I'm reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler. In it, they suggest that we should focus on pursuing happiness as our goal in life and the we should be careful to make a distinction between happiness and pleasure. Doing crack, drinking alcohol and even enjoying nice weather are mostly pleasures and not real happiness.

One of the core elements of happiness, according to the Dalai Lama, is compassion. Cutler describes how many psychologists will argue that man is inherently greedy and that the first thing that babies try to do is look for a nipple to suck milk - an inherently greedy desire. However, Cutler argues that babies also have a basic instinct to connect with people and illicit a smile or compassion. Babies will stare at you and smile and this makes you feel good and care about the baby. This basic social behavior is an important instinct for babies in addition to the sucking for milk. The argument is that compassion is also a basic human behavior and not something that you have to learn after you are older.

The Dalai Lama describes ways of increasing compassion. One exercise he suggests is to meditate or think deeply about someone or something (like an animal) and think of that person or animal suffering. You could imagine a lamb in fear before it is about to be slaughtered or a friend in some deep pain. As you imagine this, a feeling of compassion emerges. The Dalai Lama explains that one should be able to feel compassionate towards everyone and everything.

In general, I'm a fairly compassionate person, but I do have people and things that annoy me. Recently I've started to practice meditating on those things that annoy me and building compassion and understanding. I still find it difficult at times, but as I do it more and more, I'm finding that I'm becoming happier and happier.

We then realize that we need to develop patience to build compassion. Our patience grows by being challenged by annoying or hurtful people and events. It is these people and events that ultimately are our teachers. We should learn to cherish and be thankful for these annoying things, because without them we would not grow and become even happier. (So thank you all of you annoying people! ha!)

Compassion vs greed is something that we've been talking a lot about in the context of amateur vs professional. I think that compassion and the happiness one gains from giving and sharing is one of the fundamental driving forces of the sharing economy just as greed and the "economic man" are fundamental elements of capitalism and neo-classical economics. I think that in order to really understand how the sharing economy works, we need to understand how happiness works and what makes people choose compassion over greed.

We often make decisions which involved trying to decide which decision will make us happier. We often mistake pleasure for happiness and make the choice that may be more pleasurable instead of the choice that would provide more long-term happiness. The Dalai Lama says that just framing questions to yourself in terms of what will give you more happiness and making a distinction between happiness and pleasure will help us make the right decisions.

It often takes self-control or will to choose happiness over pleasure. As I become more conscious of my happiness, I realize that awareness of this distinction and awareness of your happiness helps to reinforce and provide feedback for your decisions. This feedback makes it easier and easier to make the "right" choice.

Update: Added "patience" in paragraph about teachers.

18 Comments

Just some additional thoughts...

Many if not most people I know who love money are not "happy". People who are obsessed with making money for the sake of making money are engaged in an obsessive behavior like taking drugs, gambling or other behavior that is aways a desire, but provides pleasure that dissipates either physically or by rapid adjustment. One is never truly happy.

I think that when "more than enough is too much", we enter a more stable mode and focus on those things that really make us happy.

One of the problems of the language of economics and sometimes law, is that it frames the discussion in terms of measurements of success that are typically "the more the better" rather than "more than enough is too much." I think that we need to change the framing of the conversation in order to help us think about happiness instead of pleasure and get us out of goals which encourage damaging obsessive pursuits.

The Dalai Lama has often talked about the compassion he feels toward the Chinese tormentors who have so effectively worked at destroying his culture. That's a stretch I don't think I'd ever be able to make.

You may also enjoy "Ethics for the New Millennium", a book the Dalai Lama wrote not long after "The Art of Happiness". In this book, he extends the ideas of compassion and restraint to personal ethics and society. It's a very hopeful and inspiring read.

Excellent insight.

Joi, also check out The Art of Happiness at Work, the same principles applied to attaining purposeful contentment in the work place...

Compassion is not a mental state like empathy. Compassion is not just feeling concern for others' suffering, it is TAKING ACTION to relieve their sufferings.

This is my problem with Tibetan buddhists, you cannot become compassionate no matter how many hours you devote to meditation on the subject. But one can BE compassionate with only the simplest acts. Enlightenment is not found while contemplating one's navel, it is found out in the world, relieving suffering and leading others to enlightenment.

Charles: I agree that action is important, but wouldn't you agree that feeling compassion is a necessary step in taking action?

Charles, taking action can be easy, some might argue that the underlying thought or motivation behind the action to be more significant than the action itself.

Maneck Mohan, if Charles performs his act of kindness how do you think the benefactor of his compasion would answer your question?

Sorry I pasted in the middle of an edit the above post should read:

Maneck Mohan, if Charles performs his act of kindness how do you think the recipient of his compassion would answer your question?

When you say "more than enough is too much" it immediately makes me think of Nigo, the Bathing Ape guy from Tokyo whose delight in voracious consumption is meant, I suppose, to seem exciting and amusing but strikes me as borderline sociopathic. When I saw the photos of his teak-lined garage with the virginal Bentley parked there I had to wonder: does having a teak-lined garage with a Bentley in it really make Nigo happy?

Sad to say, I think he learned this behavior from watching American celebrities.

Will, I think that the purpose of any action is a result.
While we exercise control over the action we perform, the result is often beyond our control. One might say that an action motivated by compassion may ultimately yield more beneficial results for all. (this opens the conversation up to the topic of Karma, so apologies if I am taking this off topic)

I definitely both action and thought are important, but I think that meditation and feeling compassion can allow one to act with more strength, resolve and in a more sincere way than simply doing it out of dogma or because one is ordered to do so. Thich Nhat Hanh and his Vietnamese monks, for example, continue to amaze me with their compassion in the face of difficulties in completing their actions.

But I think the notion of compassion and happiness shouldn't be reserved to Buddhist monks, but should be something that we all think about when making life's decisions and actions.

While I agree with Charles that action is needed when being compassionate towards people, it is easy to see alot of people acting out of "public requirement" to do so.

Here, alot of people give to charity (monthly "subscriptions", the infamous "chuggers" - charity muggers.), fund charities, openly to the point of making it public knowledge at any opportunity.

But if you ask those people "have you thought about those people you are helping", alot don't - "I give to charity because its the right thing to do".

Ireland is funny, because there seems to be an idea of "charity at a distance".

I agree with Joi that, actually feeling compassion, and thinking about what those people suffer, is as important as the act of giving.

It is very easy to go through the motions of giving, without actually thinking about what/who you are giving to.

I picked this book up about 6-7 years ago, and I have read itat least once a year since then.

Instead of religion classes in school, this should be part of the required textbook reading.

Compassion and happiness should definately not be reserved to Buddhist monks, it should be practiced by everyone, daily.

Just a thought,
bernard

I've been doing some reading myself, looking at the intersection of Buddhism, nature, and science, and how to be "happy." I'm not sure if compassion is the path, or a sign that you've arrived. I'm interested in Cloninger's work on the notion of self-transcendence, and the three keys to achieve it.
clipped from: emerson.typepad.com

Cloninger determined that there were three common characteristics of people who included self-transcendence as part of their daily experience:

Transpersonal identification. You can not only identify with your fellow humans, but plants, animals, the planet itself.

Mysticism. You have a willingness to be interested in things that can’t be explained by rationale and reason.

Self forgetfulness. You have the ability to get lost in the moment, you can be absorbed in art, music, sport and recreation, and other activities, like hobbies. Cloninger referred to this as achieving the “flow state.”

Dale: Interesting. I think that transpersonal identification, mysticism and self-forgetfulness are all parts of mindful meditation that helps a lot and is probably essential in the kind of compassion that the Dalai Lama talks about.

And I just finished the book. Probably should have finished before I posted since there is a great part on courage and determination to cause action and change. The Dalai Lama says the following verse gives him the courage and helps with his determination:

As long as space endures As long as sentient beings remain May I too live To dispel the miseries of the world.

In my opinion - "pleasures" and "happiness" are the same thing. I would argue the two buckets are "happiness" and "joy". See - www.pursuitofjoy.com I would contend that people that pursue their own happiness exclusively are not following the Will of God. The Holy Spirit gives us the Fruit of Joy, and I thank Him everyday for this gift.

David:: To say pleasure and happiness are the same thing is to say pain and suffering are the same thing. This cannot be true because pleasure and pain are physical experiences, while happiness and suffering are mental states of being.

As for pursuing your own happiness "exclusively"...That isn't even what compassion is about. When you truly feel compassion, great compassion, experiencing happiness is no longer about you but others. Bringing others happiness and freedom from their suffering becomes your greatest goal. Is that not the "Will of God"?

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Apparently I'm not the only one interested in happiness. There's an interesting exchange of comments in entrepreneur/thinker Joi Ito's blog regarding the role of compassion in our well-being, based on his reading of The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Read More

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