Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Quest for Eudaimonia: A Buddhist Perspective on Happiness

Rocky stairway leading to top part of Vancouver Stanley Park

Instead of starting with an abstract definition of happiness, let us first look at what it is that makes us happy in the first place. Is it a new wardrobe, an electronic gadget, a new car, or an unlimited supply of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Seeing that most of these items are materialistic in nature, why not simply bribe our way through life with money? Would that ensure happiness? Can money actually buy us happiness?

In fact, (a sufficient deal of) money does seem to make us happy. It puts a smile on our face (imagine finding a bundle of large bills on the street or suddenly obtaining a windfall); it enables us to pick up gourmet foods (and partners?); it opens up a host of activities and hobbies that are denied to many others, such as paragliding or traveling around the world.

Yet there is an obvious shortcoming connected to the word happiness itself. It does indeed apply to those situations above. Who can say with a straight face that they categorically do not enjoy sex or that they gladly refuse all types of drugs (I am including coffee, cigarettes, and chocolate on this list, Mormons excluded of course)?

When we describe happiness, what we are talking about most of the time is actually gratification. We gratify our desires, which in turn gives us pleasure. Sex and drugs are good examples here; they give us gratification for a while, but there remains a spot that is never filled or satisfied; an itch that cannot be scratched; a part that seems to be constantly on the run from the grasp of happiness.

What to do then? It may turn out that the type of happiness we are talking about keeps eluding us because we simply do not have the right word designed for - or rather assigned to - it. We may feel trapped in our lack of words in the English language the same way a non-Eskimo purportedly lacks the vocabulary to perceive the slightly variations in a snowstorm. So lacking vocabulary, we have simply a feeling of unease, a certain seemingly unscratchable itch which we do not know the cause of and for which we lack the remedy.

Since we are obviously at odds here, let us borrow a term from the ancient Greeks, those who are mainly responsible for putting us on this path of self-consciousness more than two thousand years ago. We stumble upon Aristotle and his views on (true) happiness, which he calls eudaimonia (often translated as "human flourishing," while Socrates might prefer the term “good demon”).

As we can see the idea of flourishing is much more dynamic and not merely a particular moment, outcome or desire along the scales of time. It cannot be pinpointed precisely as it is in constant bloom (although interestingly the Greeks did assign a certain moment as the climax of one's intellectual accomplishments, as they often ignore the birth and death of an individual and simply state that, for example, Euclid flourished at around 300 BC, while my own flourishing probably took place at around age 16).

In this sense, the emphasis on change and transformation is a rather Buddhist idea similar to the blooming of the lotus flower floating on a grey lake of Mayan ignorance. The thing is true happiness is not (nor can it be) a snapshot or a moment of bliss; it is (or rather should be) a lifetime of joy. It is like moving from the aesthetic self-absorbed (Kierkegaard's first) level to the higher realms of the ethical and / or religious sphere.

Suddenly, we are shifting from a materialistic framework, of that which can be accessed with - and is generally within the reach of - money to a more (for a lack of better words) spiritual view on happiness. Imagine the Buddha after years of mindful meditation, after struggling with demons (not the Socratic ones but the really bad guys with rotten teeth and worse intentions) and all this time the man once known as Siddhartha Gautama is nourishing the growing and glowing light within, in the process of releasing the ego of its human-made shackles (freeing Siddhartha from himself) and finally reaching that sublime and wonderful peak of enlightenment.

After a moment or two of exultation and unspeakable bliss, he might ask himself the following question: Now what? And that is exactly the point here. Every time we overcome a hurdle, every time we smell and taste the delicious flavor of success; every time we have satisfying sex or get that long-awaited raise, there is a push for something else, something more, something different.

And our lives are spent in those myriad moments that we label crudely as either happy or sad, but it is their complementary combination, their complexity, their final culmination or tally that may give us true and lasting happiness, the state of eudaimonia.

For Aristotle, happiness and virtue are permanently entwined in intimate ways. Virtue could be seen as the reign on instant gratification via the controlling faculties of reason. For example, you may have a wonderful and happy union with your wife, and there is suddenly the chance of the gratification of an instant and often hidden desire.

Sure, it would make you happy, at least momentarily, to engage in an illicit and pleasure-giving activity with another woman, but at the same time it is the unethical or “wrong” thing to do. You would put in jeopardy your continuous time-stretching shot at lasting happiness for the irrational mad pleasure of a single instance. So the voice of reason in this case sounding like a faded version of your parents will (hopefully!) steer you away from “temptation” and put you back into the arms of your wife, on the long and winding road of eudaimonia.

Yes, happiness is not a case of winning the lottery or even fulfilling our dreams; it is rather a continuous patient quest for fulfillment, for growth, for virtue. To give a quasi-mathematical illustration here, tally up all your sexual partners and they will not add up to the love of your one and only steadfast partner.

Eudaimonia or the Buddhist outlook on happiness may be less thrilling and less fun and involve work through dedication and discipline compared to the deliciously impulsive, blind and wild passion; yet eudaimonia will flourish under the temperate climate of the Mediterranean coast and make you truly happy over the long haul, of course.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

I would have responded earlier, dear Arash, but your post got me brooding for several days and has ended up in a post of my own which I'm about to publish (with acknowledgement of yours of course). It's far from being the first time that this has happened, as you know.