The Karma of Happiness

By Thanissaro Bhikkhu
measuring and prescribing human skills for a good life, the new
positive psychology overlooks a vital point, says Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Lasting happiness requires that we carefully weigh the consequences of
our actions.

is the way leading to wisdom: when visiting an awakened person, to ask
… ‘What, when I do it, will be for my long-term welfare and happiness?’”

—The Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya 135

Buddhist standards, Western psychology is just beginning to get wise.
After many decades of focusing on mental illness, it has finally
spawned a new branch, called positive psychology, focused on what
people can do to find long-lasting happiness. But as the above
quotation suggests, wisdom doesn’t come just from asking the right
questions. It also lies in getting the right people in on the

Although positive psychology draws on research that
began several decades ago, it didn’t develop into an organized field
until the late 1990’s, when Martin Seligman became president of the
American Psychological Association. Seligman had decided that his
tenure in office should have a mission, which was to turn the focus of
psychology from the negative to the positive emotions. In doing so, he
had to fight a strong undercurrent of beliefs that Western psychology
had picked up from some varieties of monotheism: that people are
essentially bad, that happiness is less authentic than misery, and that
negative motivation can account for all examples of what appears to be
virtuous behavior. One measure of Seligman’s success in bucking this
undercurrent is that there is now a Positive Psychology Network of
professors and researchers devoted to the study of happiness around the
world. With newfound scientific respectability, happiness research has
also spread into related fields such as sociology and economics.

humanistic psychologists—who also focus on issues of happiness but are
largely introspective—positive psychologists actually field
questionnaires, run experiments, test their results, and reach
empirical conclusions about specific steps that you and I can follow to
find greater happiness. But behind the issue of how the experiments are
run is the larger issue of who frames the questions that the
experiments are supposed to answer. As good social scientists, many
positive psychologists have tried to adopt a cross-cultural
perspective, drawing on literature from all over the world. Given that
Buddhism has been working in this field for more than 2,600 years,
you’d think that they might look to the Buddha to help them frame and
suggest answers to their questions, but you’d be wrong. Instead, they
draw their framework from Western philosophers—people like Aristotle
and Bentham—and then squeeze Buddhism into a very small pigeonhole
within the frame.

This is a genuine shame, for the Buddha’s
teachings have a lot to offer on this topic, both in terms of specific
techniques for attaining long-term happiness and in terms of framing
the questions that give insight into how happiness actually works and
what good it can do. It would be wrong to ask the positive
psychologists simply to adopt the Buddha’s viewpoint on happiness, for
that would go against their experimental method. But there’s nothing
wrong in asking them to look at the questions the Buddha asked about
happiness, to see if those questions would provide the framework for
new experiments whose results would add greater consistency and depth
to their field. The deeper and more consistent their findings, the more
wisdom positive psychologists will have to offer to those of us looking
for a happiness that’s truly satisfying.

As of yet, positive psychologists lack a consistent theory about happiness. This is clearly evident in Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness,
his overview of the topic. Trying to tie together the discoveries of
positive psychology and provide them with a theoretical foundation, he
inadvertently shows how many gaps and unanswered questions still plague
the field. As we will see, some knowledge of what the Buddha taught
would go a long way toward suggesting how to fill those gaps and answer
the questions.

Seligman notes that positive psychology focuses
on three issues: positive emotions, positive traits in the human
character that can foster those emotions, and positive social
institutions that foster positive emotions and traits. In Authentic Happiness,
he focuses on the emotions and the traits. While recognizing that there
are many constraints on each person’s potential happiness that lie
beyond his or her control, he notes that there are still many sources
for lasting happiness that any person can cultivate. These sources boil
down to our attitudes toward the past, future, and present.

terms of the past, positive psychologists have discovered that people
are happiest when not plagued with a deterministic view of how the past
shapes the present. If you think that your past miseries doom you to a
miserable future, that attitude will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If
you see the potential for dropping and overcoming the miseries of the
past, you’re more likely to find happiness.

Other helpful
attitudes toward the past include gratitude and forgiveness: the
ability to appreciate the good things that other people have done for
you, and to forgive them for the bad.

As for the future, the
attitude most productive of happiness, Seligman says, is optimism: the
tendency to see positive events as pervasive and positive traits in
yourself as permanent, while viewing negative events and traits as
momentary exceptions to the general rule. This much may seem obvious,
but Seligman has devoted many books to showing something less obvious:
that optimism is a trait that can be fostered and learned.

about how we develop useful attitudes to the present, however, that
Seligman has the most to say. He bases his remarks on an important
distinction, between pleasure and gratification. Pleasure he defines as
delight in the “raw feels” of sensory and emotional experience:
ecstasy, thrills, mirth, and comfort. Gratification he defines as the
activities in which we become so absorbed that we lose
self-consciousness in a strong sense of "flow": the feeling of
timeless, effortless control and concentration that can come in the
midst of any skill or worthwhile activity that leads to total
immersion, such as shooting a basketball, building a cabinet, or
playing the violin.

Based on this distinction, Seligman identifies four levels to the happy life.

The first is the pleasant life,
one in which you can learn to enjoy the pleasant feelings that life has
to offer. This, as Seligman points out, provides the lowest level of
happiness, for pleasures are fleeting and undependable. The more you
indulge in them, the less pleasure they provide, and the greater your
craving for new and unusual pleasures grows. Unfortunately, it’s at
this lowly level that Seligman reserves a place for Buddhist practice,
which he sees as a means for being fully present to the pleasures of
the present so as to savor them mindfully and fully. It’s hard to fault
him for this perception, though, as this has been the emphasis of most
books peddling what might be called Consumer Buddhism: the effort to
sell Buddhist mindfulness techniques to the West by advertising them as
a means for consuming the simple pleasures of life—eating raisins,
sipping tea—more intensely and with greater presence.

The next stage up is the good life,
one in which you find gratification in developing skills: finding a
sense of flow in whatever you learn to do well, and developing your
personal strengths and virtues as a result. Seligman has no role for
Buddhism on this level, and this is one point where we can fault him,
given the large number of popular writings on meditation as a means for
inducing flow. (See, for example, Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops, or for a more serious treatment, the discussion on "silence" in Larry Rosenberg’s Breath by Breath.)

The next stage up is the meaningful life,
one in which you gain a sense of purpose and fulfillment in devoting
your strengths and virtues to a goal larger than yourself. Here
Seligman is at his weakest. Trying to formulate what he thinks is a
scientifically respectable ideal for a meaningful life, he comes up
with nothing better than the idea of a God toward which the universe is
evolving. In developing interactive systems of greater complexity, he
says, the cosmos will someday arrive at a system consisting of nothing
but win-win games. However, as chaos theory has shown, the more complex
the system, the more unstable it is, and the more likely to break down.
And from the personal point of view it’s hard to get enthusiastic about
working toward an abstract goal whose fruition you won’t live to see.

At any rate, the most encompassing level of the happy life, Seligman says, is the full life,
one in which the pleasant, good, and meaningful are seamlessly
combined. In his view, there need be no conflict among the three.

all sounds very encouraging and empowering, but when you poke around
the footnotes of his book, you find that even Seligman has his doubts.
To begin with, although he argues that strict determinism is a bad
attitude to have toward the past, he is unable to formulate a theory of
causality that’s scientifically respectable and yet avoids determinism.
The best he has to offer is the idea that the appearance
of free will and unpredictability is, in evolutionary terms, a useful
strategy for survival. If we can seem unpredictable enough to fool an
enemy with limited knowledge, that’s all the free will we need. But,
Seligman notes, this does not mean that an omniscient being, knowing
all scientific laws, might not be able to predict everything we do. So
what he offers is a determinism that looks unpredictable but really
isn’t. This is hardly an encouraging message for taking your life into
your own hands.

As for the future, Seligman notes that optimism
is not always the best attitude to maintain, for there are many
situations that require great care and a capacity to prepare for the
worst. You don’t want a beaming optimist to run the check on your
airplane before it flies, and you might die if you’re overly optimistic
as you prepare for a trip to the Alaskan wilds. Thus optimism on its
own is hardly a reliable prescription for lasting happiness.

for the present, even though Seligman asserts that there is no conflict
among the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life, he
notes that, on any given evening, he is more likely to go for the
pleasure of watching a football game than for the gratification of
tackling Sandberg’s biography of Lincoln. This is not a trivial point.
Life is full of choices like this, where we have to choose one form of
happiness over another, and all too often we choose the more fleeting
pleasure. Any positive psychology worth its salt will have to address
this issue head-on.

Finally, and most tellingly, Seligman notes
that—given his definitions—you could argue that a serial killer leads a
pleasant life, a skilled Mafia hit man leads a good life, and a
fanatical terrorist leads a meaningful life. Seligman argues that the
moral repugnance we might feel about such ideas is not a disproof of
his theory about the happy life; it’s simply a sign that the theory is
scientific in its moral neutrality. Reading this, though, you realize
that Seligman has forgotten his original question: how to create lasting
happiness. The serial killer, the hit man, and the terrorist may find
some measure of happiness in their activities, but that happiness is
not going to last. The way they pursue happiness contains the seeds for
its end. And any useful positive psychology, if it wants to understand
long-term happiness, will have to ferret out why.

This is
precisely where the Buddha’s teachings have the most to offer on the
question of how to understand and foster a lasting happiness. And the
most useful of his teachings in this regard is the one most maligned
and misunderstood in Western Buddhism: the teaching on karma, or
intentional action. The teaching of karma offers an important
perspective on how best to relate not only to the present, but also to
the past and future in a way that can make you lastingly happy.

is often understood as the idea that what you experience now comes from
what you did in the past, but that’s getting it all wrong. The Buddha’s
teachings on causality are much more complex than that, and in fact
resemble chaos theory with their many feedback loops. In their lack of
determinism, they resemble the laws describing the nonlinear behavior
of chemical systems operating far from equilibrium—systems very similar
to the human mind.

What the Buddha taught about karma is this:
Your experience of the present moment consists of three things: 1)
pleasures and pains resulting from past intentions, 2) present
intentions, and 3) pleasures and pains resulting from present
intentions. With reference to the question of happiness, this teaching
has three main implications.

• The present is not totally shaped
by the past. In fact, the most important element shaping your present
pleasure or pain is how you fashion, with your intentions in the
present, the raw material provided by the past.

• Pleasures and
pains don’t just come floating by of their own accord. They come from
intentions, which are actions. This means that they have their price,
in that every action has an impact both on yourself and on others. The
less harmful the impact, the lower the price. If your search for
happiness is harmful to others, they will fight to undo your happiness.
If it’s harmful to yourself, your search has failed.

• Your
search for pleasure or gratification in the present has an impact not
only on the present but also well into the future. If you want a
long-term happiness, you have to take into account the way your present
actions shape future events. And you have to pay careful attention now, for you can’t come back from tomorrow to undo any careless mistakes you had made today.

together, these observations about the connection between action and
happiness show the need to be skillful in your pursuit of happiness. If
you want your happiness to last, you have to look for pleasure,
gratification, and meaning in ways that are harmless. You have to
carefully choose which skills to develop that you’re sure to need in
the future—strengths of character that will enable you to be happy in
the midst of aging, illness, separation, and death.

the nature of this connection between actions and their results means
that it’s possible to develop skill in areas where you’re not yet
skilled. There’s enough of a pattern between actions and results that
you can discern the pattern and put it to use. At the same time,
because the pattern is not deterministic, you have the freedom to learn
and change your ways.

In this way, the Buddha’s teachings see a
clear connection across past, present, and future as to the best way to
pursue happiness. You develop the right attitude toward past mistakes
so that you can learn from them. You approach the present as an
opportunity to respond skillfully to whatever arises. And you face the
future with the confidence that you’re developing the full range of
skills you need to handle whatever lies in store. Of course, the
Buddha’s teachings on happiness go beyond this, to a
happiness—nirvana—that doesn’t depend on actions or intentions, but
just this much should be enough to suggest many new avenues of inquiry
for positive psychology.

First, with regard to our attitude
toward the past, Seligman focuses attention on helpful attitudes toward
the good and bad things that other people have done to us. But the
Buddha’s teachings suggest that it would be more useful to learn
positive attitudes toward the good and bad things we have done
ourselves. That way we can recognize and appreciate the situations we
handled skillfully, and learn from the ones we didn’t.

How can
people best learn to learn from their mistakes? How can they best learn
to live with the things they did, and can’t go back and undo? This is
an especially important area for psychologists to explore, for in the
upcoming years we’re facing a flood of psychologically damaged veterans
from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Past experience with
Vietnam veterans has shown that the deepest psychological wounds come
not from memories of the horrible things that were done to them, but
from the horrible things they chose to do in or outside the line of
duty. Current psychology is ill-equipped to handle these wounds, and
yet the future happiness of our society depends on how we can teach
people to relate in healthy ways to past mistakes, learning not to be
debilitated by them without at the same time growing so callous and
careless that they keep repeating the same mistakes again and again.

with regard to our attitude toward the future: As noted above, Seligman
himself admits that optimism is not always the best attitude toward
what lies ahead. From a Buddhist point of view, optimism is simply one
of a series of useful attitudes to have toward the future. Sometimes
confidence is called for, sometimes caution, sometimes obsessive care.
What we need is skill in discerning which attitude is most appropriate
for which situation and then putting it into use. Rather than focusing
just on teaching optimism, positive psychologists should look into the
full range of potentially skillful attitudes and into ways to develop a
sense of judgment that can accurately determine which attitude is
appropriate when.

And as for the pleasant and good life in the
present, the Buddha’s actual teachings on the relationship of action
and pleasure give the lie to the idea that he simply taught a technique
for savoring raisins and tea. When counseling lay people, he taught
them to enjoy the pleasant fruits of their labor but never to forget
what they had to do in order to experience those pleasures. If what
they did was harmful to themselves or others, they should give up the
pleasure and abandon that line of action. When counseling monks and
nuns, he taught them to reflect on all the labor that went into
producing their food—given the miseries of grape pickers, even a raisin
isn’t a totally harmless pleasure—and to reflect on how they planned to
use the strength gained from the nourishment it provided. Only the
pleasures of nirvana and jhana—meditative
absorption—he said, were totally blameless. In other words, the Buddha
taught that every pleasure has to be regarded in terms of where it
comes from and where it will lead.

This teaching applies to the
way we pursue gratification as well, yet to explore this issue would
require a massive reorientation for positive psychology. Take, for
instance, the research done on gratification and flow. A common
assumption is that what you do to induce a sense of flow is purely a
personal issue, and ultimately what you do doesn’t really matter. What
matters is the fact of psychological flow. You’re most likely to
experience flow wherever you have the skill, and you’re most likely to
develop skill wherever you have the aptitude, whether it’s in music,
sport, hunting, meditating, etc. From the Buddha’s point of view,
however, it really does
matter what you do to gain gratification, for some skills are more
conducive to stable, long-term happiness than others, due to their
long-term consequences. Also, they develop a better range of strengths
to deal with the vicissitudes of life. It would be useful for positive
psychologists to explore this issue: Do people whose skills in life are
harmless experience more long-term happiness than those whose skills
lead to harm? Is the Buddha right in saying that generosity, moral
restraint, and the development of good will are essential to a happy
life? Do those who invest their time in developing skills of the
mind—mindfulness, concentration, discernment—benefit more over the long
term than those who invest in physical skills and strengths? If so, how
do we train people to develop these wiser skills if they show little
aptitude for them?

This is one area where our current
educational system is severely lacking. Students are channeled into
areas where they show aptitude, and so are rarely taught the
psychological skills needed to work at becoming competent in areas
where their original aptitude is weak. As a result, we are becoming a
society of people overdeveloped in one or two areas of life, and
atrophied everywhere else, like a bodybuilder with bloated pecs and
spindly legs. Positive psychology would do us a great service if it
could identify ways to make us more skillful in harmless, productive
ways whether we show innate aptitude or not, so that we could all face
life with a balanced repertoire of skills.

Finally, on the
question of a meaningful life, every Buddhist tradition offers its own
take on the larger goals to which we could devote our skills. For
Mahayanists, it’s working for the salvation of all beings. For
Theravadins, it’s working to keep the Buddha’s teachings alive and
intact, available to all. But early Buddhism, with its teachings on
karma and the end of karma, points to a vision of happiness that
involves deconstructing the very question of meaning. Although this
vision of happiness doesn’t lend itself to the type of experimentation
that positive psychologists engage in, it’s useful to keep in mind if
only as a reminder that not every happiness can get caught in the net
of a scientific theory.

The Buddha’s vision is this: Even our
sense of self is the result of action. It’s a strategy for happiness.
Every time we act on a craving, we create at least two selves: the
sense of self that identifies with whatever powers we can muster to
satisfy that craving, and the self that identifies with the act of
consuming the pleasures and gratifications we hope to achieve. Having
created these producing and consuming selves, we then forget that
they’re creations—and that they’re multiple. We assume that our self is
unitary, a primal "given" in our life, and we wonder what it’s for. Is
life simply for the pursuit of pleasure and gratification of this self?
If so, it’s a miserable life, for this self doesn’t last very long. So
we start looking for a larger meaning to the whole enterprise, and most
religions and philosophies are designed to answer that question of

But instead of trying to answer that question, the
Buddha decided to take it apart at the root. What happens if, instead
of continuing to produce a sense of self, you learn how to stop? That’s
the purpose of the teaching on not-self: learning how to uproot
attachment to the process of producing a self. And the Buddha found, as
a result, that when the mind stops fabricating a self, everything opens
to a happiness totally independent of conditions—the one happiness that
doesn’t depend on actions, doesn’t have a price, one so total that no
questions have to be asked.

This sort of happiness doesn’t lend
itself to being tested by the experimental methods of positive
psychology or any other branch of psychology. But if psychologists
could remain open to the possibility that there’s an unadulterated
happiness that doesn’t fit into their framework of a full or meaningful
life, it would serve as a sign that they had become genuinely wise.


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