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Submitted by Jon Rubinstein on Wed, 3/16/2011, 7:16am
Roger Cohen wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times on the British Prime Minister's move to measure his citizenry's happiness. Apparently, a nation's well-being isn't entirely defined by the growth in its GDP.
"Now most people have enough––or far more than enough by the standards of human history––but the question remains: 'What's going on inside their heads?' Little that's good, it seems. Stress has become the byword for a spreading anxiety. This anxiety's personal, about jobs and money and health, but also general: that we can't go on like this, running only to stand still, making things faster and faster, consuming more and more food (with consequent pressure on prices); that somehow a world of more than seven billion people is going to have to 'downshift' to make it, revise its criteria of what constitutes well-being."
This is old news in some circles; the Buddha had a few things to say on the topic about 2,500 years ago, and (Buddhist) Bhutan's been onto the idea for quite a few years. There's more than a few Buddhist titles on the topic: Sharon Salzberg's Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, Matthieu Ricard's Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, The Dalai Lama's Art of Happiness, Lama Zopa Rinpoche's How to be Happy are among the most accessible.
But it does seem like to the Western world that we Buddhists are exotic and strange; someone asked me the other night if Buddhism was anything like Scientology. So when I bring up the idea of happiness and its causes in a business meeting, well, people look at me like I'm high. That makes it exciting, to see this kind of talk from a Western leader, even if there's a certain pragmatism to it.
This discussion really hit me, during this week of unspeakable calamity in Japan––a reminder that, as Ethan pointed out recently, "things are always falling apart... but at amazingly different rates of decay.... aren't disasters just a way of seeing what's going on all the time?" As Mary Oliver reminded us, "doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?"
Cohen pointed out that the Declaration of Independence (I almost typed Interdependence)... "when it comes to happiness, only the quest for it is underwritten. Still, perhaps it's time to measure just how that quest is going."
This might even be jumping the gun! I think we have to start with the premise that happiness is possible. Even the biggest cynics among us will admit that true happiness doesn't come from acquisition, and the happiest moments of our lives have little to do with the money we've earned. But daily, I run into people waiting for their lives to start, missing out on the magic that's right here at this very moment. "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons," Eliot wrote.
Many think of happiness as something that might happen one day, and will generally involve them finally getting what they want. A career, a relationship, status. And in the interim, we measure out our lives with coffee spoons, and happiness isn't really something we even imagine possible. Ethan suggested that because we can't prepare for groundlessness, "...maybe that's what practice is all about - training ourselves to realize and relax with the fact that we'll never actually be prepared when the earthquake hits." Then there's a chance for a life like Oliver describes:
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
I do hope we start measuring our Gross National Happiness here. I think it'd go a long way towards people realizing that happiness is even a possibility.
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