Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: Happiness

Meng and I had this conversation a while ago:
M: Despite the wealth generated in the past 100 years, people don't seem to be any happier. The Buddhism approach covers this gap in happiness, which is important.
P: Well, if you look back over the last 400 years, the agricultural revolution which feed billions now and the invention of antibiotics has done more for humanity than 3000 years of Buddhism. I think if you want to improve the human condition, Western Science and Engineering has done more for humanity than any religion.
M: Western Science has relieved misery, but is happiness the mere absence of misery?
P: Well, to someone who's starving, that question is moot.

Since I'm generally a pretty happy person anyway, I left it at that. The pieces of happiness research I've read didn't seem terribly actionable, and weren't likely to make me any happier.

Earlier this year, when the Kindle store gave away Matthieu Ricard's Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, I had to pick it up. It's a relatively short read, but unlike the other happiness books, this one is based on Buddhism, buttressed at times by recent scientific research. (Most of the other books I read weren't immersed in Buddhism, so the little scientific tricks to attain happiness seemed more like gimmicks than something tied to a theory)

The main thesis of this book is that the mind is like a muscle: if you train it, you can make yourself calmer, more detached from immediate emotions jerking you around. Chapter after chapter goes over the benefits: not only will you be happier, you'll be able to examine your emotions as they are occurring, and learn not to act on them. You will be more creative, and even be able to face the prospect of death with more equanimity. Topics such as Flow are covered as well.

There is no doubt to my mind that Buddhist meditation and philosophy works to help people become calmer, less angry, and so forth. The problem with this approach is that its not very evolutionarily stable: the reason why people are vengeful, for instance, is that someone who's willing to spend energy to get even will be treated with respect and others will think twice before crossing him. Nevertheless, I do agree with Ricard that the world will be a better place if more people practiced Buddhism (by the way, I don't believe this is true of the Judeo-Christian religions, for instance), and as an individual, it's definitely better to be calmer, less stressed, and able to eliminate your negative emotions at will --- keeping in mind that the purpose behind such emotions can be correct, even if the turmoil they cause in you isn't.

All in all, this book is recommended to anyone who would like a good, non-evangelical view of Buddhist philosophy and practices, or anyone who's interested in the science behind happiness.

Update: Meng reminded me that there's a YouTube video of Ricard's talk at Google:
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