Happiness and Its Ambiguities

By Jeremy Adam Smith | November 26, 2008 | 4 comments

I spent Monday at the "Happiness & Its Causes" conference in San Francisco. The title might, I suppose, sound shallow, and yet the Monday morning panel was startlingly ambiguous and profound.

At one point, for example, Greater Good editorial board member Paul Ekman linked the recognition of suffering to the possibility of happiness, an insight that both science and religion have discovered using completely different tools. Buddhism and Darwin, he said, agree about the roots of compassion: If I see you suffering, that makes me suffer, therefore ending your suffering can cause me happiness. For Darwinians, this compassionate loop emerges because our biology wires us together; for Buddhism, we are linked through the spirit.

Later, Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel argued that Buddhism provided similar insights about death, believing that the best way to deal with the idea of mortality is to make it familiar, an insight confirmed by a fair amount of empirical research. I later thought that you see similar processes at work in other religions–what is the image of Christ on the cross if not a reminder of our mortality? If we fear death too much, implied Spiegel, happiness is impossible. In fact, he said, suppressing sadness can prevent happiness.

Quite a few of the panelists actually argued that happiness should not be the ultimate goal of existence. Philosopher and psychologist Owen Flanagan (another editorial board member) paraphrased Kant: Happiness is one thing, being good is another. And indeed, he said, preaching contentment for its own sake only serves the interests of the powerful.

Spiegel went on to add that in bad times, the goal should be to convert corrosive emotions (that reinforce helplessness) into emotional states that provoke action or reflection: convert anxiety into fear, depression into sadness, illness into meaning. We can achieve happiness when we are actively trying to make the world a better place.

In the end, summarized moderator Alan Wallace (a Tibetan Buddhist scholar), true happiness is seeing reality for what it is. This might sound counterintuitive to some; the message we hear most often in our culture is that happiness is possible only when reality is viewed through rose-colored glasses. But Flanagan, Ekman, and Spiegel all agreed: Part of the challenge is to recognize the reality of limits and interconnectedness. Happiness, in short, is other people.

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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Was parenting education a topic of discussion at the conference?

David | 10:39 am, November 29, 2008 | Link


Thank you for posting this. It sounds very interesting. I’d love to have been there.
I was fortunate enough to attend (volunteer) at the conference that was held in London this year. I heard Dr David Matsumoto, speak of Dr Ekman’s work and his own on micro-emotions. His brilliant (and very humourous) presentation gave me great clarity on the difference between emotions which are transient and moods which are more like states. Happiness (joy) as an emotion is something that is fleeting. Enduring happiness on the other hand can be cultivated   through meditation and other forms of mind training. It was interesting to hear Mathieu Ricard to begin to use the term’wellbeing’ instead of happiness to describe the state that can be cultivated by many hours of meditation. It was also interesting to see studies that show how compassion and loving kindness meditation correlate with an increased response and willingness to aid those in distress.
I completely agree with the Spiegel on the fact that suppressing emotions like sadness can actually prevent us being happy. Emotions tell us that something important is going on. They enable us to orientate ourselves in the world. In trying to only experience what we deem to be positive emotions we do a grave injustice to ourselves. Over time we may in fact become numb to ourselves and the richness of human emotional life. To quote Jung, The gold is in the dark’.
Warmest regards

Gerry | 7:03 am, December 3, 2008 | Link

Jeremy Adam Smith's avatar

Hi David. Parenting came up consistently in many of the presentations, and was the focus of the second afternoon of the conference–that panel included a talk by Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center. I wasn’t present, unfortunately, but please do contact the conference organizers through their website–I’m sure recordings are available.

Jeremy Adam Smith | 1:22 pm, December 3, 2008 | Link


I would like to hear the presentations that had to do with parenting, but I haven’t had any success locating them.  Can you direct me?

David | 2:53 pm, December 28, 2008 | Link

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