Owen Flanagan:

Does Buddhism promise happiness, and if so, what kind? Presumably it is not the familiar “happy-happy-joy-joy kick your heels” kind of happiness, not the Hugh Hefner kind of happiness, and it is not the ephemeral happiness that comes from winning the lottery. Instead, some say that Buddhism offers no kind of happiness, but it offers an end to suffering, which is very different. You have a headache. I give you aspirin. You are not suffering. But are you happy?

There is much hype in recent years about the good effects of Buddhist meditation on health, well-being, and happiness. This, plus the fact that in Buddhism there is no creator God, makes Buddhism especially attractive to liberal post-Abrahamic folk who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But is happiness important? Were Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, or Martin Luther King Jr. happy? It seems an odd question. They each lived great lives. They mattered. Aristotle said that happiness is not the most important thing, but meaning, purpose and fulfillment are. A malevolent person could be happy, but the meaning and significance of his life are worthless and evil. According to Aristotle, one cannot tell whether an individual flourished or lived in a fulfilled and fulfilling way, until after he is dead and gone, one sees how the grandchildren turn out. This means that flourishing, purpose and meaning are not completely subjective, not located solely in the head, and thus not to be seen there on brain scans. It became clear to me that although American culture hypes happiness, it is generally of a shallow type and that no great spiritual tradition ever promises anything like that sort of happiness.

I maintain that it makes more sense to think of happiness as a point around which we travel in an elliptical orbit, sometimes closer than others, but never a point to be occupied, possessed. The harmony and symmetry of the orbit are the sublime parts.

I sit here this morning, amply fed and sufficiently warm. I’m enjoying the look of frost on the ground outside my window and the sound of choral Christmas music on the stereo. I’m fretful over whether or not my financial goals for this week will be met, and if not, what that will bode for the next couple months. I’m eagerly anticipating the next batch of library sales, both as a salve for those financial worries as well as the pure joy of the hunt for new books. I’m wistful and slightly melancholic as I recall that today marks two years since my closest canine companion died from cancer, and I spent a few minutes in sober contemplation as I held the bag of his ashes and relived that day. I have an indescribable mix of thoughts and feelings left over from yesterday after visiting my childhood home, encountering the usual spurs to reminiscence, and listening to my parents talk about health and aging, which prompted a slightly more vivid awareness of mortality, both theirs and mine. I’m excited to be able to spend the day at home cleaning and decorating and even playing video games if I want. I’m fearing for Liverpool’s chances against Manchester City on Sunday, but glad to be able to sit and watch soccer games this weekend. And I’m contented by the steady, comforting presence of my girlfriend.

In other words, a typical day. What does it even mean to try to sum it all up by saying yes or no to the question of happiness? I’m alive, that’s good enough.