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?”

Shantideva said, “Those deciding to escape from suffering hasten right toward suffering. With the very desire for© Bill Armstrong happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own happiness as if it were the enemy.” Why is this so? Why wouldn’t we adopt a life of virtue if it brings the genuine happiness we so want? It comes back to the idea that we’re clueless as to what would really bring us the happiness we seek. It may take us a very long time before we even notice what’s happening, because we’ve become so fixated on the symbol, the image, the ideal, the mental construct: “If I only had this type of spouse, this type of job, this amount of money; if only people respected me to this degree; if I only looked like this....” It’s delusion. We all know people who are in good health, have love and fame and wealth, and they’re miserable. Those people are some of our greatest teachers. They show us that you can win the lottery and lose the lottery of life, in terms of the pursuit of genuine happiness.

If one approaches the path of Buddhist practice with a strong emphasis on the via negativa and the idea that nirvana is just being free of stuff, then at first glance, nirvana can look pretty boring. But nirvana is not just getting up to neutral, or Freud’s “ordinary level of unhappiness.” It’s a lot more than that. And this is where we tap into this issue that our habitual state is dukkha, being dissatisfied, anxious. But the Buddhist premise, which is enormously inspiring, is that what’s truly “habitual” is your natural state of awareness, the ground state of awareness. This is a source of bliss and can be uncovered, beginning with the meditative practices like shamatha, the refinement of attention, and becoming aware of how things really are. The whole point of Buddha-dharma is that liberation comes not by believing in the right set of tenets or of dogmatic assertions, or even necessarily by behaving in the right way. It’s insight, it’s wisdom, it’s knowing the nature of reality. It is only truth that will make us free.

When you say “genuine happiness,” the implication is that there’s another kind.
Yes. We mistake what Buddhists call the Eight Mundane Concerns for the true pursuit of happiness: acquisition of wealth and not losing it; acquisition of stimulus-driven pleasures and avoiding pain; praise and avoiding abuse or ridicule; and desire for a good reputation and fearing contempt or rejection. The point to mention is that there’s nothing wrong with the ones on the positive side. Take having: would you be a better person if you didn’t have that sweater you’re wearing? No. There’s nothing wrong with acquisitions, but there’s something wrong with thinking they’ll bring you happiness.

Genuine happiness is simply tapping into the true causes of happiness as opposed to things that may or may not catalyze it. And that’s basically the difference between pursing the dharma and pursuing the Eight Mundane Concerns. Some people actually meditate to serve the Eight Mundane Concerns—solely for the sake of acquiring the pleasure that they get in meditation. They’re taking meditation like a cup of coffee, or jogging, or massage. That’s not bad or wrong, but it’s very limited. Meditation can do something that a good massage can’t do. It can actually heal the mind.

In Genuine Happiness, you write, “When we’re experiencing dissatisfaction or depression without any clear external cause for it, no bad health, disintegrating marriage, or other personal crisis, could this be a symptom or message to us coming from a deeper level than biological survival? How should we respond? Antidepressants essentially tell such feelings, 'Shut up, I want to pretend you don’t exist.’ But what is the feeling telling us?” Can you comment? What we’re talking about here is dukkha—not as in “I feel miserable because I lost something that was dear to me, or I didn’t get something I passionately wanted,” but this deeper stratum of dukkha that is nonreferential and not stimulus-driven. There are times when, in the absence of unpleasant stimuli, you still have a sense of unease, of depression, of restlessness—something’s not right but you can’t quite identify what it is. This is one of the most valuable symptoms we have of the underlying dysfunction of our minds. Once you sense that you’re tapping into that, you may say, “I don’t like this feeling, and I’m going to cover it up. I’m going to get lost in work, entertainment, booze, drugs.” This society is the most ingenious in history in suppressing that basic sense of unease. We go into chemical overdrive. Here is a symptom of a life that is not working very well, of a mind that is prone to imbalances and afflictions, and instead of taking that as a welcome symptom, we basically shoot the messenger. The drug industry says that if you feel anxious, depressed, unhappy, or angry it’s because of a chemical imbalance in your brain. “Take our prescription drug, and this is going to make you happy.” The downside of these drugs is that many people think that bad experiences have primarily a material basis—that a chemical imbalance is the root cause. In other words, the Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering, is chemical imbalance in the brain. And therefore the cessation of suffering means getting numbed out. What this is doing is veiling our engagement with reality rather than getting to the roots of depression and anxiety. What you’re experiencing is the First Noble Truth. And the Buddha says, “Don’t just make it shut up, but recognize it, understand it.” This is the beginning of the path to happiness.

© Polly ApellbaumThe existentialists understood that we pursued happiness in vain. How does the Buddhist take differ? In Buddhism, pursuing happiness is not just a moving away from one thing—the acquisition of external objects—but moving toward another, dharma practice. It’s extricating yourself from the actual sources of dukkha, which are internal, and moving toward greater freedom, greater mental well-being, greater balance, greater meaning. In existentialist philosophy, this is referred to as “living authentically.” Moving away from the true sources of dukkha toward the true sources of happiness—that is basically the whole Buddhist psychology right there.

We have a misperception that if we can get everything to work right, we’ll find the happiness we’re seeking. Then there comes a point when you say, “I see. This has never worked. It’s not working now, and it will never work in the future.” That’s what a lot of the existential philosophers recognized. Camus, Sartre—they refer to the vanity, the futility, the fundamental meaninglessness. Buddhism, like the existentialists, sees the vanity, the futility, the emptiness of the Eight Mundane Concerns. But it doesn’t just say, “Here’s a problem and there’s nothing we can do about it.” It says, “Those are the mundane concerns, and then there’s the dharma. Having some faith would be helpful, but if nothing else, you still have the practice.”

You argue that practice keeps us in the world, and that’s a great challenge. For instance, many of us follow the news, and it’s easy to get pretty depressed. How can we stay in the game without being brought down by it?
The first thing is to recognize that the news is not all the news that’s fit to print or to broadcast. It’s taking place in a one hundred percent commercial context. They’re broadcasting the news because they’re paid for it by their advertisers. And they are giving us the news that sells, that they feel that people would want to watch. It’s a very selective slice of what’s going on. This is not to say that there are no people in the media who are trying to perform a public service, but the system itself is commercially oriented.

In Buddhism, we say yes, there is an ocean of suffering. So it’s not bad to show that there’s anger, hatred, delusion, and greed in the world. In a way, the media are presenting some very important facts. Given that, we can look for different emotional responses in ourselves. We can get out of the rut of our cynicism, depression, anger, and apathy by cultivating the Four Immeasurables. When we see suffering and the causes of suffering, then it’s time for compassion. When we see people striving diligently to find happiness, that’s a time for lovingkindness. That rare coverage where they show something wonderful that has happened is a time for mudita—for empathic joy, for rejoicing in other people’s happiness and in virtue. And then there are circumstances like natural disasters. When we see there are responsible people and institutions doing their best to alleviate the suffering, we can decide to maintain equanimity and then do the practice of tonglen—taking in the suffering of the world and offering back joy and the causes of joy. The Four Immeasurables are extraordinarily powerful ways of engaging with reality. And they balance each other. They’re like the Four Musketeers: when any one goes astray, the other ones leap in and say, “I can help you.”

So if you’re feeling indifference instead of equanimity, then compassion will balance that?
Precisely. Or if you’re really hunkered down into attachment and anxiety, that’s a time for equanimity.

This alternative route to happiness seems to require a leap of faith, and that can be scary. If I let go of all the externals, what will become of me?
We don’t need to jump into the deep end. The Tibetans call that “hairy renunciation.” It’s like suddenly getting an infatuation and saying, “Oh, the whole of society is a pit of blazing fire. I can’t stand it. I’m going to go off to the bliss of practicing Buddhism.” It’s called hairy because I’d better shave my head to show I’m serious. Then, of course, in a day or two or a couple of weeks, you say, “Oh, this is not so much fun, and where is that girlfriend I left behind, anyway?” It’s like a fling.

So what’s required is not a sudden, abrupt, and total abandonment of the eight worldly dharmas—the Eight Mundane Concerns—and practicing only the sublime dharma. It’s like taking a child into the water to teach him how to swim: you don’t fling the kid into the deep end and see what happens. You take him from the first step into the shallow end. So have a trial period. Try meditation for a session in the morning and a session in the evening. See how that impacts the rest of your day. Then, as you start to get a taste of dharma, you may say, “Well, this is actually tapping into my inner resources. This feels good. And it’s not just good, it’s also virtuous, and what’s more, I’m engaging with reality more clearly than I have in the past. If I want to bring something good to the world, I’m in a better position to do so.” It is a gradual shift in priorities until eventually your primary desire, your highest value, is living a meaningful life, devoting yourself to dharma. The Eight Mundane Concerns—they’ll come and go. In fact, when they’re there, they can even support you in your life. As grist for the mill? They’re not necessarily grist for the mill, but adversity does provide us with an opportunity if there is a wise engagement with it. For instance, one of the greatest obstacles to a meaningful life is arrogance. Well, it’s really hard to be arrogant when you’re encountering great adversity. Then there’s that unease we’ve spoken of. If we view that with wisdom, it can arouse our curiosity or maybe even be a very powerful incentive for transformation, for uprooting the underlying causes giving rise to such distress. If you’ve gone through terrible interpersonal strife, or a loss, or a financial crisis, for example, you could look at it and say, “How did that happen? What did I contribute to it? And why am I suffering so much now?” These are messages—symptoms of an underlying discord, a disengagement from reality, coming out of delusion, hatred, and craving. I think the Three Poisons are as important for understanding the human situation as the three laws of Newton are for understanding the physical universe. And when you see how important dharma is in the face of adversity, then it becomes a priority. You let it saturate your life. That’s when dharma really takes on its power—when it’s not confined to a meditation session here or there.

Which brings me to your view that the culmination of the Buddha’s practice was not enlightenment under the Bodhi tree but service to others.
I believe the Buddha achieved something utterly extraordinary under the Bodhi tree, but he recognized that if this event was to be as meaningful as possible, it had to be shared with others. Enlightenment isn’t something just for yourself: “Now I’ve got the good stuff, and therefore I’m finished.” Entire civilizations were transformed by this one man’s presence, but it wasn’t just the forty-nine days sitting under the Bodhi tree that did it. It was the next forty-five years, engaging with courtesans and beggars and kings and warriors—the whole range of human society—and having something to offer to everyone. So if we go back to the four aspects of a meaningful life, what happened under the Bodhi tree is clearly the culmination of virtue, happiness, and truth. And for the next forty-five years he was out there, bringing something good to the world. So I would say the Buddha is the paradigm of a meaningful life.

Image 1: Untitled (Mandala # 407), Bill Arnstrong, 2001, chromogenic print, © Bill Armstrong, courtesy of Clampart, New York City
Image 2: Blossom, Polly Apfelbaum, velvet and dye, detail from an installation that is 18 feet in diameter, © Polly Apfelbaum, courtesy of D'Amelio Terras

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sallyotter's picture

I've suffered from the illusion of the grand gesture. Joan of Arc complex. And if I can't do that, I tend to do nothing. Years ago, as a student nurse on my psych rotation, we had a patient who would sit and rock and sing "Brighten the corner where you are..." I have to see that possibility. Equanimity in this circumstance, now. Flourishing.

mwotkyns's picture

Thank you All!

marmoria's picture

Thanks for a healthily provocative interview. As a sufferer from bipolar disease with many psychotic episodes behind me, I react to Alan's rather careless words about depression. I refer to what others have said before me and would simply like to add that the steps I have taken on the Path I have taken thanks to antidepressants and antipsychotics, not in spite of them. Thanks again.

JKH's picture

Great interview.....thanks for reprinting.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Enlightenment isn’t something just for yourself, it should be shared with others. This is the bodhisattva imperative, easily lost when concern is only for the "self".

candor's picture

I would have commented earlier, but I was busy pursuing the 8 mundane concerns (i.e. doing a job I'm paid for). ;-)

Reading this interview of Alan Wallace, I was reminded of how many similarities there are between Buddhism and Stoicism. Read Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, and you'll see very similar advice.

The point I want to make, however, is that the Buddha taught the middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence. The middle way acknowledges the inevitable fact of the 8 mundane concerns in our lives and how, when pursued in excess, they generate dukkha (i.e. the First and Second Truths), and balances them with the opposite extreme of asceticism, which the Buddha saw as the opposite side of the same coin.

To put it into the context of people living in the 21st century, externalities, such as the birth lottery and all it entails (species membership, race membership, gender, parents, wealth/poverty, war/peace), make a huge difference in our lives. All other things equal, we cannot deny that being born into a peaceful, affluent society to highly educated parents who love and nurture us is going to make our lives incomparably easier than being born into a war-torn, poor society to uneducated parents who are struggling to survive. Yet these are externalities. These are the facts of the 8 mundane concerns.

The Buddha’s tips can make life much easier, and indeed, much better, than it would be otherwise, and this is true regardless of what life or the birth lottery throws our way, but we should acknowledge that the facts of the 8 mundane concerns can be very important to our happiness.

As one (wise) economist put it (paraphrasing): Don’t let a psychologist tell you that material wellbeing (or the 8 concerns) is irrelevant; and don’t let an economist tell you that material wellbeing (or the 8 concerns) is all that matters.

dewhiteside's picture

Love your (wise) economist, (wise) psychologist. Thanks!

John Haspel's picture

“In Buddhism, pursuing happiness is not just a moving away from one thing—the acquisition of external objects—but moving toward another, dhamma practice. It’s extricating yourself from the actual sources of dukkha, which are internal, and moving toward greater freedom, greater mental well-being, greater balance, greater meaning.”

Thank You Dr.Wallace for you kind and insightful words. The whole of the Buddha’s teaching is to put aside the meaningless pursuit of sense-fulfillment and to rest the mind in quiet equanimity free of the distraction of dukkha. Most people see “the pursuit of happiness” as a pursuit of acquisition, and the purpose of life. The Buddha recognized this as the Second Noble Truth, craving and clinging originate and perpetuate suffering and delusion. He then provided the direct way of the Eightfold Path to experience the cessation of all meaningless and mindless pursuits.

The Buddha lived a completely meaningful life of his own choosing and as a result of his own efforts. We can all do the same. Peace.

John Haspel

apollonios's picture

Dear Jackelope,
I share your concern that anti-psychotic and anti-depressive medications may be dismissed as just another fake, materialistic response to suffering. I have never experienced anything like the situations you mention, but anti-depressives were responsible for getting me up to a level of "ordinary human unhappiness" from which I could hear the dharma and begin to practice it. Of course we don't want to encourage people to pop a pill instead of seeking insight and wisdom, but we need to make use of all skillful means. And certainly, anti-depressives don't protect their users from any of the suffering caused by unskillful actions. I would like dharma teachers to be very careful in their language, so as not to discourage sufferers (even people who are "only" somewhat depressed) from taking medications for good reason.

Migwell's picture

“Antidepressants essentially tell such feelings, 'Shut up, I want to pretend you don’t exist.”

I agree with what Appolonios gently says : “I would like dharma teachers to be very careful in their language, so as not to discourage sufferers (even people who are "only" somewhat depressed) from taking medications for good reason.”
I’m not Anglophone so I made a careful translation of what B. Alan Wallace answers and it deeply borrows me. It’s not compassionate.
I just took my daily Antidepressant pill an hour ago, and I really need it to survive in the thru word meaning. If one is really depressed, I mean pathology, he knows what I’m talking about.
So I would say: teach dharma an nothing else, don’t mix dharma with medical care. When the Buddha said suffering is the illness and dharma is the medicine, I understand it as a parable. Don’t you?

Linda606's picture

I agree, Migwell. I have genetic depression, which is always with me and have taken anti-depressants most of my life. I have always been very positive.

jackelope65's picture

I essentially agree with Mr Wallace that true happiness does not come from things outside of us, but there is a trend today that 'medications' are dangerous or unhelpful and that "natural remedies" are always better. I wonder if these same people have ever cared for someone who, thinking he was the last prophet and had to set the world on fire, self immolated in a city square, but survived after six months of drug induced coma with multiple skin grafts, infections and respiratory support, who had over ninety percent full thickness burns{looking like melted plastic} and needed six more months of painful rehabilitation, while remaining schizophrenic? Or possibly a psychotic patient who prayed so long on her knees that a leg had to be amputated above the knee after turning black and gangrenous? I have many more horrific examples. We give them antipsychotics. People with suicidal threats do receive medications. Then counseling and, yes, meditation could be extremely beneficial. Some of the greatest poisons we know are "natural." I would hope that all children would be taught healthy eating, fun exercise/ safe sports, learn to be mindful/meditate, and love mother earth.. Maybe we could prevent many mental health issues, but, yet, there will be those, no matter the upbringing, who will become psychotic, delusional, hallucinate, and will not be able to meditate or accurately self reflect. They will need medication and, for many, they will not become dull but begin to live. As Mr Wallace points out, learning the true cause of suffering, meditating, as well as counseling may be more effective and allow weaning or even discontinuation of medication in some, especially those who have situational one time depressions, but please, do not continue with this subtle and sometimes overt message that prescription drugs are bad, as for those mental health care workers in the trenches have a hard enough time getting those with severe psychiatric disorders to take medications; these patients have a much higher incidence of accidents, self inflicted injuries, as well as general health disorders.

melcher's picture

No one can question the usefulness of anti-depressants in the extreme situations that you enumerate, including cases of psychosis or self-destructive depression. However, the over-prescription of anti-depressants has come to resemble the over-prescription of antibiotics as a universal 'magic bullet' for every symptom of ill-health and discomfort. As a result antibiotics are becoming less effective and anti-depressants have in many cases become a mask for intellectual laziness (on the part of doctors) or simply a way to avoid what our 'depression' (individual and collective) is trying to tell us. It's a Brave New World we live in where every imbalance can be adjusted with the proper chemical fix.

DarrellGKing's picture

I am a Community Mental Health Nurse. Medications are tools and their use is dependent upon the situation, their value upon the skill of that use. It is true that there has been a trend to promote them as the final answer based on a combination of marketing concerns and adopting the perspective of the Medical Model. This did not work and now some combat that entrenched perspective by vilifying the meds.

I am always wary of extremes and I have seen the meds help, so I take a middle way kind of stance: use the meds skillfully as tools to facilitate recovery (the Recovery Model.) Thus, I agree that we should promote a moderate view of change that does not reach for yet another extreme. This article does just that in my opinion, presenting a thoughtful explanation of how the mind gets entangled in its own creations. Extrapolate that into a lens through which to view psychosis and see where it leads you!

Thank you for championing moderation and common sense as we evolve our understanding of skillful healthcare. Although I see some very good reasons that people might flee the commercializations of treatment toward some less industrialized extreme, I also believe that a less emotional and more considered approach will best serve those we help.

mwotkyns's picture

Thank you ALL!

DarrellGKing's picture

Sorry...apparently I encountered a bug when trying to post, but the original response, above, seems to be correct now.

DarrellGKing's picture

This was an extra copy, so I deleted it.