The pursuit of happiness?
Posted on January 13th, 2014

By Shelton A. Gunaratne  professor emeritus in communication, lives in Moorhead, Minn.

 Tracy Frank’s story titled “The pursuit of happiness?” in the Sunday edition of The (Fargo, N.D.) Forum’s She Says section (Jan. 12, 2014) drew my instant attention because it was the exact topic of our monthly Buddhist Discussion Group on Saturday.

However, after I read her story, I failed to extract a satisfactory answer to the question, either implicit or explicit, on why chasing the American dream has failed to create happiness among the large majority of Americans.
The sidebar to Frank’s story says: “Americans have grown continuously more depressed over the past half-century and behavioral researchers say it has to do with unrealistic expectations of the American dream””the perfect house, spouse, kids and career.”

But Frank’s secular journalistic approach in the forthcoming articles on the components of the American dream is unlikely to help solve the problem of widespread unhappiness.

Frank’s articles are probably not intended to find the root causes of unhappiness in our society. And without knowing the causes, it’s impossible to control or remove them.

This is where Buddhist phenomenology can help us. It asserts that the path to happiness starts from an understanding of the root causes of suffering, which includes both physical and mental states. Buddha discovered that desire and attachment engendered by ignorance (of the world as it really is) and defilements such as greed, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety, and doubt were the reasons for unhappiness.       

Then, the Buddha prescribed an eightfold proactive course of treatment called the Middle Path to achieve supreme bliss or happiness better known as enlightenment or nirvana.

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths explain the existence, causation, cessation and the path leading to the cessation of unhappiness.

 The prescribed path has three dimensions: ethical conduct (right speech, action, and livelihood), mental cultivation (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration), and wisdom (right understanding, and intention). Mental cultivation, today known as psychotherapy, specifies three steps of meditation, which are vital to liberate the mind from defilements.  According to the Buddha, compassion and wisdom must be developed jointly for the individual to gain liberation.

The Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda points out that happiness is in the journey, not in the destination. He says that modern life is a struggle to acquire monetary gains, comfort and luxury. This lifestyle produces anxieties and stress, instead of happiness.

Almost anticipating the American dream of the perfect house, spouse, kids and career, Dhammananda says that some think that a “good and congenial life partner” [spouse] is a source of happiness. Others think that children [kids] are another source of happiness. But none of these provide stable conditions. All are subject to anicca (the law of impermanence), anatta (insubstantiality) and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness)””the three marks of existence. They can bring in short-term pleasure, but not happiness.

Happiness “cannot be found in the material things about us, such as wealth, power or fame.” Pleasure is a passing show and does not offer lasting happiness. Pleasure can be bought, but not happiness.

The Forum articles are not aimed at helping its readers to clean their minds of the defilements that have caused so much unhappiness. These articles could serve the readers better by projecting happiness as a state of consciousness that does not depend on their physical appetites and passions.   

Dhammananda clarifies: “Happiness is a mental state which can be attained through the culture of mind. External sources such as wealth, fame, social position and popularity are but temporary sources of happiness. The real source is the mind. The mind [that] is controlled and cultured is the real source of happiness. The opinion that mental tranquility is unattainable is not true. Everyone can cultivate inner peace and tranquility through the purification of the mind.”

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