Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happiness and Its Ambiguities

I spent Monday at the “Happiness and Its Causes” conference in San Francisco, which was co-sponsored by my employer, the Greater Good Science Center. The title might suggest a shallow preoccupation with happiness for its own sake, and yet the 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. And, 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. Happiness becomes possible only when we act or reflect, and try to make the world, if only our little 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.]


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I think this is why some single dads don't stay involved. They see not only the hardship of being a parent, but also the bonus hardship of working with "Mom" and dealing with the legal system.

Understandably, some Dads turn the other way and head for the hills or are forced out by Mom/courts. Of course when they do that, they don't get to experience the rewards.


Gregory Smith said...

Great post and what an intriguing conference. I've always been fascinated by the source of happiness - particularly what is it that makes some people always seem in a good mood and makes others be those "sour pusses" that we all seem to know.

A couple of observations I've had about my own happiness and how I plan to share happiness with my daughter who is due to make her appearance in one week.

I'm curious if there was any discussion at the conference about gratitude. If happiness is connected to a current condition or situation - being grateful for all that is - for all that has come before and all that will be leaves one with a sense of gratitude - thankfulness - for what is right now - today - the moment in which we must live. If you can feel truly thankful for what you have or the situation you are in right now - then that equates to happiness.

A dear friend of mine was fond of saying that the glass is neither half full nor half empty. It is completely full - half with water and half with air.

And I like the turn of Sartre's phrase, "Happiness is other people." Happiness and doing for others - not sacrificing for others because that insinuates that you must suffer to help another person - but doing for others will bring fulfillment and happiness. I struck upon a deal with my 16-year-old nephew last Christmas that I plan to make a part of our family's holiday tradition. After he told me what he would like for Christmas I asked what he had gotten his mom and dad. He shrugged and said that he hadn't thought about it. Actually it was more like, "Huh? I don't know." So the deal was - before he was expecting any gifts from others he needed to sit down and make a list of what he wanted to get for others. I agreed to help him out and take him shopping, and I also asked him to get some wrapping paper and wrap the gifts himself.

This is the tradition I want with my own children. Before they start any type of list or letter to Santa - we sit down and make a list of gifts for other people. After all - it is the season for giving, not receiving.

Hopefully that attitude will help to create a sense of fulfillment, gratitude and happiness.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Solo Dad: Yup.

Greg and Yamaya: There was actually quite a bit of discussion about gratitude at the conference. I recommend Greater Good magazine's special issue on gratitude, most of which you can read at