unreasoning acceptance of persistent deprivation want is more reasoning about what ails the perennial underdogs, with the expectation that, with more scrutiny, the 'well-adapted' deprived would see — and 'feel' — reason enough to grumble. It was noted earlier…that the obedient and unagonized acceptance by women of their subjugation in traditionalist India has been giving way over the decades to some 'creative discontent', demanding social change, and that in this change a large role is played by questioning women's inactive acceptance of a subjugated role without complaint or disquiet.
The implication here seems to be that any woman in a traditional society, or practically any woman who lived before modern times, regardless of how happy and devoted to her family she might seem, is/was "deprived" and merely making the most of a lousy, miserable situation—regardless of the fact that she might be "without complaint or disquiet." I can easily imagine some idiotic, politically correct intellectual approaching such a woman and saying, "Ah, my poor, poor child, why do you look so cheerfully happy? Wipe that foolish smile off your face! You should be grumbling! You are deprived, deprived, I say! If only you were less ignorant you would clearly realize that you shouldn't be so happy! But in a few years, after we have enacted the appropriate social reforms, then, maybe…" In such a case as that woman would be in, ignorance could really be bliss—ignorance of economic theory and Western political correctness, that is.
Were people in ancient times "deprived" of antibiotics and other forms of modern healthcare, and if so, should anyone at all in ancient times have been happy? What about a modern Christian Scientist or health food purist who doesn't even want any antibiotics? How about a 21st-century hillbilly in some remote 4th-world village somewhere who doesn't want any and doesn't even know what they are? If such a person is deprived, he's doubly deprived, as he doesn't even know he's deprived—he's deprived even of the knowledge that he shouldn't be happy! Furthermore, if Dr. Sen is right, then even if this person does somehow manage to be happy in his pathetic deprivation, that happiness just is not good enough, and he would actually be better off being informed about antibiotics and then unhappily clamoring for them. Also, compared with how things might be in the future, even the most privileged and fortunate people of the higher classes nowadays may be grotesquely "deprived" and "impoverished"; so maybe nobody should really be happy at all. Or does happiness come from outside us to the extent of depending upon our keeping up with the current state of the art with regard to technology and political reform? If so, then a person living in essentially the same manner as her grandmother did, in the same place, with very similar subjective conditions, maybe shouldn't be happy even though her grandmother very much was, and deserved to be. This sort of attitude begins to smack of vulgar consumerism, and could even be used to vindicate it: We're deprived if we don't get the newest pharmaceuticals, the newest genetically modified vegetables, and the newest smartphone. It appears that something is strangely wrong with this picture.
I just cannot agree with Sen's amazing (mis)understanding of happiness. Happiness may truly be said to be THE ultimate consideration—everything else, such as health, social freedoms, social justice, truth, friendship, wealth, comfort, the latest smartphone, etc., etc., is at best only a perceived means to happiness. We wouldn't want any of it unless we felt it would make us happier somehow. Even compassionately serving others, seemingly disregarding our own welfare in the process, is done because we feel more happy by doing it; especially after reaching a certain stage in spiritual development we realize that we are all connected in spirit, and that hurting another hurts oneself and helping another helps oneself. Thus total self-sacrifice for the sake of others can be a road to happiness. Sen, in his book, gives the example of Mahatma Gandhi's (peaceful) political resistance and repeated fasting as obviously not for his own well-being—but Gandhi had very exalted and very rigid ideals, and if he did not live up to these ideals he could hardly live with himself. He would be more unhappy not following his ideals than he was while fasting or in prison. Another strange example is in a very different book: Dostoevsky's The Idiot. In the story a beautiful woman named Nastasya self-destructively flings herself into the gutter, so to speak, rejecting the love of a good man whom she loves in return; yet she is extremely proud, and was seduced and "ruined" as a teenage girl (the story takes place in the mid 1800's), and in her fierce pride she feels, perversely, that the only right way to feel is that she deserves to be destroyed. The grim satisfaction of flinging herself into the arms of the bestial Rogozhin is her warped attempt at happiness. So the causes of our happiness and unhappiness may run very deep, and may thus be invisible to economists and other attempted social reformers.
As I attempted to explain in the article "Dhamma and Irrationality," posted on the nippapanca.org website, absolutely nothing that we DO is inherently logical. Mere action itself is not logical. What we do may be guided by logic, for instance when we calculate finances or play chess, but there is no logical necessity in actually DOING any of it. There is no logical necessity in playing that game of chess in the first place. There is no logical necessity in action being better than inaction, pleasure being better than pain, eating being better than starving, life being better than death, or getting up in the morning being better than just lying there all day. These are mere illogical value judgements, based upon animal instinct and fundamental human irrationality. Our behavior, whether attractive, aversive, or just a case of nervous fidgeting, is a deep, irrational reflex toward some perceived ease or satisfaction.
It is human nature that we are afflicted with chronic, restless dissatisfaction practically every conscious moment of our lives, and our behavior is an attempt to alleviate that. In the Pali texts the Buddha compares the unenlightened person to a mangy dog: The dog is very itchy and ill at ease, so it changes position; that doesn't work, so it changes position again, which also doesn't work; then it scratches itself, which kind of works, temporarily, but then it starts itching even more; then it figures that if it gets up and moves over there…and so on. In general, our chronic dissatisfaction comes first, and then we cook up some plausible reason for it—"I'm unhappy, and I'm unmarried…so I'm unhappy because I'm unmarried." Or, "I'm unhappy, and I'm married…" Or, "I'm unhappy, and I don't have much money…" Or, "I'm unhappy, and I don't have the right to vote…" Or, "I'm unhappy and I don't have anything to smoke…" Or whatever. (I've noticed that pride often works this way also: The pride comes first, and if the bearer of it isn't beautiful or brilliant or rich or whatever, they might have to feel proud over how many virgins they've seduced, or how many beers they can drink without puking, or how much Hello Kitty paraphernalia they own, or how big their feet are.) So our life is spent seeking happiness, generally in ignorance of what happiness is really about, and so our search is usually in vain, or rather only very partially successful.
There are many, many different levels and kinds and degrees of happiness, and the variety we go for is dependent largely upon our level of wisdom. People generally start with animal crudity, that is, mere sensual pleasure. But the wiser we become, the deeper the happiness we gravitate toward: physical pleasure, to emotional pleasure (fun, a good time, a hot romance), to intellectual pleasure (the beauty of Plato's heaven), to meditative bliss or the bliss of deep love, to mystical rapture, to Nirvana. We may not entirely abandon cruder pleasures, but we learn the value of what lies beyond them.
Sen's conception of Justice relies not so much on utilitarian happiness as on equality of capabilities or freedoms; yet freedom also is not primarily a matter of social institutions, or of anything outward. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance," which implies that if a careless person is not enslaved by a government he or she is bound to be enslaved by his or her own desires, habits, and general ignorance. People in the West think they are free, oblivious to the fact that their conditioned desires are running the show, and furthermore that those desires are socially organized and manipulated by advertising agencies, political parties, and the media, with the help of teams of psychologists and statisticians, to benefit the people at the top of the pyramid. They're just not awake enough to be really free, and the system never tells them this important fact. So we chase after whatever the system tells us we ought to chase after, and feel "deprived" and suffer if we don't get it. We suffer if we get it, too. And we suffer totally unnecessarily.
True happiness, and also true freedom, are both ultimately "nirvanacentric" or "theocentric" in the sense that Nirvana, or "God," represents the ultimate victory, the complete end of suffering, total liberation. But of course this lies beyond the scope of Western economics and political theory, and, for the most part, of Western culture in general. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that Dr. Sen, a man born in India, apparently abandoned his Indian spiritual heritage in favor of Oxbridge-style Western extraverted objectivity, apparently preferring spiritual impoverishment and the Scottish "Enlightenment" to spiritual enlightenment. Consequently he seems largely oblivious to the true nature of happiness. He actually cites the Sutta-Nipāta in his book, but only with regard to a passage on the nature of responsibility to others (which is not necessarily an obligation of mutual equality, but may arise also from a position of superiority, that is, from the obligations of power), but he seems to ignore the primary purpose of that book, and of Dharma in general, which is the cessation of suffering, which is also freedom.
The evident fact that rich people are not necessarily happier than poor people is no "paradox" at all when one considers that suffering is not directly caused by "deprivation," or by perceived social injustice, but by DESIRE, as is pointed out very clearly in the Second Noble Truth; and a poor person, especially if she or he is not starving, or in the midst of a raging plague, or in a torture chamber, or deceived by constant bombardments of consumeristic propaganda, is likely to have less desire than a rich person. (The rich person may have become rich in the first place due to her stronger desires, and her consequentially expanded means for obtaining things tends to increase those desires further.) It is no coincidence at all that both Gotama Buddha and Jesus Christ encouraged their most serious disciples, the ones most likely to attain true happiness and true liberation, to live in physical poverty and austerity, to renounce most of their political freedoms, and to live in deprivation deprivation deprivation. With regard to true happiness and true freedom, the trivialities of physical circumstance are ultimately irrelevant.
One of the most clicked-on posts on my old Nippapañca Blog was "Burmese Women" (although, according to my stats pages, some of those clicks were from naughty guys searching for Burmese pornography), in which I pointed out the pretty obvious fact that "deprived" Burmese village women, even when they were living under a brutal and incompetent military dictatorship, and who are still living in a materially impoverished society which traditionally regards them to be inferior to men, are and were less unhappy in general than the average American woman living in relative wealth and "freedom." Many right-thinking people in the West might be incapable of seriously considering such an idea for a single second, immediately throwing up barriers of denial, indignation, or hysteria to protect their cherished, politically correct ideals. But even so, based upon what I have seen, I consider it very likely that many, maybe most (though not all) women would be happier subservient to a good man who protects them, than living in the kind of alienated "freedom" to be found in America, which freedom may even be thrust upon them to their sorrow. It would be too politically incorrect, and thus unlikely to receive funding, but it would be interesting to see the results of an unbiased psychological study comparing, say, Burmese village women and "liberated" American women, with regard to happiness and/or general lack of stress, fear, remorse, trauma, and anxiety. I bet the "deprived" Burmese women would win easily—although not only because they are allegedly deprived, but because they also live in a culture more inclined toward kindness, compassion, respect, generosity, patience, acceptance, etc., etc. The outward political and economic forms are largely irrelevant.
(Yet, since Burma/Myanmar has opened to the West, there has been an influx of well-meaning people with a one-way attitude of, "You people are poverty-stricken, deprived, and ignorant, and I'm here to help you to be more like us Westerners," when they themselves may be even more poverty-stricken and afflicted in profound ways, and profoundly ignorant of how to be happy and free besides. They could learn much from Burmese villagers if they were wise enough and openminded enough to manage it, but most of them are not.)
Or consider slavery. Nowadays political correctness forbids us even to consider for one moment that it might have allowed as much happiness as we have nowadays, much like the case of gender discrimination mentioned just now; but wise philosophers have kept slaves and even been slaves. I'm pretty sure I remember reading that most US presidents before Lincoln kept slaves, including Washington and Jefferson, and even Lincoln's vice president (Johnson) kept slaves before they were confiscated by the Confederate government during the Civil War. Looking further back in time, probably even the young Gotama's pretty dancing girls were slaves—and he was very probably an extraordinarily wise and kind person even before he renounced his harem and went into the forest.
Or consider the matter of injury and ill health: I once read of a psychological study done with quadriplegics—people who had broken their neck, or had had some equivalent misadventure, so that they were completely paralyzed from the neck down—and it was found that, after a few months for such a person to adjust to the new situation, she or he was about as happy as before the accident. Gloomy people were still just as gloomy, and cheerful people were still just as cheerful. It's a matter of subjective attitude, and of wisdom, much, much more than it is of anything else. For that matter, consider even torture. I admit that it would be extremely advanced Dharma practice to be blissful in a torture chamber, even if one were not the one being tortured. But still, it is possible. The following is taken from William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience; it is an account of a French Protestant woman named Blanche Gamond who lived during the reign of Louis XIV, and who was violently persecuted by a group of intolerant Roman Catholic women, apparently led by a priest.
They shut all the doors, and I saw six women, each with a bunch of willow rods as thick as the hand could hold, and a yard long. He gave me the order, 'Undress yourself,' which I did. He said, You are leaving on your shift; you must take it off.' They had so little patience that they took it off themselves, and I was naked from the waist up. They brought a cord with which they tied me to a beam in the kitchen. They drew the cord tight with all their strength and asked me, 'Does it hurt you?' and then they discharged their fury upon me, exclaiming as they struck me, 'Pray now to your God.' It was the Roulette woman who held this language. But at this moment I received the greatest consolation that I can ever receive in my life, since I had the honor of being whipped for the name of Christ, and in addition of being crowned with his mercy and his consolations. Why can I not write down the inconceivable influences, consolations, and peace which I felt interiorly? To understand them one must have passed by the same trial; they were so great that I was ravished, for there where afflictions abound grace is given superabundantly. In vain the women cried, 'We must double our blows; she does not feel them, for she neither speaks nor cries.' And how should I have cried, since I was swooning with happiness within?
This is pretty obviously not a case of her training herself "to take pleasure in small mercies," as Dr. Sen described the shabby happiness of the "hopelessly deprived" above—the lady is positively exultant. An economist or other worldly wiseman might be constrained to presume that she was just fanatical, hysterical, and deranged; but even if she was deranged, it would seem to be a useful and beneficial sort of derangement that can allow one to be positively joyous while taking a severe beating. Some great saints have been similarly deranged. It really is possible to be happy under any outward circumstances, regardless of how much Western materialists would like to invalidate it.
I'm not really in favor of slavery, or of enforced subservience of women either, let alone torture or breaking one's neck; the point I'm trying to make here is that people can be happy or miserable regardless of the external setup; and that people like Dr. Sen who try to tell us that we can't, or shouldn't, be happy until a more just social system is manifested, or until we get some kind of better hand dealt to us, are simply deluded with regard to what happiness and the meaning of life are all about. What justice, civil rights, economic development and so on do, is to remove some of the more obvious excuses for our unhappiness—without, however, removing the unhappiness itself. Only wisdom can do that, and not just worldly wisdom either. People can be not only more happy, but also more free if they are beggars, slaves, quadriplegics, or thrown into prison cells. It's a matter of mindful acceptance, not fleshly matter. A mental prison is more confining, and often more hellish, than a physical one.
Which is better, to be a happy slave, or a miserable master? Which is better, to be peacefully happy in an impoverished dictatorship, or stressed out and messed up in a "free" democracy? But true freedom, again, like true happiness, comes only with wisdom, from within.
It is possible to be deeply happy regardless of any outward circumstances, regardless of money, health, friendships, family, freedoms, civil rights, external opportunities, fun and games, smartphones, the past, the future, whatever. And if you are happy, then you're really doing all right. And if you are completely happy, then you are enlightened, free, and indescribably blessed, regardless of all else, including any so-called "deprivation." Bless all of you. Be happy, because you can be, right now.