The (Scientific) Pursuit of Happiness

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

You’d think a scientifically literate and technologically sophisticated society that has established the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right would know a little more about what the damn thing entails. But scientists long ago ceded the investigation of happiness to ministers, novelists, therapists, travel agents, brewers, ad executives and vice squads. When medical scientists did think about happiness, they tended to view it in the negative, as freedom from depression. Such is the bias that a recent survey of 30 years of psychology publications counted 46,000 papers on depression—and a piddling 400 on joy. As Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor and former president of the American Psychological Association, put it in 1998: “Social science now finds itself in almost total darkness about the qualities that make life most worth living.”

This state of affairs undoubtedly has a lot to do with why a panel of psychologists and a crowd of 1,200 gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this past September to hear a 68-year-old Tibetan named Tenzin Gyatso, better known as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the 14th manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion, Nobel Peace Prize winner and exiled leader of Tibet. As the chief exponent of a 2,500-year-old religion dedicated to the mitigation of suffering, he is sort of the high priest of happiness. And while he may not know more about the secrets of well-being than his 13 predecessors, he has brought the Buddhist philosophy of joyful compassion to vast audiences in the West. His MIT appearance was followed by a lecture at the Fleet Center in Boston before some 13,000 people and rock-star-size crowds at venues in other American cities. His 1998 book The Art of Happiness (coauthored by psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler) was a New York Times bestseller, assuring readers that the purpose of life is to “seek happiness” and that “the very motion of our life is toward happiness.”

It’s hard not to be wary of such claims because so much of medical history suggests that the prophets of positive thinking are often moonstruck, cynical or blind. But in the past decade scientists have toppled some shibboleths about the supposedly hard-wired brain. New evidence shows that as the brain can change its mind, so can the mind change the brain. We seem to have much more sway over our emotions and thoughts than was previously believed, and Western researchers, once hostile to Eastern claims about mind-body interactions, are now eager to explore them. (Seligman launched the “positive psychology movement” to search for the factors that may make life seem more of a blessing than a burden.)

No one has promoted the gospel of cultivated happiness more exuberantly than the Dalai Lama. Since 1987, he has led a series of conversations between Western scientists and Buddhist scholars, seeking to bridge two philosophical traditions with different concepts of the mind and different methods of exploring mental phenomena. The MIT conference was the first time the public had been invited. Eager to see how the man behind the book might be walking his talk, I took a train from New York to Boston on a Friday, arriving in time for a press conference the Dalai Lama was giving at a Cambridge hotel.

His Holiness walked into the small conference room wearing glasses, a red robe with a yellow shoulder band and red sneakers. He began speaking in Tibetan, which was converted into elegant English by an interpreter at his side, but occasionally he broke into English himself. Until recently, he said, science has been concerned mainly with things—external reality. Now science was turning to our inner world. It was important work, because it could show us how we might make ourselves happier and also transform society. Science and Buddhism had the same goal, he said, though science was far more advanced in some areas, notably physics and neurobiology, while Buddhism had much to offer psychology and could be especially helpful to Westerners whose affluence has failed to make them happy. “Some Buddhist techniques [for enhancing happiness] can be used even by nonbelievers or someone totally against religion,” he said.

When it was time for questions, I was first in line, having battled a pair of Korean TV journalists for an aisle seat near the microphones. On the train ride up, I had decided my personal happiness would be increased if the Dalai Lama could resolve (preferably in 25 words or less) the competing claims of science and religion, which have vexed me ever since my father said the Moon wasn’t made of Canadian cheese. Who better to address the tension between the two cultures of faith and doubt than the Dalai Lama—a spiritual leader who is known to be eager to sift the doctrines of his beliefs through the sieve of science. Like many Westerners (albeit an apparently dwindling number in America, where recent polls show more than 70 percent of the country believes in God, heaven, miracles, angels, hell and the devil), I had been raised to see science as the royal road to truth, and to venerate objective data as the incontestable basis of facts. Did His Holiness believe that the knowledge contained in ancient Buddhist texts was as reliable as what could be gleaned by experimentation? Would he agree that on questions such as why people get sick, or where we stand in the universe, religion has to take a back seat? More to the point, what gave him faith that his divinations about the nature of the mind were true—that his glimpse of “interior reality” was not compromised by the built-in distortions, biases and outright illusions of our helplessly blinkered and culture-bound selves?

A bottle of Snapple had leaked in my backpack, and when I opened my notebook I found my list of lovingly nuanced questions had washed down the page like mascara on the cheek of a weeping club girl. All I could think to ask was, Have any Buddhist doctrines ever been modified in the light of a Western scientific discovery? Back came the translation: Yes, Buddhist views on the distance between the Earth and the Moon and other pre-Copernican calculations had been revised or were in the midst of being revised to take modern astronomical findings into account. Oy! The Dalai Lama had already conceded that science was the arbiter of external reality. What I had meant to ask—it went to the central issue of the conference—was if any psychological doctrines had been modified. But some other journalist was already launched on a question, and my moment with the Buddha of Compassion was gone.

It turned out not to matter. The next day, when he addressed the scientists at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, it was obvious even in the back rows that it’s not what the Dalai Lama says that best conveys his meaning, it’s how he is. You can find more articulate and intellectually stimulating summations of the Buddhist path to happiness than The Art of Happiness, but you won’t find an author who embodies the message as completely. Not for nothing is the Dalai Lama known to his people as “Kundun,” or “the presence.”

As he came scooting around the sunflowers and the PowerPoint projectors onstage, I was struck by how happy he seemed. And it was not the witless cheer of a Pollyanna with no grasp of man’s cruelty. It seemed rather the happiness of someone who reveres life despite sound reasons not to—a man whose philosophy has not led him into despair. Happiness was in him like ginger in a cookie. He took a seat on a chair in the middle of the stage and tucked his legs up under him in the lotus position. Any middle-aged American male who has tried to get his legs into the lotus position was bound to be impressed. Two other monks seated on his left had the same aura of being at home wherever they were. That rooted quality, I presume, reflected years of mental training and meditation. It also made for a brilliant demonstration of the Buddhist contention that the key to happiness lies in the ability to control what is sometimes called the “monkey mind,” the undisciplined consciousness that scrambles from thought to thought, impelled by negative emotions and impulsive desires.

The contrast between the Buddhist delegation and the Western scientists in their Sunday suits and ties was illuminating. The academics—a Nobel laureate among them—were brimming with intellectual enthusiasm. But what the monks embodied, the scientists could only discuss, as if barred from cultivating the transcendent qualities their philosophy disallowed. Most view the mind as a function of the brain. In contrast, Buddhists view the mind as an expression of a consciousness that reincarnates over many lifetimes and exists not for the Darwinian reason of replicating genetic material (and perhaps securing tenure at a good university), but to seek happiness and fulfill one’s karmic destiny.

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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