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Aristotle meets the Dalai Lama

1 Feb

Aristotle-Face1 Dalai Lama 2

Generally speaking, in spite of the fuss we make about its onset, January is not a month for happiness. Personally I’m not sorry it’s over. However, its early stages are often marked by discourses on the happiness theme, and one of them was provided by Mark Tully in Something Understood, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 6. This is the date when Christians celebrate the festival of the epiphany – meaning revelation or ‘bringing to the light’.


According to Tully the Dalai Lama (not himself a Christian, of course) believes that  the purpose of our life is to seek happiness – that the whole motion of our life is towards it. But is this a reasonable goal? Yes, the Dalai Lama replies. We can attain happiness by training our minds. Inner discipline helps us to transform our attitudes – our approach to living. We need to identify the factors in our lives that lead to happiness and those that lead to suffering, and then gradually eliminate the latter, and cultivate the former. 

Although I’m not in general a fan of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ idea, I’m really not disagreeing with any of this. I do want to be happy, and unlike some of the friends I talk to I believe that happiness is something we can work at. Some people have made the decision not to aim at happiness, and I respect them for this – it’s a reasonable and I think in some ways a moral point of view.  But most of us seek it, and this is probably a necessary thing, and possibly even a good one, provided it doesn’t lead to complacency (which I suspect is not something we can accuse the Dalai Lama of). But I do feel strongly that the pursuit of happiness is a personal endeavour – a product of the principle of individualism – and that it isn’t going to change the world. As a species we might even be better off without it. 

One reason why I’m inclined to favour the Dalai Lama’s views is that they seem to be quite close to those of Aristotle, although I do find Aristotle a bit more convincing. In the Nicomachean Ethics the philosopher argues that what distinguishes us humans from other animals is that we have a rational soul: our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason is our distinguishing feature – our ‘telos’ or end. So if we use our reason well, we are living well as human beings, and this is what our happiness (our ‘eudaimonia’) consists of.  Living well means doing something, not just being in a particular condition – it means pursuing those lifelong activities which will satisfy the rational part of our being. But Aristotle also makes it clear that in order to be happy we need other things as well – such as friends, money, and political power –  because our capacity to live in accordance with reason will be diminished if we lack these advantages.

“This gives rise to the question, can happiness be learnt, or acquired by training? … or is it bestowed by some divine dispensation or even by fortune?  Well, if anything that humans have is a gift from the gods, it is reasonable to suppose that happiness is divinely given … Still, even if happiness isn’t sent to us from heaven, but is gained by virtue and by some kind of study or practice, it does nevertheless seem to be one of the most divine things that exists.”    

(Nicomachean Ethics 1097b-1099b ). 

Does this mean that we also have a duty to be happy, as one of Tully’s other contributors – theologian Christopher Kaczor – was arguing? I’m afraid that it might, but for the time being I’m resisting the idea.  When you’re feeling depressed, the last thing you need is someone standing over you, saying, ‘Come on, snap out of it! You’re under a moral obligation to be happy, don’t you realise that?’ This approach, I find, isn’t remotely helpful. 



Can we teach happiness (and is it worthwhile)?

23 Sep

Dalai Lama     A couple of days ago the Dalai Lama’s endorsement of an Action for Happiness course which offers training in how to be happy made the headlines. ‘Can happiness really be taught?’ the media were asking.

Personally I’m not knocking such courses. I’m sure lots of people find them helpful. At one time I would probably have got quite a lot out of one myself; and they certainly provide a cheaper alternative to psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. But I’d like to make a couple of observations. 

Firstly, on the individual level if we want to achieve something we generally have to suffer a bit, or even quite a lot. We have to work and worry and deal with self-doubt and stay at our desks or in our workshops instead of going out to the pub with our friends. And secondly, for me, the happiness of the individual is not the main point. I found an excellent illustration of this in a comment made by one of the previous participants in a happiness course. ‘I’ve not got a lot of money,’ the young woman said. ‘But I’ve learnt to get pleasure from some very simple things, like buying a homeless person a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Something like that makes me feel so much better.’ 

Good on her. It’s more than I ever do for a homeless person, and I bet the recipient as well as the giver felt better for a while too. But we mustn’t believe that the homeless person’s prospects are going to be fundamentally changed by her action. The point as far as the homeless person is concerned is that the rest of us ought to be struggling to change the world, not just making it a little bit nicer for the one on the streets. For the individual who takes on such a burden on a full-time basis this may well mean the end of happiness, not its beginning, because it will be hard and exhausting and soul-destroying and certainly in the short term a failure. I’m not brave enough to do it myself, but I do hope that there are people out there who will make that sacrifice, because there’s an awful lot that needs to be done.