We've all heard that happiness can't be bought, but how many of us live as if this were really true? As contributing editor Joan Duncan Oliver reports in her opener to this issue's special section ("The Happiness Craze"), shopping outperforms "football, golf, and NASCAR combined," making it America's most popular pastime.
Putting all empirical evidence to the contrary aside, we persist in thinking that getting what we want—or making things go our way—will bring happiness. And in spite of nods of dutiful assent whenever we hear that true happiness can be found within, we're curiously dismissive of the notion if our acquisitive behavior is any guide. While nodding knowingly to easy platitudes, inside we're just as likely to be thinking Yeah, but ...
"I think a lot of people in our society have given up on the pursuit of genuine happiness," B. Alan Wallace told me when I visited him at his home in Santa Barbara (see "What is Genuine Happiness"). "They think, 'Well, genuine happiness just doesn't seem to be available, so I'll settle for a better stereo.'" What with (he abundance of consumer culture and proliferating families of antidepressants, Western society, says Wallace, is the most "ingenious in history in suppressing (our) basic sense of unease."
Plenty of Buddhists in the West know this as well as anyone else. By and large well-educated and relatively comfortable, many are no less likely to be caught in the desire for SUVs, private schools, and rambling estates than the next customer. Or, for those of us who neglected to buy real estate when prices bottomed, an iPod can be a source of great attachment.
But not to worry—we've been clever enough to anticipate criticism. I've often heard avid Buddhist consumers say that it's not the riches themselves that are so bad, but attachment to them. Yet I can't think of anyone who doesn't respond to a statement like this with a roll of the eyes. It may be true that the riches themselves are not bad, but who believes that that Buddhist in the Ford Expedition too big for the garage will be any less upset at being sideswiped? Or that the leaking roof in her yoga hut won't trigger another bout of angst?
Like B. Alan Wallace, Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu cautions against compromise (see "Pushing the Limits"). For him, not believing in the Buddha's promise of unlimited happiness in this lifetime is no less than a complete failure of imagination. Parsing desire, Than Geoff, as he is familiarly known to his Western students, draws a clear distinction between skillful desires (they lead to happiness) and unskillful desires (they don't). In other words, it's not desire itself that's so bad, it's unskillful desire.
No need to roll our eyes here. Drawing on the Pali canon, Than Geoff explains how to distinguish between the two. And if current scientific research is to be believed, we could use a lesson or two. According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we're terrible at predicting what will make us happy (or unhappy, for that matter), while 2,500 years of Buddhist wisdom has beaten a path tried and true.
But no need to take the Buddha's word for it. What it boils down to is this: The proof is in the practice, as Gautama so famously said to the tribe of Kalamas. See for yourself. But be warned; the better part of you may want to give that iPod up—or not.