Winter 2008: Cover Story
Why is This Man Smiling?
The study of happiness—and its causes—has Buddhists and scientists talking
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has a surprisingly infectious laugh—a deep, throaty chuckle that tends to resonate for several seconds after one expects it to fade away. Despite the gravity of his role as the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan community, the Dalai Lama laughs often and smiles almost constantly, inspiring those around him to reflect his beatitude like flowers opening to a beaming sun.
When His Holiness visited the University in October for his inaugural lecture as Presidential Distinguished Professor, some four thousand Emory community members and visitors flooded the Woodruff P. E. Center throughout the weekend of public events to hear his message of mindfulness and compassion—a deceptively simple Buddhist philosophy that, if practiced with discipline, is said to lead to happiness and inner peace.
But happiness, it seems, is hard work. “Suffering and pain,” the Dalai Lama said, speaking through his translator, “are understood to be a function of an untamed and undisciplined mind, while happiness and joy are understood to be a function of a tamed and disciplined mind.”
Human beings, he explained, can strive to lessen their suffering by transcending their emotional attachment to their own idea of self and to fleeting, worldly things. He described the concept of interdependence, by which all humans, things, and events are connected; our conscious reality exists only in the context of our physical selves and our relationship to the outer world. In this infinite web of cause and effect, the more we can cultivate compassion for others, the happier we will be.
Tibetan Buddhist tenets can seem strangely straightforward, even easy to follow. But if finding happiness were easy, we can assume that thousands of seekers would not flock to hear this self-professed “simple monk” tell them how. Self-help would not be a booming industry in bookstores and the Internet market; the average consumer would not carry $8,500 in credit card debt; antidepressants would not be among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. And happiness itself would not be emerging as an academic discipline and an area of serious scientific research.
“The era of laissez-faire happiness might be coming to an end,” wrote Eduardo Porter in a recent opinion in the New York Times. “Some prominent economists and psychologists are looking into ways to measure happiness and draw it into the public policy realm. Thirty years from now, reducing unhappiness could become another target of policy, like cutting poverty.”
But is reducing unhappiness the same as creating happiness? Is the absence of sadness, depression, or anxiety the equivalent of happiness? Or is happiness something different—a particular state of mind?
The study of happiness can be traced back to the earliest Greek philosophers, and the practice of self-help, or the conscious effort to change our minds and improve our destinies, has been around since long before Freud. More recently, the field known as positive psychology—the study of optimum human functioning—has been gaining momentum since 1998, when University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, proposed that there’s more to happiness than sadness flipped upside down. The author of best sellers Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism, Seligman aimed to shift the focus of psychology from dysfunction to well-being.
Charles Raison, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and codirector of the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies, explores human happiness and mental health, primarily in relation to the body and its response to stress and illness. “There’s a lot of evidence that lack of depression is not the same as optimal human functioning,” he says, adding that if people who are not depressed are given antidepressants, they do not become happier.
But how to bring about our own happiness remains a matter of debate. Most experts on the subject agree that happiness is not a passive state of physical comfort and contentment; rather, it involves action, engagement, movement, growth. There also is mounting evidence that it requires a set of ethics and a sense of purpose. Apparently, to be genuinely happy, we need a reason to do the right thing, and then we need to do it—and it helps if it’s just a little hard.
Raison has found that the Buddhist notion of happiness is surprisingly close to what scientific research shows it to be.
“It is wrong to look at happiness only in terms of physical condition, material facility,” the Dalai Lama said. “Physical well-being is very important, but that’s not sufficient. We must take a serious look at our inner mental peace. Our own mental attitude is a very, very important factor. So compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation—these mental factors are very important for happiness.”
Corey Keyes, associate professor of sociology, calls this flourishing—and says fewer than 20 percent of Americans are doing it. Known as “Dr. Positive” by his students, Keyes has spent more than a decade working to define and promote optimal mental health.
“I wanted to study health, and I knew in my heart and mind what I meant by health—being filled with the capacity to perform physically, mentally, and cognitively,” he says. “But it turned out there were really no measures of what I thought health was. That led me on this journey: what would mental health look like if you were to measure it as the presence of something positive?”
Most of us, says Keyes, think of happiness in terms of feeling good. This sort of happiness has its roots in the ancient tradition of hedonics, the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate achievement, as embodied by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. In modern thought, hedonism has earned a reputation as a close cousin to overindulgence. The downside to hedonic happiness is the tendency to grow accustomed to the good life—the “hedonic treadmill,” coined in 1978 by psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell, who studied lottery winners and found that a windfall is not a one-way ticket to paradise.
For all its pitfalls, hedonic well-being encompasses feelings of satisfaction with one’s life and positive affect, or simply being in a good mood—key components of overall happiness. But according to Keyes, flourishing also requires another type of happiness, often referred to as eudaimonia. This Greek notion of happiness, shaped by Socrates and Aristotle, entails the active pursuit of excellence and a greater good; Keyes equates it with functioning well and being engaged with life.
“Flourishing,” he says, “is a combination of these two very ancient traditions of views of happiness. Aristotle thought it was just positive functioning; Epicurus thought it was just feeling good. It turns out that to flourish is to feel good and function well in life.”
Are you flourishing? Signs of mental health:
- positive emotions
- avowed satisfaction with life
- making a contribution to society
- social integration
- social growth and potential
- acceptance of others
- social interest and coherence
- environmental mastery (control)
- positive relations with others
- personal growth
- having a purpose in life
Keyes has developed a scale of thirteen signs of flourishing (see sidebar). While the majority of Americans say they are happy in the hedonic sense, not even one-fifth of those Keyes has studied can be said to flourish—to exhibit at least six of the signs in the eudaimonic category. The remainder are languishing (Keyes’s term for those who are emotionally stagnant) or mentally ill, and all these are at a higher risk for a range of physical and mental illnesses.
At the root of the problem, according to Keyes, is a health care system that is almost entirely reactive, focused on treating illness rather than creating health. He argues that mental health and mental illness are not opposite ends of the same continuum, but are actually two different continuua—much the same way good cholesterol and bad cholesterol are on different scales. Lowering the bad does not raise the good; it takes something else to do that.
“We assume we can get to the business of health by dealing with illness,” he says. “If that’s your model, you will never get to health, because you will never eliminate illness.”
If health policy leaders would begin to actively promote flourishing in tandem with treating illness, Keyes claims, the United States could save millions in health care costs each year. “The most serious problem is not the presence of mental illness,” Keyes says, “but the absence of mental health.”
Given the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, most Americans spend the bulk of their time pursuing money. Our commercial culture would have us believe happiness is a new Lexus, a flat-screen TV, or an iPod Touch. It’s true that a modest amount of wealth is necessary for a fair shot at fulfillment. “It’s pretty hard to get satisfied with your life if you’re starving, sick, or uneducated,” Raison says. “Abject poverty is a hugely unhappy place. If you go from there to moderately middle class, there is a significant increase in life satisfaction.”
But evidence is mounting that the old saw rings true—happiness really can’t be bought. Once basic comforts are attained, Raison says, there is precious little difference in satisfaction between the moderately middle class and the very wealthy. Research shows that money and the things it buys are especially vulnerable to the hedonic treadmill, losing their allure as fast as a stick of Juicy Fruit gum loses its taste. Equally unsatisfying in the long term is the competition for social status and professional glory.
“Science has actually shown a fair amount about what are the more efficient ways of producing happiness, and it’s very clear that most of what we spend our lives doing are very inefficient producers of happiness,” Raison says.
While the scramble for professional advancement and accolades appears to yield cold comfort in the long run, studies have shown that leisure pursuits—hobbies—are much more rewarding. “People who love things for their own sake tend to be much happier than others,” Raison says. “If one can identify what one truly loves—those things that don’t bring you any money, status, or glory, but just pure positive pleasure are a great way to bring about happiness.”
Gregory Berns, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is the author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. He found that experiences that combine novelty, or the unexpected, and challenge—what has been called “good stress”—produce a particular cocktail of chemicals in the brain that leads to a feeling of satisfaction. Berns defines satisfaction as a positive emotion caused by action taken, while he views happiness as a passive emotion resulting from external events.
In these terms, happiness can be compared to the feel-good signals of hedonic well-being, while satisfaction is more closely related to eudaimonia—engaging fully with life and striving for betterment. Berns discovered that any number of challenging activities, from working a crossword puzzle to running a marathon, can bring about this richer strain of happiness.
The key, he says, is not to sit still.
“To me, an integral component of satisfaction is the notion of activity,” Berns says. “Our brains are evolved for doing things and interacting with the world; they are not evolved to sit there passively. I’m a strong believer in the idea that life satisfaction comes from doing things. It does not come from watching TV, winning the lottery, or sitting on the beach doing nothing.”
Satisfaction might feel different from what most consider happiness, Berns cautions—which results from the fact that happiness and evolutionary success are not particularly well aligned. For instance, we are hardwired to try to give our children every possible advantage for survival. But in the cushy modern world, that instinct might manifest itself in a chase for wealth and status symbols that will eventually land us on the hedonic treadmill. Our expectations often exceed reality, which is bad if you want to feel contented with your choices, but good if you want to keep pursuing something better—whether it’s a zebra or a zebra-striped Versace bag. “Whether you are happy or not is secondary to evolution,” Berns says. “We are evolved to survive and reproduce.”
It’s becoming increasingly obvious to researchers that people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy. Sitting on a beach may yield a particular sort of pleasure, but it is ultimately unfulfilling, says Berns—yet many of us anticipate a beach vacation as the classic reward for meeting the challenges of everyday life and work. Berns suggests there is greater satisfaction to be found in the everyday, if we know where and how to look.
Motivation appears to be a key factor in determining how much happiness a given activity will yield. Jeffrey Rosensweig, professor of international finance at Goizueta Business School, is the author of Age Smart: Discovering the Fountain of Youth at Midlife and Beyond, a how-to for baby boomers on finding happiness as they age. As he and coauthor Betty Liu were researching and planning the book, Rosensweig says, he was deeply inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow—the state often referred to as “in the zone.” If one’s motivation to work derives from positive engagement rather than the desire to make money and gain status, it seems far more likely to bring happiness.
“Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable,” Rosensweig says. “You are using your skills to the fullest to such an extent that you are not conscious or worrying about anything besides being fully absorbed in the moment. I found that the happiest and also the healthiest older people are those who still have a mission. Interestingly, in the book we portray some people who are living out multiple careers. They don’t need the money, they need the challenge and the stimulation.”
Most happiness researchers agree that people are born with a certain genetic temperament that affects their potential for happiness—a natural “set point” for satisfaction to which we tend to return following situational highs and lows. Although theories vary, Berns guesses that about half a person’s mental well-being is genetic, 20 to 30 percent is due to luck and life circumstances, and the rest is more or less a matter of will. But many experts also argue that that last third or so can have a tremendous impact on quality of life.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama instructed the Emory audience that only through conscious, sustained, and intense effort can we hope to take a small step closer to perfection—the attainment of Buddhahood, the pure state possible only after lifetimes of struggling to unfetter our minds and open our hearts.
“We have to take care about our inner emotion in order to be a happy person, a useful citizen of humanity,” he said. “All the education you learn here, combined with warm-heartedness, affection, responsibility, community—all your knowledge can be constructive.”
His emphasis on warm-heartedness and affection for others, long embraced in Buddhist wisdom, recently has earned the cool cachet of scientific proof. A range of studies show that building positive relationships with people, from family members to coworkers, is probably the single best way to achieve happiness.
“Looking at the data,” Raison says, “relationships, connections with other human beings, tend not to habituate the way things do. So a good marriage, good relationships with your children, social connectivity with the community—these tend to be more enduring and less vulnerable to the hedonic treadmill, and significantly more satisfying. I would say this data is as replicated and solid as the research on something used to kill bacteria. It really seems to be a fact.”
In researching Satisfaction, Berns also found that relationships yield a high degree of it; moreover, the necessary element of novelty need not come from new love interests, but can be continually rediscovered in long-term intimacy.
Of course, most of us likely find it much easier to nurture relationships with those close to us than to feel compassion for far-flung strangers. Yet the Dalai Lama urges us to cultivate kindness and goodwill toward all others—even our enemies—for our own good.
“America is a very powerful nation, but it is part of the world. If you always think we, they, destruction of enemy is your victory,” he said. “But if you look from a wider perspective, this is no longer reality. Destruction of neighbor is destruction of self. It is because of your own interest that you have to take care of others’ well-being.”
Although not a Buddhist, Raison, who is clinical director of Emory’s Mind-Body Program, has studied Buddhist practice and its effects on the brain and body for more than two decades. In collaboration with Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, a faculty member in the Department of Religion and spiritual director of the Loseling Institute, Raison and other researchers recently structured a study to explore the mental health benefits of meditation.
During the study, a group of first-year college students gathered regularly to practice a special kind of meditation. Compassion meditation is designed to decrease the typical inward-oriented reaction to stressors and lead participants to direct their consciousness outward, increasing a sense of social connection.
“Nothing exists on its own. Whatever phenomenon we cite as an example, its existence is a reality only in the context of dependent relations. This concept is something useful,” the Dalai Lama said. “Reduce anger about negative things. They happen not because of the self, but because of causes and conditions. So a negative event, if you look closely, causes frustration; but the same event from a wider perspective, not so serious. This is very healthy to reduce anxiety.”
The Emory study indicated that Buddhist meditation can indeed help people manage such anxiety.
“We found that meditation had a positive impact on how these students reacted emotionally and physically to stress,” says Raison, who presented the findings at the Mind and Life Conference during the Dalai Lama’s visit. “It changed those responses in ways that should promote good health.”
Ed Craighead, J. Rex Fuqua Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, has conducted related work with adolescents who are at risk for depression. Using a cognitive-behavioral prevention program in school settings, he has been able to help teens change the way they think about themselves and others, reversing negative, destructive patterns of thought. A year later, most of them still have not become depressed.
“Some adolescents are at risk for depression due to certain behavioral patterns, cognitive thinking styles, and beliefs that make them vulnerable—but individuals can learn to change these,” Craighead says. “We are able to help them change what they say to themselves, understand the distortions, and develop the underlying belief that every person is worthwhile.”
Professor of Psychology Linda Craighead also has worked with unhappy adolescents, particularly those with eating disorders. She, too, has found that a shift in thinking—while challenging to accomplish—can have a remarkable impact.
“I think there are two somewhat different ways the term happiness is used—first, to refer to a positive mood and a feeling one’s life is going well. In this sense, happiness depends to some extent on factors that one doesn’t control,” she says. “But happiness as the Dalai Lama uses it means more that a person is at peace, or accepting of how they are living their life, regardless of the specific positive or negative things that are happening. It is a change in one’s mindset to see happiness as determined not by how life treats you, but by what attitude you take and how you respond to what life hands you.”
Although theories about happiness vary, one consistent theme emerges: it seems to be a moving target. And if you truly glimpse what it is, you also know you probably don’t want to catch it—or, at least, you don’t want to hold on too tight. Best to let it wriggle free, so it can be caught again. The notion that happiness is an ideal to be pursued is at the center of an ongoing research project at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, “The Pursuit of Happiness: Scientific, Theological, and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Love of God, Neighbor, and Self.” Funded by a $750,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the five-year project brings together twenty fellows from Emory and other institutions to study the quest for happiness from a range of perspectives, from the deeply spiritual to the purely scientific.
The ambitious concept was partly inspired by the Declaration of Independence’s most oft-quoted promise: why the emphasis on the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself? What does the right to pursue happiness mean?
Directing the project is Philip Reynolds, Aquinas Professor of Historical Theology, who is studying happiness through the prism of Christian theological history. For early Christians, Reynolds says, hunting happiness—with little hope of catching it—was the best they could hope for.
“Ancient Christians experienced the real world as a place of pain and injustice,” Reynolds says. “Happiness was not something to be had in this life, but in the next life. This line of thinking is very unfashionable now. There’s this idea that happiness is something you’re supposed to be able to get.”
Reynolds, however, finds positive psychology a little too lenient. He sees merit in the idea that pursuing an ideal is more important, even more innately human, than achieving it. He, too, speaks of eudaimonia, an idea he says early Christians appropriated from pagan philosophy but postponed to the next life.
Today, in a world of comfort and safety, soft sheets and tall lattes, we could benefit from a little delayed gratification. It might even, Reynolds suggests, make us happy—in a way.
“I think as human beings, we need an openness to something transcendent,” he says. “We need to try to get in touch with something outside everyday, mundane existence. The idea of living for future bliss can be a way of living well now. It’s what it is to be human. We are reaching out for things.”