The (Scientific) Pursuit of Happiness

What does the Dalai Lama have to teach psychologists about joy and contentment?

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The conversations over the ensuing two days were focused on the difference between Western and Buddhist notions of attention, mental imagery and emotion. It was funny to hear the scientists repeatedly make the point that they didn’t want to treat Buddhist practitioners as guinea pigs, though it was precisely the monks’ unusual abilities that made them intriguing research subjects. There is evidence, for instance, that experienced Buddhist meditators can hold a given image in mind for hours at a stretch, a discipline that has prompted some psychologists to question their assumptions about the limits of attention.

By the conference’s end, it was clear even to many of the scientists that Buddhism has much to teach Western science about the capacity to train and regulate the mind. Likewise, Buddhism as a metaphysical premise—a religion, a faith—may also have a thing or two to teach about the ground out of which happiness grows. Part of what ails Westerners is the presumption that unhappiness is our lot. Buddhist beliefs redress the pessimism of Freud, who believed the only happiness people could achieve was the meager satisfaction of deliverance from deluded hopes and grandiose fantasies: in his famous phrase, the tepid relief of transforming hysteria into “common unhappiness.” But perhaps the biggest leap of faith lies in the Buddhist premise that human nature is compassionate and the science of “interior reality” is ethical. Discoveries imply right actions. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness, said at the time, “The pursuit of knowledge in Buddhism is inextricably related to the pursuit of virtue, and the pursuit of virtue is inextricably related to the pursuit of happiness.” Western science makes no such connection. It can as easily weaponize smallpox as cure it.

The science of the human mind is far too young to attempt anything like a unified theory of happiness, despite the best efforts of drug companies to associate well-being with levels of serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters. But the longing for such a theory runs deep. It was present as a kind of subterranean hope in many of the conversations at MIT, and burst into view when Wallace, musing on the issue of whether Buddhism could solve unhappiness the way antibiotics solved tuberculosis, interrogated the Harvard research psychologist Jerome Kagan: “Is there such a thing as genuine happiness?” Wallace asked. “Can you define it like a [subatomic] particle? Can you say what modes of life will yield genuine happiness? Can you define what mental behaviors will lead to it, and what ones will lead to suffering? If you can say—and Buddhism says you can—then why wouldn’t you?”

What a tantalizing possibility—happiness existing in the domain of absolute truth, a material fact with a structure as exact as insulin. Kagan reflected for a moment, but the idea was not in his religion. “I don’t believe there is one unitary happiness,” he said, finally. “I believe there are many kinds of happiness.”

Someday science may know enough to say differently. Until then, I will be continuing my so-far vain attempts to get into the lotus position and to quash the old scientific voice that always whispers “Maybe everything you know is wrong.” It has a certain brio, that little voice, but enough is enough.


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