Graduate Theological Union

The Non-Pursuit of (Unsustainable) Happiness: A Buddhist View

He who is satisfied with what he has is rich.
—Buddhist proverb

Americans often chase that elusive state called happiness with the same aggressive energy we use to compete in the marketplace, buying the latest flat-screen TV or a custom sports car for an all-too-fleeting moment of bliss. In a poor, landlocked corner of Asia, Bhutanese citizens measure their well being through a national index called Gross National Happiness. But happiness, according to Dr. Eisho Nasu, assistant professor at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, is just not the point.

“As a Buddhist, it’s easy to be happy because there are no conditions.”

“As a Buddhist, I understand that happiness means to let go of all unsustainable or excessive desires,” says Nasu, who earned his doctorate in Buddhist studies at the Graduate Theological Union and now teaches at this GTU-affiliated institute near downtown Berkeley.

BuddhaNasu explains: “If you give up the never-ending pursuit of unsustainable happiness, you will eventually become happy. To describe happiness, Buddhists use expressions like ‘no desires, no blind passions, or non-attachment.’ But nonattachment does not mean aloofness — it can mean being very engaged, without being attached to outcomes.

Dr. Scott Mitchell, the institute’s program director who also completed his Ph.D. in Buddhist studies at the GTU, adds: “Buddhism is about seeing beyond the dualism of happiness and unhappiness.”

Last fall, scientists, philosophers, and psychologists gathered in San Francisco for a conference called “Happiness & Its Causes” about the same time an international conference on “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) was taking place in Bhutan, where participants focused on optimum development as encompassing both economic and spiritual wellbeing. In San Francisco, one UC Berkeley psychologist shared his research on compassion and kindness as human biological traits. Other participants focused on the positive feelings that come from putting the needs of others before one’s own. A few weeks later, Harvard and UC San Diego researchers released a study showing that there is a contagious quality to happiness. Happiness has become a hot topic.

Scott Mitchell and Eisho Nasu, photo by Cheryl BowlanAs it turns out, ancient Buddhist philosophers were well ahead of these 21st century investigators.

Nasu says, “Instead of chasing after our own happiness, Buddhism teaches us that we might cultivate a mind of compassion, lovingkindness, joyfulness, and letting go of our ego-attachment — this can work for ourselves and for the sake of others.”

But there’s a catch. “If you really want to be truly joyful,” Nasu says, “you have to forget about what you did for yourself or others.” In other words, the no attachment rule still applies. Hook your ego to the outcome of effort and you risk disappointment or loss, as your happiness inevitably subsides.

“The material things we think we need to be happy don’t last very long,” Nasu says. “In a sense, as a Buddhist it’s easy to be happy because there are no conditions.”

In Bhutan, King Khesar’s government operates from the principle of Gross National Happiness established in 1972 as the chief indicator of how his country of more than 2 million citizens is faring. Khesar writes on his website, “As the king of a Buddhist nation, my duty is not only to ensure your happiness today but to create the fertile ground from which you may gain the fruits of spiritual pursuit and attain good Karma.”

While Nasu agrees with the king’s focus on national satisfaction through sustainable economic development, preservation of cultural values, environmental conservation, and good governance, he regards it as not entirely transferable, though governments in such countries as Brazil, India, Australia, France, and Canada are showing some willingness to give it a try. They have begun to measure their own citizens’ well-being. Here at home, the State of the USA project is attempting to quantify our national satisfaction and post the information on to help Americans assess their direction and progress in key areas — wealth, crime, health care, and the environment.


The Pursuit of (Sustainable) Happiness

Are you happy? If you ask almost anyone around the
world if they want to be happy, they’d likely say yes.
But what is happiness? And how do we attain it,
especially when the future is uncertain? Share your
views on happiness and the root of happiness through
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“Personally,” Nasu says, “I think it’s a smart idea for governments to get interested in how people feel rather than gather numbers about what they buy. However, the reason it may work in Bhutan is that it is a small kingdom with relatively little ethnic and cultural diversity. If you tried to measure happiness in Berkeley, how many committees would you need to agree on which words to define happiness?”

Can religion lead to happiness? Mitchell says religion can help lay a path to joy.

“It seems there are two kinds of happiness,” he says. “The first is the mundane, easy satisfaction like getting a new car or an iPhone. Religion can take you into a deeper kind of happiness.”

In Buddhism, that means an awareness of a reality as vast and fluid and changing as an ocean.

“The ultimate goal is to awaken to your true nature — a nature that is always changing. We call that enlightenment.”
—Eisho Nasu, assistant professor, Institute of Buddhist Studies