Buddhism and Modern Psychology on what makes us happy

This is an adaptation of my final essay for the course Buddhism and Modern Psychology by Princeton University. Skipping a lot of the theory, I address how modern science lends support to the Buddhist ideas of what makes us happy.

What Buddha taught

Buddha’s teachings, known as Dharma, are summarized in the four Noble Truths:

  1. The existence of suffering
  2. The cause of suffering
  3. The cessation of suffering
  4. The eightfold path (right view, right intention, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration)

The first two Noble Truths are what we call the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human predicament, Duhkha in Sanskrit. However, the translation as “suffering” may give the wrong impression, so we can consider “unsatisfactoriness” as a more comprehensive translation.

Why are we never satisfied?

According to Buddha, we want and pursue things, and when we achieve them, we pause only momentarily to enjoy them. Soon after, we want more of the same or something new. Modern Psychology agrees. What happens in our brain is that dopamine spikes in anticipation of a pleasure, but does not significantly increase when pleasure actually happens. We have a tendency to anticipate and look forward to things. When we finally achieve them, our sense of satisfaction is fleeting. It doesn’t last as long as we thought it would.

You may observe this in yourself when you are scrolling down news-feeds on social media or news apps. What keeps you going is the anticipation that you will find something worthy of your attention and time. When you actually do, do you feel satisfied and put your smartphone down, or do you keep scrolling?

Buddha taught that humans focus on pleasure but not on the fleetingness of pleasure. This is what we now know scientifically as Hedonic Treadmill (or Hedonic Adaptation). Whatever amazing we do or acquire, we inevitably get used to it, but we never realize this tendency. We live in a perpetual loop of pleasure-seeking.

Evolution does not care about what makes us happy

We are the descendants of those who won the evolution battle. Our ancestors were good at finding food and mating successfully. They constantly sought for pleasure and they never gave up. Those who stopped seeking for the next fruit tree or became indifferent to finding a mate became extinct. If we imagine Evolution as a software developer, here is the script it has written for our brain:

  1. Deliver some pleasure after the animal reaches important goals (food, sex, recognition, social status);
  2. Make the pleasure evaporate shortly after;
  3. Make the animal focus more on the pleasure to come than on its ensuing evaporation.

Becoming mindful of this tendency offers the right view, the first step of the Eightfold path in Buddhism. Having the right view would sound like “ok, I want this thing so much, but even if I get it, it will not satisfy me for too long, so is it really worth pursuing?”

The way to become mindful of this tendency is meditation (here are 8 things to know before starting meditation). According to Buddhism, meditation can help us get an experiential understanding of the right view, and understand the impermanence of everything. Once we consider everything as fluid and impermanent, we become less attached to what we considered as important.

Why meditation goes against our nature

There is something in our brain called Default Mode Network (DMN). DMN turns on whenever we are not focusing on a task. It takes us either to the past or to the future by constantly generating thoughts and feelings. According to Evolutionary Psychology, the brain is designed to focus on things we consider important, and it does this by assigning them a positive or negative feeling. The more important these things are, the stronger that feeling is, so our focus always shifts to the things that elicit the strongest reactions.

When we have a big argument with our partner, we can’t stop thinking about it: what they meant by that, what we could have said, how this may happen again in the future. The Default Mode Network chooses what thoughts make it into our consciousness, and there is one thought that DMN rarely allows in: “Stop thinking about it, everything will be fine.” Why not? Because, from an evolutionary perspective, if you are not alert when a threat is present, you are in danger.

Meditation’s purpose is to help us step back. By removing ourself from a situation, we take a more objective look at these thoughts and the feelings we associate them with. Meditation helps us “strip the effective reactions away from our perceptions”, which Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale, considers as “profoundly anti-Darwinian”.

Seeing the true colors of the world can make us happy

Through many studies, we know that DMN becomes quieter with meditation. This means that by focusing on how our brain works, we calm it down. It is now us who assess what truly matters, not our programming. We are not anymore helpless animals who run on instincts, but empowered human beings, and this is liberating.

Let’s use an example to see how this would work in practice. Imagine you are in a professional meeting with your team and your boss. You are all thinking how you can solve a problem. An idea comes to your mind. It is a good idea, and you decide to share it. The moment you pause someone says: “That’s such a naïve idea, how can you believe this would ever work?”

Scenario 1: what an untrained brain wants you to do

Someone doubts you in front of others. Your social status is at risk. Your brain raises the alarm because (according to your evolutionary programming) a low social status makes you less attractive, which reduces your chance to find a good mate. You enter a fight/flight/freeze mode, the same way our ancestors did when they noticed a wild animal nearby. The difference is that they were in real danger, while you are not. As the human brain has not evolved yet to match our modern world, our emotional reactions completely highjack it for a few seconds. Even for the silliest of reasons.

Rushing out of the room (“flight”) will make you look silly and coward. Saying nothing (“freeze”) will make you look passive and embarrassed. Replying aggressively (“fight”) will make you look uncivilized. Whatever you choose in that emotional state, you will later regret it. None of these responses are proportionate to the “danger” your brain sensed. DMN will remind you of your emotional response trying to teach you a lesson. Feeling disappointed, you will wonder why you didn’t react differently. Well, this is because reacting differently takes some brain-training.

Scenario 2: what a trained brain helps you do

Someone doubts you in front of others. Your social status is at risk. Well… is it really? Meditation (but also cognitive therapy) has taught you how to immediately recognize your default reactions. You respond to the alarm your brain raised by de-activating it. The noise in your head distracts you from seeing the reality for what it is.

A trained brain responds with gentle curiosity: yes, you may feel some anger, but is this what should influence your next action? Maybe this person is going through a hard time. Maybe they do the same with everyone, or they are just immature. They may already feel bad for what they said, but they are too insecure to apologize. And even if they intended to belittle you, does it really matter?

Whatever it is, your mental strength is too solid to be affected by something so small. You react by leaning back and smiling:

“OK, I hear you. What makes you think this idea is naïve?” The ball is now on their court.

In the first scenario, you followed your natural instincts. In the second scenario, you exhibited how mentally strong people react despite their natural programming.

Teach your brain to be happy

Through meditation we can achieve the right view, seeing the world as impermanent and fluid as it is. It is not what happens to us, but how we react to it. This takes us to the second step (right intention) of the Eightfold Path, which leads to liberation from unsatisfactoriness.

Of course, our life can be hectic, and we may skip meditation for a couple of times or even longer. Consistency though is important. Being persistent with training our brain can result in changing the way we connect with the world. It definitely happened with me after meditating for 40 days straight. Small things that used to worry us don’t matter anymore. Sad events still matter, but we relate to them differently. Our baseline for happiness is higher, because we are aware of our tendency to be unsatisfied. We value and appreciate everything in life, much more than before. We become grateful for everything that happens to us, even for the bad things. Instead of complaining, we have developed the strength to say, “I’m grateful for this, because it made me stronger; it helped me re-evaluate the important things in life, how lucky I am to be alive”.

A peaceful mind is a good soil for happiness. Water it and take good care of it.

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