December 12, 2009

Do people really want to be happy?

In his Guardian review of Raj Patel's The Value of Nothing, a critique of the failures of the free market, political philosopher John Gray doesn't seem to have much hope for Buddhism as a cure for bubble economies. It'd help, he says, if enough people would give up their wants, but he doubts that's about to happen any time soon. If, as the Dalai Lama says, everyone is looking for happiness, they might try giving up the endless pursuit of pleasure and find it. But Gray poses a leading question: Do people really want to be happy? He writes:

Oscar Wilde may have been right that people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, a remark [Raj] Patel cites at the start of his book, and which gives him its title. But what is value if it is not price? It is telling that when trying to flesh out a non-market account, Patel turns to religion, in this case Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition gives him what he needs – an understanding of human wellbeing that does not centre round the satisfaction of wants. Like the ancient European Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, Buddhism proposes that happiness lies in shrinking the self – in giving up our wants, rather than forever chasing after them. It is a thought that occurs to many well-off people from time to time, but it is hard to imagine large numbers of people ever acting on it.

Theories of value that focus on curbing desire run up against the demand for self-realisation, which is one of the strongest impulses in modern life. To be sure, the pursuit of self-realisation does not often result in happiness. But is it happiness that most people are pursuing? Or is it stimulus and excitement? In the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, Patel informs the reader, the introduction of satellite television has been followed by a crime wave. He seems to think this fact somehow strengthens his argument. But what it tells us is that no culture can now resist the dangerous charms of a life spent in insatiable desire.

If you can stomach the above, you might want to read Gray's Straw Dogs, but if hell-in-a-handbasket worldviews depress you, steer clear. Still, Straw Dogs is pretty brilliant and offers us plenty of food for thought (I'm lazy and picked a quote from Wikipedia, and I'm surprised I don't remember it; it still packs a punch):

The most pitiless warriors against drugs have always been militant progressives. In China, the most savage attack on drug use occurred when the country was convulsed by a modern western doctrine of universal emancipation- Maoism. It is no accident that the crusade against drugs is led today by a country wedded to the pursuit of happiness- the United States. For the corollary of that improbable quest is a puritan war on pleasure.

Gray is no Suzy Sunshine—reading him can feel like running some sort of anti-humanist gauntlet—but he does remind me that I can grow so comfortable in my beliefs that unchallenged, they become meaningless.

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Thanuja's picture

Hi Allan as mentioned continuous and consistent meditation does help you to get to that happy state, but it sure takes time. In between you got to look within to overcome daily problems or non happenings. Relate the issue to Lobha, dwesha, moha (greed, anger, lack of wisdom) and just see through and you don't need to push any thoughts away but it just happens. Eventually it starts to work automatically. This is my experience

Alan's picture

Bars asks, "What do we want from Buddhism?" and Bars and Thanuja both say that Buddhism can provide a "happy pill" for some.

I have to agree. I have spent hours listening to "dharma practice" discussions that consisted of little more than people in a circle repeating how "mellow" and "peaceful" meditation had made them. No one mentioned any insights into the nature of their true self. No one mentioned being challenged in any way by their practice. And no one seemed to enjoy any happy feelings beyond the meditation period itself.

So the "happy pill" is out there, but pursuing it can lead one down unhelpful paths. Suppose you sit for a few minutes and don't become happy? Maybe you will think "I'm having a bad meditation period. My 'happy pill' isn't working"? The "happy pill" stage is something to work through, not stop at. The opposite of dukkha is not the conventional idea of happiness.

Thanuja's picture

I think this cannot be taken so generally. You get the laymen and the non laymen. People who have given up worldly life for the objective of achieving total happiness must shrink self (and remember this is also still a want- nirvana). However laymen cannot live a in-between life. They will have many needs and wants. However Buddhism still provides the happiness pill as mentioned earlier. You look within at such a time of frustration or not happening stage as to what has created this unhappy stage. The pill works fast.

Bars's picture

Do people want to be happy? Absolutely.
Do people want to know what they are? Depends...is it going to make me happy?
In my mind, this is the dilemma. If everyone approaches Buddhism and all they want out of it is a 'happy pill,' then that is exactly what they will get.
If everyone approached Buddhism (or anything for that matter) with a genuine desire to look deeply into their 'true nature,' then that is exactly what they will get.
But with all of the 'happy pills' out there, it seems that the effort that is required to look deeply into things cannot be justified. I am certainly not a diligent practitioner at the moment. I've been taking a lot of 'happy pills' lately because it is so easy!
Unless you have some kind of spark go off inside of you where you feel a genuine desire to seek further, I don't think you'll ever be able to justify taking on any kind of a path. I don't think that most people ever feel such a spark, regardless of whether you live in the US or Tibet or anywhere else.
I am reminded of the oft quoted statement, "It all lies in your intention." What is it that we want from Buddhism?

James Shaheen's picture

Thanks, Alan. Sounds a lot like spiritual materialism, right? And thanks again, Malaclypse.

Alan's picture

The Zizek article covers a lot of ground, but I think it is mainly the first portion of his essay that is relevant to this discussion. If I grasp his position correctly, he asserts that Western Buddhism, instead of challenging the conventional wisdom that "happiness = pleasure", provides its followers with a way to pursue pleasure while simultaneously immunizing themselves from the problems of perpetual pursuit. I think he also argues that this is perception of immunity is self-delusion.

Zizek's position has some merit. I know that I was initially drawn to Buddhism in part because I thought it offered tools for stress reduction and emotional/spiritual advancement. I was not planning on adopting a monastic lifestyle or renouncing anything that I hadn't already renounced. In other words, I thought Buddhism was simply going to be an add-on to my existing, comfortably materialistic, secular life.

I have to admit that I am still weighted down by many of these views, but I am beginning to learn that Buddhism's approach to the pursuit of pleasure goes much deeper than what I had originally thought. I am not just meditating to calm the "self" that lives in a whirlwind of change. I am also learning to challenge the very notion of a "self". Perhaps Zizek would see the same "indifference" whether I am noticing that "I see myself wanting" or I am asking "who is it that wants?", but these positions are worlds apart for me.

professional resume services's picture

I think that everyone is too individual, and each in its own way understands the meaning of happiness; so I wrote in my quality custom essay

James Shaheen's picture

Thanks for the link.

I get the impression Zizek's understanding of Buddhism is closer to Gray's "self-realization" than it is to Buddhism. Also, I don't think of Buddhism as withdrawal; I think the latter sounds more like John Welwood's "spiritual bypassing."

What do you think?

Malaclypse the Wakeful's picture

Slavoj Zizek might add something, and not miss the point entirely:
http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/western.php

bitterroot's picture

Perhaps the word 'happiness' should be replaced with 'contentment'.

James Shaheen's picture

Thanks, Lucas. I was thinking of what people call "engaged Buddhism," and the implicit criticism statements like Gray's seem to be making; that the "well-off" may take to Buddhism, but don't expect people in any great numbers to. Bhutan, he says, is an example of how even a Buddhist country will not resist the temptations of material excess. So, he seems to be taking a pretty hopeless view with regard to Buddhism's social promise. I don't feel hopeless, but his take is helpful to me because I have to consider why I'm hopeful; that, I think, comes from my practice, which also inspires me to stay engaged. Gray is decidedly not a humanist, nor would a concept like inherent goodness—and certainly not Buddhanature—resonate with him (the subtitle of Straw Dogs is "Thoughts on Humans and other Animals"). Maybe the notion of a more neutral starting point, and, say, and the notion of bhavana, would, I couldn't say. But I get a lot out of reading him, he's certainly thought about this far more than I have and has a mind greater than my own!

lucas's picture

It is not my concern what other people want, as I cannot control them or their desires. What I can control is myself, and what I want, which is happiness AND to avoid suffering. So I will sit, and rest, and wish that all beings become free from suffering and its causes. May all beings be free from attachments, and hatred.

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[...] Tricycle » Do people really want to be happy? www.tricycle.com/blog/?p=1657 – view page – cached In his Guardian review of Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing, a critique of the failures of the free market, political philosopher John Gray doesn’t seem to have much hope for Buddhism as a cure... Read moreIn his Guardian review of Raj Patel’s The Value of Nothing, a critique of the failures of the free market, political philosopher John Gray doesn’t seem to have much hope for Buddhism as a cure for bubble economies. It’d help, he says, if enough people would give up their wants, but he doubts that’s about to happen any time soon. If, as the Dalai Lama says, everyone is looking for happiness, they might try giving up the endless pursuit of pleasure and find it. But Gray poses a leading question: Do people really want to be happy? He writes: View page [...]