The Attainment of Happiness

       Happiness may seem like a simple concept at first. Some people might even say they feel it every day. However, when it comes to defining it, many people may offer different ideas.  In the West, we are told that moral integrity and an accumulation of wealth is the key to happiness. In the East, there is more of a focus on the practice of meditation and a service to not only nature, but our fellow man as well. We can look to our ancient past and more recent present to find answers to what it means to be truly happy. 

According to Aristotle, happiness is attainable and universally so. However, there is a catch to this sentiment. As author Mortimer J. Adler explains, “Aristotle went on to explain that in order to have a truly happy life, you cannot judge so when you are young” (Adler 2).  Similar to trying to call a sports game at half-time, it is impossible to say whether or not your life has been good. The match being played is an accumulation of all the plays going into it, and must be judged when the final whistle is blown. This, according to Aristotle, is just like with a human life. The author goes on to give Aristotle’s definition of happiness by saying: “Not only do you need wealth, good health, friendship, but sound moral character as well” (Adler 4). To Aristotle, humans require these basic needs to survive. To prosper, and truly be happy, man must have an upstanding moral character to always make right choices throughout their entire life, and then they will find happiness.

         Tibetan Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard would have to disagree with some of the statements on happiness that were made by Aristotle and his author. Ricard wastes very little time in his Ted Talk,  giving a definition of happiness based on his Buddhist practice: “Happiness, of course, is such a vague word, so let’s say well-being. And so, I think the best definition, according to the Buddhist view, is that well being is not a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment (Ricard 05:28). In this view, Aristotle and Ricard agree about happiness being more than just pleasure. The difference comes in when Ricard says that happiness (or well-being) is actually a sense of serenity and fulfillment that can be achieved right here in the present moment, that we don’t have to wait an entire lifetime to achieve it. As it turns out, according to Ricard, achieving such a state will take some effort on our part. Ricard goes on to explain the plasticity of the brain, and the changes that can be made by doing tasks for tens of thousands of hours, and reinforces physical changes to the connection in our brains (Ricard 14:55). Personally, I do not know about having to do it for tens of thousands of hours (at least not all at once), but by entering mindful meditation practices, I have been able to achieve and maintain the level of well-being, including the serenity and fulfillment that Ricard is talking about. It has taken many years, but I can say from first-hand experience through my own practice that that serenity is just beneath the surface. I just have to remind myself often of it and meditate regularly as well, like a kind of exercise, but it is there.

         With all of this talk about Buddhism and happiness, what about attachment? Can we truly be happy if we are not supposed to be attached to anything?  In the article “Love and Attachments,” Jonathan Haidt makes a very strong argument for humans needing love and human connections in order to not only survive but to prosper even into adulthood. Haidt goes on by stating the research that supported his position. One of the most notable ones, for example, was of how young children react to their caregivers leaving them while they are in the hospital: “When children are separated from their attachment figures for a long time, as in a hospital stay, they quickly descend into passivity and despair” (Haidt 114). Haidt goes on to explain that these connections made as children live on and affect them even in adulthood. He even talks about Eastern Philosophy and religion and how he sees its view on happiness and attachment: “In the ancient East, the problem with love is obvious: Love is attachment. Attachments, particularly sensual and sexual attachments, must be broken to permit spiritual progress. Buddha said, ‘So long as lustful desire, however small, of man for women is not controlled, so long the mind of man is not free, but is bound like a calf tied to a cow’ (Haidt 128). Those who are actually Buddhist would come to contention with this. 

         Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh disagrees with this at least partially. Hanh begins by asking how we can be happy if everything, including our attachments, is suffering? He goes on to explain: “Of course we believe that objects outside of ourselves exist. However it’s when those objects outside ourselves reveal that they are impermanent that is when we suffer” (Hanh 21). In other words, when we attribute permanence to someone or something, that is when we will suffer, not before. Our attachment to permanence, not necessarily to the human connections that we make, causes us to suffer. As Haidt said, children have basic emotional, environmental, and nutrition needs to say the very least. These needs are going to have to be met for the child, or that child will suffer. A Buddhist is not simply going to abandon a child to fend for themselves both emotionally or otherwise. That would cause them to suffer, attachment not even mentioned. That would be neglect. That child needs love and support, just like any human, and when they are old enough to hear the Dharma (Buddha’s) teachings for themselves, they will be able to have a new outlook on both permanence and their attachment to it.

         Now that we have seen the topic of happiness from a philosophical and spiritual  perspective, we now come to an age old question: Can money buy happiness? Researchers Deiner and Biswas-Diener set out to answer just that. In their research article, “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Diener and Biwas-Diener found that having more money is generally a good thing, but it does not guarantee happiness. They explained that the ratio of what someone wants out of their life (what they aspire for) and what they actually have (what they have attained), has a greater impact on happiness than money itself. Both Ricard and Hanh would agree as Buddhists that if you crave for what you don’t have, you will undoubtedly suffer. In other words,  if you are not happy with what you have, you will be miserable, and the opposite is true (100). The final point the article made was that money can have uses other than materialistic gain. You can do this by helping others: “Great satisfaction can lie in creating a lasting and meaningful legacy”( Diener and Biswas-Diener 109). In other words, you can become very happy by using your money to help others and creating a legacy.

Using what you have in order to help others is definitely something that American Buddhist, Pema Chodron can agree with. In her book Becoming Bodhisattvas, she explains how with bodhichitta, Bodhisattvas can save all beings from the cycle of suffering and gain great joy from doing so. The author then goes onto define what bodhichitta means: “Bodhi” means “awake;” free from ordinary, confused minds, free from any illusion that separates us humans. “Chitta” means “heart” or “mind” (1). And according to both Shantivdeva (the author of The Way of the Bodhisattva) and the Buddha before him, the unbiased mind and good heart of “bodhi” are key to happiness and peace (1). In many sources that talk about Bodhisattvas, they talk about how these “spiritual warriors” must first attain enlightenment before they are able to help anyone. Both Shantideva and Chodron do a wonderful job of explaining this in a way that does not seem impossible. To me, enlightenment always seems so abstract, to the point where it seems almost impossible for me to help anyone that way. Calling it or labeling bodihichitta, as an awakened heart or mind, is something that all humans can pursue and achieve, since it is inherent to who they are as human beings: “Those who wish to overcome the sorrows of their lives, and put to flight the pain and suffering of beings, those who wish to win such great beatitude, should never turn their back on bodhichitta (Chodron 7). Furthermore, if you wish to overcome your own sorrows, and help relieve the suffering of all sentient beings, choose to turn toward bodhichitta for an endless source of happiness, just beneath the surface.

Considering everything discussed so far, we have seen how happiness can be defined  from many different points of views and convictions. Aristotle introduced the idea that happiness can only be judged once a life is fulfilled and only if the life included wealth, friendship, and upstanding moral character. Ricard agreed with Aristotle that happiness was more than just pleasure, but suggested that happiness is a sense of serenity and fulfillment that could be obtained in the present moment. Hadit argues that a happy life needs love and connection, which he interpreted as attachments that cause suffering. However Hahn reveals that it is only when we assume the permanence of love and connection is when we suffer. Diener and Biwas-Diener brought up the idea that money does not guarantee happiness and that using money to help others can achieve happiness. Chodron agreed with Diener and Biwas-Diener that helping others can decrease our own suffering, adding that being unbiased towards others can also lead us to happiness and peace. Though I may not agree with everything that Buddhism has to say, I agree on a profound level with their belief that compassion toward all life is the key to not only ending the suffering of all beings, but can also bring happiness and joy to self and others. As a Bodhisattva of no-rank, I go forth for the sake of all beings everywhere.

~G.L.Pearson


Work Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. Ph.D. “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Theory of Happiness.” https://www.google.com/url?sa=D&q=http://iws.collin.edu/pbrown/ENGLISH%25201301/Aristotle%27s%2520Ethics%2520Happiness.htm

Chodron, Pema. Becoming Bodhisattvas: A Guidebook for Compassionate Action, Boulder, Colorado. 2005

Diener, Ed and Robert Biswas-Diener. ” Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. 2008. 

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York, NY. 1994.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and LiberationRicard, Matthieu. “The habits of happiness/ TED. February 2004. Lecture. Source: https://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_the_habits_of_happiness

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