Thursday March 27, 2008
Last week was the final session of my philosophy of happiness class at the Botanical Gardens here in Birmingham, and we were considering the relationship between happiness and concern for others.
It seems a long time ago now that I first read the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva, one of the masterpieces of Buddhist literature, but the even now, having had the book to hand for the last ten years or so, the following assertion from chapter eight of the Tibetan text (the translation I’m referring to on this occasion is that by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso) has the power to provoke:
All the happiness there is in this world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy.
As rhetoric, it is powerful, but the question is this: is it true? After all, this is a very strong claim (all the happiness… all the suffering…), and claims this strong are worth evaluating.
So I took the opportunity to put this idea to the test in my class last Friday with a simple experiment. The experiment was a little ad hoc, and I would not want to claim that it proves anything, but the results were highly suggestive nonetheless.
The experiment went like this. I divided the class into two halves, and before they started the experiment, asked all participants to rate, fairly roughly, their immediate experience of happiness on a scale of one to ten. Then I set one half (team A) the task of writing for ten minutes about those things that they wished exclusively for themselves, whilst the other half of the group (team B) wrote for ten minutes about what they wished exclusively for others. At the end of the experiment, I asked the participants to rate their happiness levels again.
Whilst a few participants reported unchanged levels of happiness, or bemusement at the idea of rating happiness (which is, when you think of it, a curious thing to be asked), the results were instructive, seeming to strongly suggest that wishing for one’s own welfare exclusively leads to a marked diminishing of happiness, whilst wishing for the welfare of others leads to a marked increase: the average change was approximately one point up for those in team B who were asked to be other-regarding, and one point down for those in team A who were asked to be self-regarding.
If there is anything in these results, then it begins to look as if there is indeed something in what Shantideva says (although I’m still not sure that he is right when he says ‘all happiness… arises from wishing others to be happy’ – the ‘all’ here seems too categorical, and smacks of rhetoric). We often fall into thinking that happiness and ethics are mutually exclusive: you can either be happy or you can be good. On the one hand, we think that happiness is something that we have to secure for ourselves, even at the expense of others. And on the other hand, we snuggle up at night with Kant and read that, should you derive pleasure from an act of duty, then the act is, to that extent, rather less than worthy. But it seems that this is out of kilter. Happiness and ethics are not separate. Shantideva, I think, is worth listening to; for if he is right, then this suggests that many of the ways that we go about securing happiness for ourselves, and many of our ideas about ethics as well, need to be reconsidered.
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