What Is True Happiness?

Tricycle speaks with scholar B. Alan Wallace about the quintessential pursuit.

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For more than three decades, scholar and contemplative B. Alan Wallace has considered the perennial question What is happiness? from the dual perspectives of modern science and traditional Buddhist meditation practice. These two disciplines are at the heart of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, launched by Wallace a year ago to conduct rigorous scientific study of contemplative methods in collaboration with established investigators in psychology and the neurosciences. Initial research co-sponsored by the Institute includes the Shamatha Project, a long-term study of the effects of intensive shamatha—tranquility—practice on cognition and emotion, and the UCLA Mindful Attention Program (MAP), which is evaluating mindfulness training as treatment for Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Cultivating Emotional Balance, a program now in clinical trials, combines techniques from Buddhist tradition and Western psychology, with widespread potential applications for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. All this furthers the Institute’s mission to identify and cultivate the mind states associated with optimal happiness and well-being. So far, the research seems to confirm what Wallace and other Buddhist practitioners have discovered empirically over the past twenty-five hundred years: that meditation can not only counter destructive emotions that get in the way of happiness but also foster the positive factors that give rise to it. True happiness, as Wallace emphasizes in a new book, Genuine Happiness (Wiley, 2005), is the fruit not of worldly trappings and ambitions but of a focused mind and an open heart.

Tricycle Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen visited Wallace at his California home, near the Santa Barbara Institute, to discuss what Buddhism—and meditation—have to offer us in the pursuit of happiness.

What is genuine happiness?
I prefer the term “human flourishing,” which is a translation of the Greek word eudaimonia. The usual translation is “genuine happiness,” but “flourishing” is more accurate. Like the Buddhist notion of sukkha, and ananda—bliss, joy in the Hindu tradition—flourishing is a sense of happiness that’s beyond the momentary vicissitudes of our emotional state.

And what would that happiness entail? A meaningful life.

What makes for a meaningful life?
I consider each day, not just the life as a whole. I look at four ingredients. First, was it a day of virtue? I’m talking about basic Buddhist ethics—avoiding harmful behavior of body, speech, and mind; devoting ourselves to wholesome behavior and to qualities like awareness and compassion. Second, I'd like to feel happy rather than miserable. The realized beings I've known exemplify extraordinary states of well-being, and it shows in their demeanor, their way of dealing with adversity, with life, with other people. And third, pursuit of the truth—seeking to understand the nature of life, of reality, of interpersonal relationships, or the nature of mind. But you could do all that sitting quietly in a room. None of us exists in isolation, however, so there is a fourth ingredient: a meaningful life must also answer the question, “What have I brought to the world?” If I can look at a day and see that virtue, happiness, truth, and living an altruistic life are prominent elements, I can say, “You know, I’m a happy camper.” Pursuing happiness does not depend on my checkbook, or the behavior of my spouse, or my job, or my salary. I can live a meaningful life even if I only have ten minutes left.

So physical health is not a necessary ingredient?
Not at all. One of my former students has a very rare disease, and every day he goes to the hospital for dialysis and drug treatment, and will for the rest of his life. You could say, “Well, that’s a tragedy, a dismal situation.” But the last time I spoke with him, he said, “Alan, I’m flourishing.” And he was. He was finding a way within the very limited parameters of what was available to him. His mind is clear. He’s reading, he’s growing, he’s meditating, he’s teaching meditation to other terminally ill patients in his hospital. He’s living a very meaningful life in which he can honestly say that he’s flourishing.

What’s his secret?
He’s not looking for happiness outside himself. When we rely on things like a job, a spouse, or money to fulfill us, we’re in an unhappy situation, because we’re banking on something external. Furthermore, other people are competing for the same pot, and it’s not an infinite pot. That’s the bad news.

And the good?
The good news is that genuine happiness is not out there in the marketplace to be purchased or acquired from the best teacher around. One of the best-kept secrets is that the happiness we’re striving for so desperately in the perfect spouse, the great kids, the fine job, security, excellent health, and good looks has always been within and is just waiting to be unveiled. Knowing that what we are seeking comes from within changes everything. It doesn’t mean you won’t have a spouse, or a car, or a satisfying job, but if you’re flourishing, your happiness won’t depend so much on external events, people, and situations, which are all beyond your control.

Everyone’s heard that wealth does not buy happiness, but few of us live as if it were true.
On a deeper level we doubt it and try again and again to take control of our external environment and to extract from it the things we think will make us happy—status, sex, financial and emotional security. I think a lot of people in our society have given up on the pursuit of genuine happiness. They’ve given up hope of finding happiness, fulfillment, and joy in life. They think, “Well, genuine happiness just doesn’t seem to be available, so I’ll settle for a better stereo.” Or they’re just getting by: “Forget about pleasure. I’ll just try to make it through the day.” That’s pretty tragic.

That sounds like depression.
It’s a state in which the space of the mind compresses and we lose vision. I think of lovingkindness—the first of the Four Immeasurables, or Four Divine Abidings—as a vision quest. In traditional maitri [Sanskrit for lovingkindness] practice, you start with lovingkindness for yourself. That doesn’t mean “What kind of a good job could I get? How much money could I possibly have?” but “How can I flourish? How can I live in a way that I find truly fulfilling, happy, joyful, meaningful?” And as you envision that for yourself, you extend it out: “How can other people who are suffering find genuine happiness?”

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