What really makes us happy? In a New York Times online post, Catholic philosopher Gary Gutting looks with a somewhat jaundiced eye on the nascent discipline of “happiness studies”.* He gives four conditions for happiness, which make for interesting reading and contemplation, particularly from a Secular Buddhist perspective. They are: good luck, fulfilling work, sense pleasures, and human love.
Let’s take them in turn.
First: Good Luck
A great deal of happiness is due to good luck. We are lucky in where and when we are born, and we are lucky in the vicissitudes life brings us. Not least, we are lucky in having a mental, perhaps genetically based, propensity to happiness: a so-called “high happiness set-point”. Those of us born with a relatively low set-point must struggle harder to achieve the same level of happiness that others seem to achieve so effortlessly.
Part of a high set-point involves the ability to deal with the suffering that life inevitably provides. But however we are set up biologically, we are lucky if we run across worthwhile strategies for dealing with suffering. Some ethical systems provide such strategies, but Gutting points out that there are problems with the approaches they provide:
There are ethical systems that confuse happiness with coping with unhappiness. Some versions of stoicism, for example, recommend adjusting your desires to what’s in your power, to try, for example, to accept pain that you can’t avoid. This is a reasonable strategy for mitigating pain, but it quickly reaches its limits in the face of overwhelming suffering. It may reduce unhappiness, but it can’t bring happiness.
Gutting mentions Stoicism, but similar things are often said of Buddhism. The “first noble truth” of dukkha posits unhappiness (or suffering, unsatisfactoriness) as that which the fourth noble truth aims to overcome.
Gutting presents two problems. First he wonders whether a strategy of “coping with unhappiness” can really work when suffering becomes overwhelming. Second, he says that such a strategy cannot actually make one happy. The most it can do is to make one neither-happy-nor-unhappy.
We can agree with Gutting that suffering becomes more difficult as it increases. One who is accomplished at dealing with the minor setbacks of daily life may come unravelled at the death of a loved one. One who is able to deal with the death of a loved one may come unravelled when facing their own death or grievous pain. Or the reverse; we are all different.
But this is no argument against the general project of learning to cope with unhappiness. It simply says that there are skill levels involved. We could say the same of learning to swim: a swimming strategy may be useful, and even life-saving, on a beach or boat in calm waters, but fail when confronted with a tsunami. This does not mean that learning to swim is counterproductive or useless, nor that a very accomplished swimmer might be safe even in a disaster where one less accomplished might perish.
Presumably Gutting would grant such a response, but then push his second point. The strategy is fine so far as it goes, but it cannot lead to happiness, only to a grey state of neither-happiness-nor-unhappiness.
The Buddhist path should not be seen as one that is simply devoted to “coping with unhappiness”. One confusion in the Buddha’s approach may arise between what he sees as the happiness appropriate for a householder as versus that appropriate for a monk. For example, the Buddha has nothing against a householder enjoying “righteous wealth, righteously gained”:
There are these four kinds of bliss that can be attained in the proper season, on the proper occasions, by a householder partaking of sensuality. Which four? The bliss of having, the bliss of [making use of] wealth, the bliss of debtlessness, the bliss of blamelessness.
And what is the bliss of [making use of] wealth? There is the case where the son of a good family, using the wealth earned through his efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of his arm, and piled up through the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, partakes of his wealth and makes merit. When he thinks, ‘Using the wealth earned through my efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of my arm, and piled up through the sweat of my brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, I partake of wealth and make merit,’ he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of [making use of] wealth. (Aṇguttara Nikāya 4.62).
Note that the Buddha does not enjoin the householder even from “partaking of sensuality”. A householder, after all, is expected to have wealth, own property, and have sexual relations: all things that are forbidden to a monastic.
This then raises the question as to whether the householder gets all the pleasure, while the monastic is left simply “coping with unhappiness”. This is not so. Indeed, in the Buddhas eyes, it is the monastic who is the true hedonist, at least in this sense: the monastic is the one in search if the greatest happiness.
We see this claim made in many suttas. For example, the joy (pīti) and happiness (sukha) of the jhānas are said to be “more excellent and sublime” than normal sense pleasure. (Saṃyutta Nikāya 36.19). A monk accomplished in attaining jhāna may live a life of deeper joy and happiness than a householder unaccomplished in jhāna. Further, the happiness of nibbāna is said to be even greater than that of the jhānas. (SN 36.31). Indeed, in Sāriputta’s words, “Happiness, friends, is this nibbāna.” (AN 9.34).
We are left with several open questions as to the nature of true, nibbānic happiness, and whether for example the happiness that Sāriputta and the Buddha find most profound is one that Gutting or we householders might agree to. Nevertheless the point stands that the Buddhist path (which includes the jhānas as “Right Concentration”, as well as nibbāna itself) is one that has a central place for happiness. It is not simply a strategy of coping with dukkha.
Second: Fulfilling Work
Work, indeed any so-called “flow experience” in which we feel we are giving and receiving some form of benefit can be a source of deep happiness, one that provides us with a sense of worth and even identity. This is particularly the case in the United States, where we tend to identify ourselves more with what we do than with our lineage or location.
As we have seen, the Buddha also saw benefit for the householder in amassing wealth through righteous effort. While he did not see it as the highest possible aim, if done ethically, work is a legitimate source of happiness. The Buddha also pointed to diligence in work as one of the things that leads to the “welfare and happiness” of a householder:
[W]hatever may be the means by which a clansman earns his living — whether by farming, trade, raising cattle, archery, government service, or some other craft — he is skillful and diligent; he possesses sound judgment about it in order to carry out and arrange it properly. (AN 8.54).
However, the path of work also has its dangers, which can often be overlooked by those more fortunate. Adequate or suitable work may not always be available. It may be inconstant, ill-paid, or dangerous. (Cf. Majjhima Nikāya 13, below). For many of us, work itself is a burden, one that we look to escape at retirement, if we have sufficient funds to do so. For others whose self-identity is bound up in work, retirement can become a death sentence: when we are no longer able to work, it is as though our lives evaporate.
It is only the luckiest among us who find work that is as fully and consistently rewarding as Gutting hopes. No doubt many tenured academics are among the lucky ones. But for many, perhaps most, of humanity, work is a vehicle for gaining pleasure in other ways. This leads to Gutting’s next topic.
Third: Sense Pleasures
Here Gutting says he means to recommend “immediate gratification of the senses” as a way to happiness. If done properly, we can make ourselves happier by pursuing sense pleasures. He notes one danger inherent in such gratification is “hedonic corruption”, by which I take him to refer to something like the “hedonic treadmill” of current psychological theory. Organisms tend to become adapted to their current hedonic state, so the pursuit of sense gratification only tends to beget further pursuit, not further gratification.
Or to look at it from a different angle, there is indeed a correlation of happiness with income, but it levels off. Above a certain level, gaining more income makes no difference to happiness. One apparently gets used to the new pleasures one can afford, meanwhile there is always someone one rung higher. Current studies out of Nobelist Daniel Kahneman puts this at an annual income around $75,000 in the US.
I assume it is for reasons such as these that Gutting says we shouldn’t make pursuit of such pleasure “a dominating part of our life project”. After all, the hedonic treadmill can only take us so far to being happier people.
Sense pleasures have other dangers, as the Buddha points out in one of his more famous passages:
And what is the drawback of sensuality? There is the case where, on account of the occupation by which a clansman makes a living — whether checking or accounting or calculating or plowing or trading or cattle-tending or archery or as a king’s man, or whatever the occupation may be — he faces cold, he faces heat, being harassed by mosquitoes & flies, wind & sun & creeping things, dying from hunger & thirst.
If the clansman gains no wealth while thus working & striving & making effort, he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught: ‘My work is in vain, my efforts are fruitless!’ Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.
If the clansman gains wealth while thus working & striving & making effort, he experiences pain & distress in protecting it: ‘How will neither kings nor thieves make off with my property, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ And as he thus guards and watches over his property, kings or thieves make off with it, or fire burns it, or water sweeps it away, or hateful heirs make off with it. And he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught: ‘What was mine is no more!’ …
Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source, sensuality for the cause, the reason being simply sensuality, that kings quarrel with kings, nobles with nobles, brahmans with brahmans, householders with householders, mother with child, child with mother, father with child, child with father, brother with brother, sister with sister, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friend. And then in their quarrels, brawls, & disputes, they attack one another with fists or with clods or with sticks or with knives, so that they incur death or deadly pain. …
Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (men) break into windows, seize plunder, commit burglary, ambush highways, commit adultery, and when they are captured, kings have them tortured in many ways. … (MN 13)
So it’s not adequate simply to say that sense pleasures bring happiness, full stop. Sense pleasures bring many things besides happiness, and the question is how to enjoy the positives while mitigating the negatives.
Fourth: Human Love
It’s hard to disagree with the claim that human love provides happiness. But it also has its dangers: as we all know from songs and stories, not to say from personal experience, love is a double-edged sword. While it can produce euphoric highs, it is just as capable of producing bottomless lows. Love is one of those emotions that acts like a contrast knob on life. Insofar as love breeds attachment, and the only certainties in our lives are change and death, in the end love guarantees pain and unhappiness as certainly as it does pleasure and happiness.
To an extent Gutting is aware of similar problems, in noting that love can lead to “sacrificing my happiness for another’s.”
“Love is both the culmination of happiness and a reminder that there is more to life than happiness,” he writes.
It’s important to note that talk of “culmination” aside, we are no longer talking about happiness, but something more rarified, like loyalty born of attachment. After all, if we have truly sacrificed our happiness, then we are left without it.
The Buddha, of course, excepted carnal love from the monastic community, because of these dangers. However, this is not to say that he viewed human friendship as similarly problematic. When Ānanda said that good friendship constituted “half of the holy life”, the Buddha chided him:
Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path. (SN 45.2)
A Happiness Skill?
Good luck, fulfilling work, sense pleasures, and human love all depend on time and circumstance, and they all will eventually pass away. If we rely on such fleeting chance to provide happiness, our life will be filled with worry and danger.
If our true happiness depends upon our relations to things (people, fame, status, money) that must eventually be sacrificed, then happiness itself will eventually be sacrificed. The question that the Buddhist path offers us is whether it’s possible to get ourselves to a place where we can sacrifice everything without thereby sacrificing happiness. No doubt this will be an arduous path to complete, one only achievable by the most accomplished of the practice.
It may be that true happiness is more like a skill that can be taught than a relation dependent upon an impermanent world. If so, then perhaps we can learn to discover a deep sort of happiness that persists through bad luck and the vicissitudes of work, wealth, love, and friendship.
* For an interesting rebuttal to Gutting’s piece on Catholicism see Massimo Pigliucci’s blog post.