13 May 2006

Happiness is not an individual matter

By Jacqui McCarney

Happiness courses are now on offer at Harvard, the top university in the States and Wellington College, the expensive public school in Berkshire. Much media interest in these courses has opened up debate about whether we can cultivate happiness, and whether this has any place in education, or should be better left to the individual and their family. Judging from the interest shown at Harvard, where Happiness classes are heavily oversubscribed, students are willing to take time from more expedient career subjects to wrestle with the slippery problem of how to be happy.

In Buddhist culture, happiness is a central purpose in life and this is illustrated most readily by the tiny Buddhist country Bhutan where the success of the country is measured, not on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as is the case in western countries, but in Gross National Happiness. The aim of this tiny state is to prioritise happiness as a valuable asset for the individual and for society.

It is ironic that the scientific West has no real handle on happiness and is inclined to regard any attempt to teach it as an airy fairy, woolly headed waste of time. But this is only because the West is indeed woolly headed about happiness, and, while psychotherapists like Carl Rogers have produced insightful work on personal happiness, there is no essential philosophy of happiness. On the other hand, the supposedly less rational East came up with teachings and practices for happiness - known as Buddhism - two and a half thousand years ago. It is a philosophy, matured throughout Asia for the intervening millennia, that has found great favour among westerners who are increasingly turning to Buddhism - there are now a large number of Buddhist groups in Norwich.

Buddhism accepts that for all humans there is suffering and this profound simple acceptance allows us to move on. We all suffer to some extent whether it is physical or psychological and we all need to touch this pain rather than try to escape it. In the west we are encouraged to cloak our suffering in consuming - shopping sprees, drugs, entertainment. The overwhelming evidence that shows affluent western countries are growing unhappy is proof that all these tactics fail in the end.

Buddhist teachings, through the four noble truths, tell us firstly that "suffering is". Secondly we are asked to look at how our suffering came about and to look at the ways in which we continue to feed this suffering. To do this we may need the help of friends, a group of like minded people (Sangha, or spiritual community) or the help of a teacher or therapist. This is no quick fix, and the path calls for courage and commitment.

The third Noble truth is that we can stop suffering, and the fourth Noble truth is to follow the Noble Eightfold path which is a path that leads us to refrain from doing the things that cause suffering.

This eightfold path takes us from the personal to how this philosophy operates in society. The renowned Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, wrote "Happiness is not an individual matter". It is difficult for us to be happy if our children are in difficulty or our partner is unhappy. Fear is prevalent and growing today. How can we be happy if we fear for our safety and the safety of our loved ones - whether the danger is from attack, nuclear accidents, and terrorism. It is difficult to be truly happy if our life style causes terrible suffering for others in Iraq, or by exploitation of third world countries. To deal with the overwhelming suffering of the world, we numb ourselves, deadening our feeling to these things. We live a deadened existence that denies us authentic feelings. Buddhism by it very nature is to be alive, and to be alive we have to be engaged with the world around us - according to Thich Nhat Hahn, an engaged Buddhist himself, "it is not Buddhism if it is not engaged".

The privileged students taught happiness classes must try to practice the lessons they have learned in a world that is increasingly violent competitive and unequal. Without the support of a deep philosophy of life, suffering and happiness, this will be very difficult. Those who are happy, despite the suffering in their families and worlds, are deeply narcissistic and this is both superficial and dangerous.

Real strides in happiness in the West will only come about when people learn that we cannot consume our way to happiness, and Governments start putting true wellbeing before endless economic growth.