Can rejecting mainstream western values make you happier?

One of the happiest people I ever met, during a 6 month stay in a Buddhist centre, was a monk named Rabden – curious, I thought, how a man who had rejected just so much of what we regard as normal in Britain, could be so happy. He had no full time job to give him status, he owned no possessions, he obviously had no wife, no friends in the Bessie sense of the word, he never watched TV or listened to music, the only clothes he wore were orange and yellow robes, and he lead a very constrained life of giving classes on Buddhism and meditating. I mean, for Buddha’s sake, he didn’t even have a Facebook account. How on earth could this person be so happy?

Now I know that not that all Buddhist monks are happy, and that not that not all people who are not Buddhist monks are unhappy, but when you meet someone as happy as this individual, it inspires you to know what they know, in this meeting inspired me to learn more about Buddhism and its approach to happiness – 20 years on I think I’m ready to pass this understanding on – but I’m going to break with Buddhist tradition (i.e. I’m going to intellectualize about this rather than live it) and try and demonstrate how the Buddhist path to happiness is the antithesis of how most of us seek to be happy in Western society.

I think this is pretty useful, and fits in nicely with  a few recent sociological/ psychological books on happiness and why so few people are actually happy in western societies. Books such Oliver Jame’s ‘Britain on the Couch’, Michael Foley’s ‘The Age of Absurdity’, and Richard Layard’s Happiness are the kind of books that spring to mind – but this offering is less social-scientific and more personal and spiritual (pseudo-spiritual is probably a better label).

What is happiness and how do we realize it – According to (my interpretation of) Buddhism?

First of all – the way Happiness is conceived of in Buddhism is different to the way it is conceived of in Mainstream Western Society

Achieving happiness for most people in the United Kingdom hinges on accumulating objects, people or states of mind that are believed to be desirable and avoiding objects, people and states of mind that are believed to be undesirable.

The ‘logic of happiness’ is as follows: ‘If I am currently in a state that I want to be in, then I am happy; or, ‘if I am in an undesirable state (for example, at work for many of us) then if I can only get to where I want to be at some future point, then I will be happy in the future.

To give some typical, concrete examples of how most of us think about happiness, it is quite common for many of us to equate happiness with desirable states such as being on holiday, while out shopping for nice new, desirable things; when we are with people we like. Similarly, when we are in undesirable states, we often find ourselves thinking about some happier time in the future: ‘If I can just get that car; have that hairdo; afford that holiday; get drunk at the weekend then I will be happy. Such thoughts are very typical in contemporary Britain, and hardly anyone would take umbrage with anyone else expressing such thoughts.

The above logic of happiness is based around the individual making effort to accumulate things that he or she does not have in this moment. Happiness involves being in a state that one believes to be desirable.

Happiness in Buddhism, on the other hand, is more about being content or satisfied, or sometimes just enduring what is in this present moment, rather than striving to achieve happiness at some future point.

The logic of happiness is ‘I am in this state; I accept it and I will be fully aware in it and focus on it, whether or not I deem this present state to be desirable or undesirable’. The logic is one of fully focusing on the present, on whatever is occurring, on whatever arises, even if that is not pleasant, rather than focusing on states believed to present that one believes one will be in some future time.

To give a concrete example of this, rather than finding myself unhappy at work and distracting myself from work with constant thoughts about what I will be having for dinner later, or about what I will be doing at the weekend, the Buddhist way is to give up on those thoughts of future pleasure and focus on what one is doing right now, in other words, one gives oneself up to the moment whether pleasurable or undesirable rather than giving up on the undesirable moment and distracting oneself with future thoughts of pleasure.

The logic of happiness in Buddhism is one of making an effort to focus on the present, making an effort to control one’s thoughts and desires so they do not take me away from this moment right here and right now. Happiness, or more accurately contentment involves giving up ones desires and accepting what is.

So the Buddhist ideal is one of achieving happiness through giving up desire, rather than trying to gain those things that one desires. This is a logic of happiness to be realised through detachment, rather than happiness to be gained through attachment.

The feeling of this type of happiness is one of peace of mind, of contentment and satisfaction with what one has rather than one of an excited lusting after what one desires, a calm contentment with what is, rather than a seeking after the high of attainment of what one desires.

The implication is that the feeling of happiness in Buddhism is one that is much is calmer than the typical visions of happiness that we have in the West, which often tends to involve images of ‘peak experiences’, of winning a contest, of gaining something extraordinary, of buzzing on a high.

The Buddhist Path to Happiness

The key to happiness in Buddhism is to follow something called the noble eightfold path – and this essentially boils down to the following principles – this isn’t a full interpretation of what’s involved in following Buddhism but these are some of its core principles – (the tenets as named in the path are in brackets)

  1. Knowing yourself and your ‘true nature’ ‘(right understanding’)
  2. Developing compassion (‘right thought’)
  3. Residing in the truth (‘right speech’)
  4. Renouncing material goods (‘right action’ – NB there is a lot more to this, but this is key!)
  5. Doing worthwhile and ethical work (‘right livelihood’)
  6. Leading a disciplined, routine life (‘right effort’)
  7. Being aware of what you are doing and not being carried away by passionate emotions (‘right concentration’)
  8. Meditating (‘right meditation’)

It’s worth noting that these tenets (which aren’t that dissimilar to most other mainstream religious ethical codes) argue that self-constraint and thinking of the social consequences of one’s actions are as important as ‘taking care’ of your ‘self’.

It is further worth noting that all of this links into a certain view of the nature of self and reality – there is logic behind what we should do to be happy and what the nature of the self really is – but I’m not going into that here (it’ll take too long)

The Buddhist view of happiness compared to the Western view of happiness

It is striking how the means whereby so many of us are encouraged to achieve happiness in the West is so often the complete antithesis of how to achieve happiness (defined more accurately as peace of mind) in Buddhism – to contrast to the 8 fold path above – it is not unusual to see people suggesting that one does any number of the following to be happy –


  1. Constructing and expressing your self – i.e. your self-identity – through consuming products, constructing a narrative of the self on Facebook, and our obsession with biography and celebrity all suggests we see this as crucial to happiness
  2. Putting yourself, or at least your family first and acting out of self-interest – rather than devoting yourself to the service of others (ok so a lot of people give to charity, but this is after one’s sorted oneself out)
  3. Acting/ concealing aspects of the truth or just downright lying  – ok I’ll admit that lying is generally frowned upon, but our obsession with privacy maybe suggests we like to conceal the fullness of ourselves from the world – and isn’t acting out social roles really just lying about who we really rather than being fully open and honest?
  4. Accumulating stuff and attaching yourself to particular people and values – this is obvious – and it includes our obsession with romantic love and children.
  5. Doing a job primarily for the money rather than the social good – ok once again there are plenty of people who choose to do socially useful jobs, but many who see work as just a means to an end.  
  6. Being free to pick and choose, being freedom from routine, trying new things, striving to constantly reinvent yourself – this speaks for itself
  7. When at work – switching off – again – this should ring true with many
  8. Always doing rather than sitting still – one of my pet hates – we tend to think the happiest people are the busiest – not necessarily true.

So that’s the rather eclectic theory out of the way but the question I’m left with is this – and talk about a question that’s going to be a total nightmare to control for and operationalise – are people who are more inclined to define happiness as ‘peace of mind’ and seek happiness through Buddhist means happier than those who define happiness as ‘maximizing peak experiences’ and who seek happiness through the means of mainstream Western Society?

Related links

The Buddhist way to happiness

Buddha – Pursuit of Happiness

The sources of happiness according to Buddhism

Can Buddhists transcend mental reservations?

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