Posted by Realsociology on 1st January 2013
1. Be mindful
2. Be compassionate
3. If you fail at either of these, just try again
(Not necessarily in that order, and with thanks to The Buddha etc.)
Posted by Realsociology on 1st January 2013
1. Be mindful
2. Be compassionate
3. If you fail at either of these, just try again
(Not necessarily in that order, and with thanks to The Buddha etc.)
Posted by Realsociology on 13th May 2012
As a society we are obsessed with expressing ourselves, thinking that our happiness depends on our ability to do so. Here’s why I think ‘playing the game of self-expression’ won’t make you happy.
Self expression is closely related to self-construction, and by this I mean the reflexive process of actively picking, choosing and attaching myself to those objects, people and activities which ‘I’ think are desirable and developing a notion and coming to understand ‘myself’ as something tangible and meaningful which is fundamentally tied up with these things. The expressive element of self-construction involves any means whereby you ‘communicate’ something about yourself to the world: It is that process of reflecting on what you like and dislike about the actions, aspirations and opinions of others, and then identifying with or against some of these actions, aspirations and opinions, and finally deciding which of these is identifications is worth ‘shouting about’ – hence expressing yourself.
What I refer to as ‘the game of self-expression’ is widely celebrated in modern Britain. We see its practise in both the public and private realms of the tangible social world, from the high street and the night club, to our living, dining and bedrooms; and we see it in the hyperreal domains of virtual worlds, from the professionally orchestrated world of popular culture to the user-generated world of Facebook. There are many different ‘selves’ out there being expressed and many numerous ways of expressing ‘one’s self’ – but the message is clear, whatever self-identity you choose to construct, and by whatever means you choose to express it – you should express that self loud and clear for others to see.
Our culture compels us to express ourselves – Our very happiness seams to rest on our ability to not only figure out ‘who’ we are, but also, crucially, on our ability to adopt successful strategies for proclaiming this unto the world – happiness lies in self-expression, misery in self-chastity. This notion of self-expression as being crucial to human happiness is something that goes largely unquestioned. In fact, the very discourse of happiness is infused with the ideology of self-expression – One of the most widely accepted indicators of happiness is the extent to which you are free to express your ‘true self’.
For many of us, our unconscious ‘vision of happiness’ is of someone actively engaged in an activity that involves them vivaciously ‘expressing themselves’ – Media types singing, dancing and having a jolly good time on the studio set being one archetype, but at a more mundane level this might involve visions of oneself engaging whatever leisure activities reflects one’s own personal preferences –sport, art, dance, holidaying, religion, politics, or a more exciting mixture of any of the above. Conversely, we pity those who are not free to express themselves – Everyone from veiled Muslim women to Mummy’s boys whose identities have been stifled by motherly love; we pity them, because they have been cut off from playing the game of self-expression.
In fact, so integral is ‘the self’ to our notions of happiness, that the very act of ‘constructing myself’ is itself is viewed as something that makes one happy – This could mean shopping for clothes, the hour or more ritual of getting ready to go out, which effectively involves painting a particular ‘image’ on oneself, or it might mean the more ‘day to day’ business of updating one’s Facebook status. So crucial is our success at expressing a social identity to our happiness, that there is even an industry built up around it – of personal shoppers, body language experts and life-coaches and so dominant is the idea that ‘constructing and expressing the self is crucial to happiness, that an inability to ‘successfully express oneself’ is seen as a reason for failure in all sorts of fields of life – most egregiously in pop programmes such as the X factor where one of the criteria fledging stars are judged on is their ability to ‘express their personality’ through their music, while back in the mundane world, some of us may fail in everything from job interviews to first dates because of our inability to express ourselves as someone worth knowing, irrespective (crucially) of who we really are.
The dominance of the ‘discourse of self expression is evident in the incredible array of ‘techniques of self expression’ that is available to us to ‘express ourselves’ – We find its logic in fashion, which has to be the most publically visible and the most obvious example of how we express ourselves – Many of us buy clothes not just for their functionality, but to say something about ourselves – or at the very least to ‘fit in’ with image-trends. Similarly, the houses in which we live are not just vessels to keep us warm and dry – they are vessels in which we store stuff that tells the story of ourselves – many of us live as if someone were going to look ‘through the keyhole’ – dressing up our living rooms, bedrooms, and even our kitchens, with objects that express something about ‘myself’.
I could spend pages listing the vast array of objects that are used to the ends of self expression, suffice to say for now there are many, and to just briefly comment on how far this logic of self expression has penetrated – even into the realms of our personal lives where relationships and family lives themselves have increasingly become about ‘self-expression’ – Consider how much time couples spend clothes shopping, decorating their house, or preparing themselves for evenings out – mutually reflecting on how best to express themselves as a ‘couple’.
It is hard to dispute the centrality of ‘the game of self-expression’ to modern social life, and it is similarly hard to dispute the notion that many of us expend considerable time, money and effort in both constructing and expressing ourselves in the belief that this effort will make us happy. Unfortunately, while our expressive indulgences might well make my believed to be tangible constructed self temporarily happy, in the long term, playing this game is more likely to perpetuate ignorance and misery.
Why ‘playing the game of self-expression’ won’t make you happy
Here I select three reasons why playing the game of self expression is unlikely to lead to true happiness. The first reason is that it perpetuates ignorance of the true nature of self, the second is that it encourages selfishness rather than compassion and the third reason is that it encourages fear and anxiety because of the contingent nature of ‘game’.
Firstly, and most importantly, playing the game of self-expression won’t make you happy because it contradicts the truth of the insubstantiality of self. In short, there is no essential self to express and thus constructing and expressing a self is merely an expression your denial or, more likely, ignorance of this truth.
From the point of view of Buddhism, all of futile hours you spend constructing and expressing your identity – all of those hours spent choosing your clothes, cultivating your special friendships, advancing your hobby and updating your Facebook page, all of this is nothing other than the projections of a deluded mind that is not at peace with itself and its true nature. Worse, not only is this practice the symptom of a deluded mind, it is also likely to lead to the perpetuation of this ignorance – because all of the time you spend reflexively constructing and expressing your social self, you are distracted from looking inwards, and quietly realising, through direct and immediate experience that you, the constructor, has no essential nature to express.
Secondly, happiness is unlikely to be forthcoming because the process of self expression is, by definition, inherently selfish, which is the antithesis of compassion. It is selfish because it presumes attention from others – An assumption that other people will give up their time to muse upon your constructed (and, remember, not really existent) identity. We dress a particular way, drive a particular car, or update our Facebook page expecting others to notice us – and the closer the ‘other’ to us, the more feedback we expect about the identities we express. The danger here is that if we receive attention, especially positive attention, from others about ‘my identity’ then all this will do is reinforce the deluded notion that ‘I’ matter more than everyone else, which is highly unlikely to be conducive to compassionate action where I act for the benefit of others.
The game is also selfish because it holds the potential for harming others. If we assume a reciprocal relationship where you reflect on my constructed identity in return for my reflecting on yours then there is also the potential for your own self-construction to harm others as you further reinforcing someone else’s ignorance of the true and insubstantial nature of their own self by reflecting on their mistakenly believed to be substantial social identity.
It is worth also reflecting briefly on how ludicrous playing the game is – If we generalise this selfish assumption – that ‘I’ matter’ and am worthy of the attention of others, then the situation becomes farcical, because in a society in which everyone expresses themselves thinking that others are looking at them, in reality no one would be looking at anyone in particular because everyone else would likewise be so wrapped up in their thoughts of how others are reflecting on them that they would, in fact, be too busy to notice anyone else.
The third, and for now final, reason that playing the game of self expression is unlikely to make you happy is that it is in fact a very fragile strategy for happiness. This is because the process of identity construction involves ‘me’ attaching myself to particular things – and when our identity, and thus our happiness is contingent on particular things, it is also fragile because these things can cease to be – Objects wear out or get lost or stolen, and people will die. The really tragic fact here is that the things I attach myself to do not actually have to be taken away for me to be miserable – quite often, the fear and anxiety at the possibility of their being removed are sufficient to make me miserable.
In reality, of course, this notion of expressing ‘myself‘through picking and choosing particular things to be of particular significance to ‘my identity’ is ridiculous because true nature is oneness with everything – something that can never be symbolically expressed.
The alternative to ‘playing the game of self-expression’, is to avoid playing it and to instead spend your time quietly and calmly looking inward, developing ‘right understanding’.
 Some sociologists might argue that the two acts of self-construction and self-expression are so interwoven as to effectively be the same thing, as the means whereby come to understand ourselves involves reacting to feedback to the social selves we express, consciously or unconsciously to the world. I use the two terms separately however, construction to refer to the process of literally that – constructing a self – this might be quiet and reflective, largely done in private, and by expressive I mean any aspect of myself already constructed that I forcibly project onto the world.
Posted by Realsociology on 19th April 2012
Or at least that’s what the guy serving me coffee this morning informed me as he sang along with Westlife on the radio.
I don’t think he was prepared for my response* – Poor bastard caught me in a muse mood.
‘No, they probably won’t’ I said as I fished for £2.65 worth of shrapnel, ‘and, if you wish to be truly happy, it’s not necessary that they do anyway… Surely our dreams (I assume Westlife are referring to day dreams) actually prevent us from focussing on what is actually going on in front of us, right now, from focussing on what is, rather than what could be; and it is our day dreams, too often based on unrealistic notions of what is actually possible, that make us miserable.
I say this because, in reality, what we have got here in front us, right now, isn’t actually that bad at all, and that there is nothing inherent in our typical day to day to lives that should make us miserable. Here we are, two people, both working or on their way to work, amidst a couple of hundred other people in a similar situation, and there is nothing inherently bad about this station, or this day. We are not starving, we are not in a war zone, we are not being persecuted – We are all well fed, housed, clothed, have access to a wondrous array of social services and huge consumer choice, and yet look around at how many people around us appear distracted or just down right miserable.
‘So why is it’, I continued, coffee and silly little biscuit now firmly in hand ‘that so many people are miserable? Could it be that they compare their perfectly adequate lives to unrealistic and unattainable media manufactured fantasies, day dreams if you like, and as a result feel unsatisfied with what actually is? Could it be that these fantasies, these dreams, these unreal figments of the mind, are actually responsible for making people miserable in their day to day to lives?
I would suggest, that instead of hoping that ‘our dreams come true’, we just give up on Westlife, give up on the mainstream media, and give up on their (not our) dreams and just simply focus on what is – Instead of dreaming, just be happy.’
Oddly enough he didn’t really seem up for responding, so I just closed with ’Thanks for the coffee, have a nice day’ – and I really, really meant it!
The lyrics to ‘dreams can come true are here - This is probably one of the worst pop songs of all time – This is objective truth – check it out for yourselves – Here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nS6bt-_KO7w
*OK – Some of this conversation, I may have just had with myself in retrospect, but what’s a little unreality in the age of post modernity?
Posted by Realsociology on 5th March 2012
This is a not-so-brief post on why I think Fashion is pointless – from a Buddhist point of view. It starts off with an allotment analogy but ends up with 6 reasons why I don’t like Fashion. (NB this first draft is quite abstract, I’ll jazz it up with a few pop. Culture references laters….)
Here we go……
When I go to my allotment I don’t tend to think too much about what I wear, other than to ensure suitable functionality for the tasks in hand. I just chuck on a pair of old walking trousers or traccy bottoms, combined with an out of shape T shirt and sweater – and of course my wellies – and off I trot.
Dressing for the allotment should be a model for dressing in wider society – because on the allotment, what you wear simply doesn’t matter, no one is in the slightest bit interested in judging you by your attire, and your outward appearance is almost completely irrelevant to your engagement with the land, the veg. and other people.
In fact, if you take a moment to reflect on it, what you wear is actually largely irrelevant to realising true happiness in the Buddhist sense of the word, where happiness is defined as realising a stable peace, or equanimity of mind.
Happiness in Buddhism requires one to walk the ‘Noble Eight Fold Path – and there is absolutely no reason why wearing basic, functional, even tatty, clothes, should prevent you from practising any of the following aspects of this path (narrowed down to 6 because of ease of analysis) –
No, there is no reason whatsoever, that you should be prevented from ‘walking the Buddhist path’ for lack of fancy clothes. In fact, where two aspects of the path are concerned – renunciation and trying to avoid being fussy through avoiding picking and choosing – giving up your desire for particular clothes and not worrying about what you wear would actually be positive steps towards their realisation.
Maybe it’s the fact that I love Buddhism so much that I enjoy the near total irrelevance of attire to human interaction on the allotment – there is definite synergy between the two; and maybe this also explains why I generally dislike most of society so much – because the allotment is actually the only ordinary day-to-day ‘public domain’ I can think of where what you wear simply doesn’t matter.
This is probably why, when I sometimes nip from my allotment into town in order to feed my coffee addiction (I’m not a perfect Buddhist), I feel slightly ill at ease when I’m standing in the coffee queue – I’m not dressed appropriately for playing the ‘expressing my middle class identity through spending £2.50 on some frothy milk and four shots of espresso to go’ game. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t exactly suffer anxiety attacks over this, and I’m not about to stop wearing my scruffy old allotment clothes, but I can feel the ‘you look too scruffy for this place vibe’ coming off some fellow coffee-expressers.
Now perhaps you think I’m being over-sensitive, but if you know me, you know I’m not exactly a sensitive person, so I think this vibe I feel is real – and it’s a result of the logic of ‘having to wear particular clothes in particular situations’ having penetrated so deeply into the average person’s psyche that they actually judge me – ME! – on the clothes I wear rather than ‘my deeper-self’ (which is f**king marvellous btw.)
I mean think about it – learning how to pick appropriate styles of clothes for particular situations is a basic part of our early socialisation – Work, weekends, weddings, for example, all require us to ‘know what to wear’, and in our fashion conscious age, we’re expected to select particular colours and cuts that suit our skin tone, body type, and age. Worse, we are called upon to periodically change our wardrobes to accommodate the latest season’s fashion – autumn/ winter – spring/summer – For all I know things now change more often and less predictably – frankly I couldn’t give a toss if they do.
Worse still – for some members of society, clothes aren’t just about fitting in – they are about standing out – and a considerable amount of money is spent on ‘shopping as leisure’ – many people going into debt in order to ‘look good’. And of course this whole process of adornment doesn’t stop at clothes – there’s also hair, nails and accessories. Obviously, at the time of writing, women have things a lot worse than men.
Worse still – many friendships and relationships are periodically colonised by clothes-shopping rituals – where you pair or group-up and parade around the shops reflecting on how certain combinations of clothes suit or not. This is actually regarded as fun by millions of people in Britain.
You’ve probably got the impression that I don’t approve of the time, money and effort so many people put into picking and choosing their items of clothing – and the reason I don’t approve is because this ritual that is so precious to so many people in Britain, this leisure pursuit that is so embedded in our popular-culture, all of this time, money and effort will do absolutely nothing at all to make you truly happy, at least not if you want to achieve happiness in the Buddhist sense of the word.
If we go back to the Noble Eight Fold Path you’ll see what I mean – Considering six of the aspects that lead to happiness – we can now see how the ritual of clothes shopping in order to express yourself through outward appearance is actually the antithesis of what you should/ should not be doing-
As a penultimate note I’ll just make one brief qualification – I do think one will generally be happier if clothes are functional to tasks at hand, clean, and fit appropriately. Besides these requirements, I fail to see how buying any new clothes in the next decade could possibly lead to my being any happier.
Finally, If the six reasons above aren’t enough to convince you that spending time, effort and money on fashion is a waste of time – try this for a closing thought – think about it logically – the only people who really care what you look like probably care what they look like – this means that they are probably walking around either worrying about how crap they think they look, or lauding over how good they think they look on any particular day. Either way, they probably aren’t paying you that much attention, so you may as well not bother trying to impress them.
Posted by Realsociology on 15th February 2012
I hope this actually makes sense - I think I may have overcooked it! May add in a few examples to illustrate what I actually mean laters.
The purpose of this blog post is to outline a Buddhist inspired critique of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – which I define as ‘the act of picking, choosing and purchasing products and services with the intention of other people noticing either the products or the effects of the services purchased’.
As I see it – Conspicuous consumption directly contradicts many Buddhist values, seems to go against every aspect of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path, and encourages a number of negative human emotions. For example, because it is inherently linked to the process of ‘self-expression’ it promotes, in the literal sense of the word, self-ish-ness, it is a practice rooted in ignorance (of the truth of no-I) that essentially involves lying in public about the true nature of self by parading around one’s carefully ‘constructed self’. It also involves attaching oneself to objects, making one’s continued happiness dependent on the continued consumption of these objects, thus promoting a condition of radical unfreedom, while at the same time encouraging us to define the very concept of ‘freedom’ as the ‘freedom to pick and choose objects with which to construct my identity’ rather than seeing freedom as being about seeking ‘release from the necessity of being attached to particular objects which I deem to be significant’. Furthermore, the imperative to ‘identify through consumption’ requires money – and thus conspicuous consumption can, in some cases, encourage individuals to seek a livelihood primarily for its monetary reward rather than its social usefulness. Finally, this ritual demands that others pay attention to the ‘social self’ I am expressing’ – thus entangling others into a web of constant distraction in which we are all expected to pay close attention to the microscopic detail of numerous social selves, rather than simply focusing on ‘what we are actually doing’ – which ultimately works against the Buddhist goal of meditative practice in daily life.
The rest of this post analyses how conspicuous consumption goes against many Buddhist values -
The first problem with conspicuous consumption is that it works to prevent the individual from quietly sitting down and realizing the ‘true nature of self’, which (and to the non-Buddhist this will sound paradoxical) is that there is no inherent, distinct, isolated ‘self’. Conspicuous consumption is the antithesis of this simple, albeit hard to realise truth, as it is a self-expressive act which involves ‘me’ investing time and money in picking and choosing products and services that ‘I’ like in order to consciously construct a ‘social- identity’ – an identity that, ultimately, has no essential nature outside of the effort that I put into constructing it.
Conspicuous Consumption is thus, quite literally, an act which promotes ‘self-ish-ness’ – in the sense that ‘I’ start with the assumption that not only do ‘I’ exist, but that ‘I’ am significant enough to warrant other people’s attention when ‘I’ express myself through the products and services ‘I’ consume – ‘I’ then return the favour of other people’s attention by noticing and commenting on their consumption habits, the end result being that our ‘society’ consists of people mutually engaged in the reflexive construction and expression of fictitious selves.
A preferred alternative to this farcical world of mutually reinforced ignorance would be a society in which we really do (and, again, somewhat paradoxically) act as individuals and quietly reflect on the ‘truth of non-self’ – which involves the gradual, and difficult to accept realisation that ‘I’ don’t actually exist as an independent identity at all, but rather, at root, ‘I’ am just one with everything else, and, in the grand scheme of things, am simply not that significant.
The second problem with conspicuous consumption is that it encourages us to seek happiness through attachment, rather than peace of mind through freedom.
The fundamental logic of conspicuous consumption involves linking together a selection of things, and then linking these things to ‘my idea of myself’ – and then consuming this selection of things in a public space, thereby constructing a ‘social identity’. The problem here is that my social identity is dependent upon things outside of myself – it is thus contingent and fragile – and open to the possibility of being destroyed unless I can maintain the continued consumption of those things which ‘I’ deam to be significant. This notion of ‘self identity through conspicuous consumption’ is characterised by a profound sense of unfreedom –because it locks ‘me’ into a cycle of continuous consumption in order to maintain myself. Put another way, identity construction through conspicuous consumption is identity consumption through attachment, which stands in contrasts to the Buddhist notion of seeking happiness through non attachment.
To make matters worse, we fail to see that this ritual of consumption is characterised by ‘unfreedom’ because, in our collective ignorance, we have come to define ‘freedom’ as the ‘freedom to pick and choose a selection of objects in process of identity construction’ – rather than defining freedom as ‘freedom from contingent identity construction through conspicuous consumption’.
A third and, for now final, problem with conspicuous consumption is that it demands attention from others and thus distracts us from the mundanities of daily life.
Think about it – there is an assumption behind the act of conspicuous consumption that other people should pay attention to ‘my social self’ – which in turn means their making the effort to understand the subtle meanings that I give to the products and services which I consume.
It is usually expected, for example, that people at least acknowledge new items of clothing, or a new haircut, or that ‘I’ve been on another holiday’ – and the closer my relationship to another person – the more attention they are expected to pay to my consumption choices.
The assumption that the fictitious self I have constructed is important enough to warrant input from other people really is the height of selfish arrogance – not only do I distract myself with consideration of how ‘I’ appear to others, but I also expect others to recognise and thereby assist in the perpetuation of this fictitious and insubstantial self-identity. Ultimately, this works to distract the attention of others away from ‘whatever they may be doing’ – away from the calm, meditative practices of daily life that are crucial to developing the kind of sustained concentration necessary for realising true peace of mind.
Of course the conspicuous consumption does not make it impossible for individuals to lead a Buddhist inspired lifestyle in some respects, but its very logic is so antithetical to Buddhist Ontology and the potential to discourage Buddhist ethical practice so huge, that if anyone wants to achieve real happiness, rooted in truth, it is probably best to avoid it altogether.
So to conclude, if you want to develop lasting, stable happiness, or more accurately peace of mind, that is non-contingent, and based on the ‘truth of self’, and if you wish to contribute to the construction of a society which allows others the freedom to do likewise, then don’t waste your time on constructing a fake and insubstantial social identity through conspicuous consumption.
So what – you may ask – is the alternative? Well, for a start, you could just sit there!
Posted by Realsociology on 8th December 2011
In honour of Buddha’s Enlightenment day – a quick post on how the Buddhist view of how we should ‘realise’ happiness appears to be the antithesis of how most of us in the west typically go about trying to ‘achieve’ happiness.
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 eight 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)
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 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 -
So According to Buddhism, being truly happy may well involve rejecting most, if not all, of the values of our modern neoliberalised culture…. go on, do it, give it up, let it go – see if you can chillax without the flash…
Posted by Realsociology on 24th October 2011
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)
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)
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 -
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?
Posted by Realsociology on 7th August 2011
This latest programme represents a new Nadir in televisual lifestyle viewing. If anything reproduces neoliberal ideology at the level of the lifeworld it’s this - for ‘house’ you can read ‘debt fuelled consumption’ and for ‘win’ you can read ‘competition is good’ – and that’s even before we get onto the subtler normalisation of the construction of the self through the conspicious consumption of material objects and the lampooning of the working class – for details read on!
The show’s web site says ‘May The Best House Win is the daytime ITV1 series (ok I caught it on a Sunday morning rerun) that sees the owners of some of Britain’s most interesting and unusual homes compete against each other in a bid to win a cash prize.’
In each episode four proud homeowners open their doors to each other and let them cast a critical gaze on their property masterpiece – they score the property out of ten and the winner gets a £1000 cash prize.
The one episode I watched witnessed one working class woman (she ran a fancy dress store – so self employed – successful w.c.) in a relatively ordinary house – one upper middle class woman living in a perfectly presented family home (mod cons to the hilt – having a particular fetish for odd taps), an interior designer (at least I think that’s what she was, but frankly I couldn’t give a toss) living in a flat which she had spent 20 years filling full of arty objects including a mural on of the walls, and in what must be the ironic gesture in world history -a 3 ft tall glittery Buddha, and finally some woman who lived in a 3 story Georgian mansion with a pool which had featured on footballers’ wives.
The show basically consisted of the working class woman being pilloried by the commentators as she paradaded around the decidely more opulent middle class homes loudly demonstrating her lack of middle class taste and manners while the other three got all luvy-duv with eacother, by the end of the show they were offering up their deference to the 3 story Mansion dweller (‘ My daughter goes to school up the road’ said the only-middling-upper-middle-class-interior designer- ‘and of all the houses I go past (no doubt in her Chelsea Tractor) this is the one I always wanted to look inside’)
Incidentally, the working class woman turned up to the Mansion with a general look of disbelief on her face (last to arrive after editing) and was shown walking in the door to the ‘Mr Ben’ theme tune (for those of you that remember Mr Ben*) - no, you should not be incredulous about those that are more successful than you – even if the only way they can afford a house like that is by trading in children’s organs.
Anyway as if this genre of programmes wasn’t bad enough for giving us unrealistic ideas about the average standard of living this little number ramps things up by overtly lampooning the poorest, working class, member of the foursome invovled.
Lets remember that the norm in British housing is that
These programmes can only serve to give us an unrealistic idea of what’s normal and foster negative emotions such as materialism, greed and jealousy – oh and hatred, but I won’t say what I want to do the producers – but let’s just say I’ve thought up some pretty creative uses for that glittery Buddha…
*For those of you don’t Mr Ben was a character who went to a fancy dress shop, put on a certain costume and was transported temporarily to a different world, depending on the costume he was wearing. I remember the ‘space man’ episode being particulary thrilling, although I don’t remember anything about him going to three story georgian mansion land though.