Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Love people, not pleasure

Love people, not pleasure

A three-part commentary on a New York Times op-ed article by Arthur Brooks entitled “Love People, Not Pleasure.”

  • Fame, riches, and pleasure do not equal happiness
  • The same person can be both happier than average and also unhappier than average
  • Many of our strategies for dealing with problems actually cause more unhappiness

Love people, not pleasure (download)

Part 2: The love of money
Part 3: The formula for happiness

There was an article in the New York Times on July 18th, and it’s by Arthur Brooks. It’s called “Love People, Not Pleasure.” There are some interesting Dharma-related ideas in here. So I’ll read it to you. It’s a little bit long, I don’t know if we’ll get through it all today.

ABD AL-RAHMAN III was an emir and caliph of Córdoba in 10th-century Spain. He was an absolute ruler who lived in complete luxury. Here’s how he assessed his life:

“I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.”

Fame, riches and pleasure beyond imagination. Sound great? He went on to write:

“I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to 14.”

Abd al-Rahman’s problem wasn’t happiness, as he believed–it was unhappiness. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, you probably have the same problem as the great emir. But with a little knowledge, you can avoid the misery that befell him.

What is unhappiness? Your intuition might be that it is simply the opposite of happiness, just as darkness is the absence of light. That is not correct. Happiness and unhappiness are certainly related, but they are not actually opposites.

And here he goes into some brain stuff.

Images of the brain show that parts of the left cerebral cortex are more active than the right when we are experiencing happiness, while the right side becomes more active when we are unhappy.

So it’s not just on and off, like opposites would be.

As strange as it seems, being happier than average does not mean that one can’t also be unhappier than average. One test for both happiness and unhappiness is the Positive Affectivity and Negative Affectivity Schedule test. I took the test myself. I found that, for happiness, I am at the top for people my age, sex, occupation and education group. But I get a pretty high score for unhappiness as well. I am a cheerful melancholic.

So when people say, “I am an unhappy person,” they are really doing sums, whether they realize it or not. They are saying, “My unhappiness is x, my happiness is y, and x>y. The real questions are why, and what you can do to make y>x.

I found the idea that you can be happy and unhappy quite intriguing, because it is true, isn’t it? You can have a lot of happiness–I mean, it depends on your emotional regulation–and then, like, flip to incredible unhappiness, and then go back to happiness, and unhappiness…

If you ask an unhappy person why he is unhappy, he’ll almost always blame circumstance. In many cases, of course, this is justified. Some people are oppressed or poor or have physical ailments that make life a chore. Research unsurprisingly suggests that racism causes unhappiness in children,–

Isn’t that interesting? Kids are so aware of that already.

–and many academic studies trace a clear link between unhappiness and poverty.

That’s kind of to be expected, in many ways. Actually, I read about a study that poverty–or unhappiness because of poverty–isn’t just how much you make. It’s what you have in comparison to your neighbor. Because if you take a society that is generally poor the whole definition of poverty and rich changes because the comparison is done on a different schedule. Whereas in developed countries what we call poor would often be considered rich in many other countries, but people here feel impoverished in comparison to others. It’s so interesting, isn’t it? You can really see how it’s created by the mind.

Another common source of unhappiness is loneliness, from which about 20 percent of Americans suffer enough to make it a major source of unhappiness in their lives.

There are also smaller circumstantial sources of unhappiness. The Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues measured the “negative affect” (bad moods) that ordinary daily activities and interactions kick up. They found that the No. 1 unhappiness-provoking event in a typical day is spending time with one’s boss (which, as a boss, made me unhappy to learn).

That’s an interesting one. I think because so many people have authority issues that when they relate to their boss they can’t see that their boss is just a human being trying to be happy and free of suffering like they are. Instead they impute some kind of status to their boss and then make themselves feel uncomfortable or inhibited or whatever. Again, just coming from the mind.

Circumstances are certainly important. No doubt Abd al-Rahman could point to a few in his life. But paradoxically, a better explanation for his unhappiness may have been his own search for well-being. And the same might go for you.

Have you ever known an alcoholic? They generally drink to relieve craving or anxiety–in other words, to attenuate a source of unhappiness. Yet it is the drink that ultimately prolongs their suffering.

This is what we were talking about yesterday, how many of our strategies that we use for dealing with problems don’t work and actually make us produce more conflict and more unhappiness in our lives.

The same principle was at work for Abd al-Rahman in his pursuit of fame, wealth and pleasure.

And now he’s going to go into talking about fame, wealth and pleasure.

Consider fame. In 2009, researchers from the University of Rochester conducted a study tracking the success of 147 recent graduates in reaching their stated goals after graduation.

Okay, so remember when you were graduating from high school or college, whatever your goals were, were you successful in– Well, first of all did you even know what your goals were? Second of all, were you successful in reaching them?

Some had “intrinsic” goals, such as deep, enduring relationships.

Or I might say developing certain qualities. So, intrinsic goals. In other words things that involve personal transformation, personal ability to connect with other living beings, to feel good about yourself, to live your life in a beneficial way. So some people had those kind of goals.

Others had “extrinsic” goals, such as achieving reputation or fame.

In other words, things that you have to gain from outside. Wealth, or reputation, you know, those kinds of things, rather than internal transformation things.

The scholars found that intrinsic goals were associated with happier lives.

Duh! But we usually ignore our intrinsic goals, don’t we? People are so out of touch with what kind of person do I want to become, what qualities do I have that I can develop, how can I contribute to society… They don’t think about that. They’re just programmed by what society tells them, to look for outside indicators of success and happiness.

But the people who pursued extrinsic goals experienced more negative emotions, such as shame and fear. They even suffered more physical maladies.

Now, why would somebody pursuing external goals have more shame or fear? Because they don’t have control over gaining their external goals. They want things. They’re using external measurements–societal measurements–and there’s no way to control those things. So if you have your life planned out–I’m going to be married by this time, and have kids by this time, and get this kind of job, and this kind of salary and this kind of car, and this kind of social life, and you know, you have all those external things… Whether you get them or not is up in the air, it isn’t really “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps,” because society is not equal. And also because these things are externally measured, then people feel fear they they won’t get them, fear and anxiety. Or even if they get them fear and anxiety that they’ll lose them. And then they feel ashamed if they lose them or can’t get them, and think, “Boy, I needed that external whatever to gain the approval of my spouse, of my parents, whoever it was, I didn’t get that so now they don’t love me or they don’t approve of me or they don’t respect me, so I must be a really lousy person.” And so this is the plight of so many, many people. Okay, so we need to check in our minds if this is going on in our minds, too.

This is one of the cruelest ironies in life. I work in Washington, right in the middle of intensely public political battles. Bar none, the unhappiest people I have ever met are those most dedicated to their own self-aggrandizement–the pundits, the TV loudmouths, the media know-it-alls. They build themselves up and promote their images, but feel awful most of the time.

I would add to this sports heroes and movie stars. As well as politicians. Anybody who is trying to be somebody in the public eye. I mean, you can be anybody, some kind of– It doesn’t have to be involved in politics. It could be in any profession. But you’re trying to get the public eye and be somebody and recognized. And again, because you can’t control it then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. And also because once you’re in the public eye people don’t just respect you and give you fame, they also give you notoriety and criticize you when they don’t like what you’ve done. So you’re opening yourself up to everybody and their uncle having an opinion about your life even though they don’t know you. So that’s a big disadvantage of fame, when you think about it.

And you think how many movie stars have committed suicide or died of drug overdoses. Sports heroes involved in domestic violence, either injuring others or being injured themselves. So it’s not like these kinds of lives are necessarily happy just because one has fame.

That’s the paradox of fame. Just like drugs and alcohol, once you become addicted, you can’t live without it.

True, with fame. You’re really addicted. “I need recognition.”

But you can’t live with it, either.

Because fame eats away at you.

Celebrities have described fame like being “an animal in a cage; a toy in a shop window; a Barbie doll; a public facade; a clay figure; or, that guy on TV,”–

So you may be famous but you are no longer yourself. You are an icon, “a Barbie doll, a toy in a store window” or a pet in a store window. I mean, yuck, to feel that way about yourself? And yet you’re addicted to that kid of “I need that recognition.” Quite unhappy. So that’s how they feel…

–according to research by the psychologist Donna Rockwell. Yet they can’t give it up.

That impulse to fame by everyday people has generated some astonishing innovations. One is the advent of reality television,–

Which I’ve never watched.

–in which ordinary people become actors in their day-to-day lives for others to watch. Why? “To be noticed, to be wanted, to be loved, to walk into a place and have others care about what you’re doing, even what you had for lunch that day: that’s what people want, in my opinion,” said one 26-year-old participant in an early hit reality show called “Big Brother.”

That really sad, isn’t it? You know, that you don’t feel loved so you’re looking to anonymous people you don’t even know to feel like you’re a worthy human being? That’s pretty sad… To be able to walk into a place and have others care about you? You go into the bank and like, “Ahh! Are you so-and-so from the reality show?” And to even care what you ate for breakfast? I mean, that mind is so unhappy. And yet look at what happens with reality shows.

And like I said, I’ve never watched one, I’ve only heard of them. But like, why would you want to watch a reality show of somebody else’s life? The only reason is because your own life is rather dull. It’s like do you want to watch a TV program of other people watching TV? Yeah? That would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Who wants to watch people watching TV? Well that’s kind of what it is like in a reality show… Now listen to what comes.

And then there’s social media. Today, each of us can build a personal little fan base, thanks to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like. We can broadcast the details of our lives to friends and strangers in an astonishingly efficient way.

So, I don’t even know the password to get into the Thubten Chodron Facebook page, somebody else manages it, and thank goodness she does not tell people what I eat for breakfast. Because I don’t want them to waste their precious human lives over that.

That’s good for staying in touch with friends, but it also puts a minor form of fame-seeking within each person’s reach. And several studies show that it can make us unhappy.

Okay, so not only for the grade-school kids who form friends and break friends and everything on Facebook, and go through all your teenage traumas on the Facebook. But also for adults.

It makes sense. What do you post to Facebook? Pictures of yourself yelling at your kids, or having a hard time at work? No, you post smiling photos of a hiking trip with friends. You build a fake life–or at least an incomplete one–and share it.

And that’s true, isn’t it? You create a personality with some details of your life that you exaggerate, others that you leave out or you make less prominent then they actually are. So you create a fake life.

Furthermore, you consume almost exclusively the fake lives of your social media “friends.”

Because when you read other people’s Facebook that’s what you’re getting. Not who they really are, but the person they are presenting themselves are. Which is incomplete and fake and exaggerated in one way or another.

Unless you are extraordinarily self-aware, how could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are, and the other part of your time seeing how much happier others seem to be than you?

That’s what’s going on with Facebook and all this social media. You’re pretending to be happier than you are. And then you read your friends’ Facebook pages, they’re all pretending to be happier than they are, you compare yourself to them, and you know your own level of unhappiness, you don’t know theirs, you think they really are as they say on their Facebook page, you compare yourself to them and then you get even more depressed because they’re happier than you are, because you’re not even aware that you’re comparing rubbish to rubbish. Or I should say fake personalities to another fake personality. So, so interesting, isn’t it? That we have this to try and communicate, to stay in touch, but then we read what’s going on with other people and, “Oh, they sound so happy, they have this and that, oh… I don’t. Ohhhhh…” But then you do your own Facebook page then you put in all this stuff that makes you look really good. Take out all the pictures when we look ugly. Your hair has to look good and you look exactly the way you want to look… Really sad, isn’t it? Quite sad. And how people aren’t aware of this.

The article continues. There he talked about fame. Then he’s going to go into money and material things. And then he’s going to go into sense pleasure. So we’ll continue tomorrow.

But it’s interesting isn’t it? And something to think about. And this big Emir having 14 days of happiness even though he had everything he could possibly want.

I know some years ago my brother asked me, “Where do you want to be five years from now?” And I told him I want to have more love and compassion. And he looked at me like I was nuts. Didn’t understand that.

Response to audience comments

How technology contributes

A lot of our technological stuff is focused out, so it’s self-perpetuating. Yes. Very much. And then you also keep yourself so busy with it that then you don’t have time to just be with yourself. You always have to be doing something.

Creating personalities

That’s why we keep silence during retreat, so we don’t create a personality and sell it to the other retreatants.

Part 2: The love of money
Part 3: The formula for happiness

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.