Happiness and Its Ambiguities

I spent Monday at the “Happiness & Its Causes” conference in San Francisco, which my employer, the Greater Good Science Center, co-sponsored. The title might, I suppose, sound shallow, and yet the Monday morning panel was startlingly ambiguous and profound.

At one point, for example, psychologist Paul Ekman linked the recognition of suffering to the possibility of happiness, an insight that both science and religion have discovered using completely different tools. Buddhism and Darwin, he said, agree about the roots of compassion: If I see you suffering, that makes me suffer, therefore ending your suffering can cause me happiness. For Darwinians, this compassionate loop emerges because our biology wires us together; for Buddhism, we are linked through the spirit.

Later, Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel argued that Buddhism provided a similar insight about death, believing that the best way to deal with the idea of mortality is to make it familiar, something confirmed by a fair amount of empirical research. I later thought that you see similar processes at work in other religions–what is the image of Christ on the cross if not a reminder of our mortality? If we fear death too much, implied Spiegel, happiness is impossible. In fact, he said, suppressing sadness can prevent happiness.

Quite a few of the panelists actually argued that happiness should not be the ultimate goal of existence. Philosopher and psychologist Owen Flanagan paraphrased Kant: Happiness is one thing, being good is another. And indeed, he said, preaching contentment for its own sake only serves the interests of the powerful.

Spiegel went on to add that in bad times, the goal should be to convert corrosive emotions (that reinforce helplessness) into emotional states that provoke action or reflection: convert anxiety into fear, depression into sadness, illness into meaning. We can achieve happiness when we are actively trying to make the world a better place.

In the end, summarized moderator Alan Wallace (a Tibetan Buddhist scholar), true happiness is seeing reality for what it is. This might sound counterintuitive to some; the message we hear most often in our culture is that happiness is possible only when reality is viewed through rose-colored glasses. But Flanagan, Ekman, and Spiegel all agreed: Part of the challenge is to recognize the reality of limits and interconnectedness. Happiness, in short, is other people.

I thought about all this in relation to parenthood. I think most parents would agree that parenthood involves a certain amount of suffering. We see it in our children from the moment they enter the world weeping, and we feel it in ourselves, through sleepless nights and deferred desires. The biological and spiritual ties we feel with offspring are the most intense most of us will ever know. This can cause unhappiness on a day to day basis, and yet I think if those ties are allowed to grow over time, there is no deeper source of happiness.

[This is the revised version of a post to the Greater Good blog.]