Be good, Be happy

A Burmese boy on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan, Myanmar

A Burmese boy on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan, Myanmar (January, 2011)

A common interpretation of karma is that “what goes around, comes around.” Or, in other words, your actions now will form the world you inhabit in the future. Logically, then, the world you inhabit now is a product (or at least influenced by) your past actions.

Understanding just how we can think of this concept today was a major issue in the recent Contemporary Buddhist Ethics conference. There seem to be two extremes in how we can understand karma today:

  1. The “Law of Attraction” idea, whereby we can almost magically ‘manifest’ anything and everything into our world. This is an extremely popular idea in contemporary Western society (endorsed by Oprah, no less) and, most scholars would say, an extremely pernicious idea. It is harmful, scholars say, because it puts too much blame for individual suffering on the individual: a suicidal depressive just needs to “think happier thoughts” or a starving child in Africa must have been too greedy in a past life.
  2. The second view of karma, being popularized by many of those same academics, is the idea that karma is ‘just’ a folk psychology term for what could be otherwise attributed to neural wiring/rewiring. In other words, behaving in X manner conditions your brain to continually act in that manner. Combine that with a perhaps Darwinian or Virtue ethics theory of society and you can discuss how socially or biologically destructive activities are labeled ‘bad’ and tend to lead one to a miserable life, and vice versa. However, this view is at fault from a doctrinal stance because, by relegating karma strictly to the brain, it dismisses rebirth.

In any case, the Buddha taught that having ‘right view’ regarding karma was the first step on the noble eightfold path to awakening. As Richard Gombrich states, “When one introduces the Buddha’s teaching to a modern audience, one very often stresses at the outset — as indeed I have done — that he asked people to use their own judgement, to go by their own experience and to take nothing on trust. One soon has to qualify this, however, by saying that there was one belief which he held himself and relied on in his teaching, the belief in the law of karma; and if that was not to be obviously falsified by every cot death, it had to entail belief in rebirth.” (pp.27-8 of What the Buddha Thought)

While the exact workings of karma is an ‘unthinkable’ (something that is of a nature that is necessarily beyond theoretical reason or conceptual categories), a certain ‘faith’ in its overall mechanism seems fundamental to Buddhist ethics. I hope to make clear in future posts why I think this is analogous to Kant’s ‘faith’ in God and the immortal soul – two things he claimed were beyond knowledge yet necessary from a moral point of view. But that can wait.

For now, let me turn your attention away from Buddhism and Kant, toward an interesting recent study claiming that ethical people are more happy. While it is hardly conclusive, it will hopefully open doors for further, more detailed, studies. And it does agree with certain intuitions most of us have about “old curmudgeons” – that their rotten attitude and behavior probably feeds their unhappiness, while sweet, friendly, positive people tend to attract a certain amount of positive people and circumstances in to their lives (thus reinforcing that positive attitude).

But aren’t these the same intuitions that feed the “Law of Attraction” industry and so deeply irritate skeptics? I think not. Because it should also be obvious to any thinking person that our happiness isn’t purely a matter of internal, subjective states. Given the right circumstances, any one of us can be made pretty miserable. And we can be made – by our situation – to act either more morally or immorally.  Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has coined the term situationism to highlight the importance of this (not to be confused with Fletcher’s Situation Ethics). As he states, “Virtue theorists have sometimes directed us toward an excessively inward model of self-development; situationism returns us to the world in which our selves take shape.” (p.71 of Experiments in Ethics) If you don’t believe or understand how our situation can radically shape our ethics, in even a very short period of time, check out the Stanford prison experiment.

But this isn’t to side with social (or other) determinists. One of the most interesting upshots of situationism is that we are responsible for our circumstances just as much as we are responsible for how we act in those circumstances. So if we’re in a bad romantic relationship, it’s not just that we should “think happy thoughts” or visualize our partner as suddenly becoming a new, better person. Our being miserable is conditioned by the situation. Get out of it and voila, the world might just look a lot cheerier. I’ve seen this countless times in my own life and in friends and family. There is a very complex, shall we say ‘unthinkable’, interrelationship between one’s own reactions/mental attitude and one’s situation. Yes, changing your thoughts may actually fix an external situation – such advice is sometimes perfect. But at other times, you need to fix the situation itself, and the happy thoughts will follow.

But all of that is in support of the idea that you should be happy. You should work on inner states of contentment and loving-kindness. And you should regularly check to see that the world you put or find yourself in (friends, partners, jobs, etc) supports happiness and positive ethical behavior.

From another article on happiness:

Findings in positive psychology show that you would significantly enhance the welfare of the others around you if you felt you were happy. There are at least three reasons why your happiness promotes others’ welfare. First, happy people are more generous (e.g., you would be more willing to help others when you are happy), and this means that the others benefit from your altruism. Second, research on emotional contagion shows that, through mimicry, others tend to reflect our emotions, which means that when we are happy, we make others happy through contagion. Finally, happy people are more productive (they work harder) and less needy (e.g., they are less likely to fall sick); hence, happy people both offer more and soak up less resources.

PS. for a lively, fun, and dynamic discussion of Happiness from someone who knows it well (and arguments against it), see Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard.

  • Patia

    So, you’re saying we’re obligated to be happy or to try to be happy? But … but … but … what about all the people in the world in truly miserable circumstances? What about early childhood conditioning, genetic tendencies and neurological wiring? What about all the various forms of privilege that make happiness easier? What about all the charming, amusing curmudgeons of the world? What about telling the truth?

    Of course, I found your discussion of karma and LOA interesting. I wish we could discuss it in person rather than here where anything I say will forever be held against me. :-)

  • Justin Whitaker

    Yes, I think we are obligated by our own nature to be happy. Given the choice, we all would choose happiness. The problem often is, and plenty of psychological studies show this, that we sacrifice true happiness in pursuit of other things that we think will really make us happy – but don’t.

    Even in our most miserable of circumstances, we still want to be happy, right? I can only imagine someone like Steve Jobs, in his last days, knowing the end was near and pulling together his loved ones, must have combined a sense of gratitude for the life he lived and acceptance of the end that was coming to be at peace and even happy.

    Likewise I think we want the happiness of others (again we often just don’t know how to provide it).

    Genetics, privilege, and the rest are part of the circumstances we can/should also (communally and individually) take responsibility for. My genes/wiring are such that I’ll probably never strive in a high-paced, stressful workplace. Okay. I could work on that conditioning for a while (‘re-wire’ myself), or I can pursue another line of work. Starting college, I was utterly terrified of public speaking. Over time I determined that the best job I could have would involve lecturing, so I had to do some serious work on re-wiring myself. There’s a case where changing circumstances worked best, and one where changing myself was necessary. Perhaps determining which to do when is a whole other type of skill…

    Truth and being realistic about the world are perfectly compatible with happiness. I’m definitely not talking about – or a fan of – the fake smiley face some people put on to be cheerful or pleasant; that is usually pretty annoying and transparent. :) Sometimes you just have to be real and deal with things (and that will actually make you happy, as opposed to ‘faking it’ with a smile and avoiding whatever problems you have or exist in your life).

    And lastly, yes – come to MT around Christmas if you can. I’m ‘envisioning’ a burrito with you right now, so let’s make it happen :)

    • Patia

      Taco Del Sol and PBR FTW! (That would be a happy time.)

  • David

    Nice post, but I was somewhat dismayed to read of your intention to “make clear in future posts why I think this [faith in karma] is analogous to Kant’s ‘faith’ in God and the immortal soul.” Must you? I guess so, as it seems you’re into Kant. Frankly I think analogies between Buddha-dharma and Western philosophy and anything to do with God are entirely coincidental and so there is little to be gained by such explorations.

    I really don’t think that faith has much to do with karma. To me, Buddhism presents it more or less as a universal law, somewhat like the law of gravity, based as it is on the law of cause and effect, and that one has to only look around at the events in one’s life to see its operations. Now, I don’t necessarily accept that myself, so I think a far more interesting and pertinent question is what do we do about these Buddhist concepts that seem problematic to us. Do we just dismiss them? Do we try to find a way for them to make some sense? Is that even possible?

    I think such a discussion would be far more beneficial that delving into analogies with God and the immortal soul, two concepts the first Buddhists had never heard of. Anyway, that’s my friendly suggestion and two cents worth.

    I’m also curious about why the move to Patheos. What does it have that prompted you to make the move?

    • Justin Whitaker

      Haha, yes, I must. Aren’t all analogies coincidental? Perhaps that’s not helpful. I think comparisons can be done and are helpful because traditions (people) the world over have some very basic common questions about life, the universe, and everything else. What can I know? How should I act? What might I hope? Though often phrased differently, people all over, for centuries, have been asking much the same thing. And answers are often remarkably similar, and just as often remarkably different. My work as a historian is to try to determine why they said the things they did (understanding context), and my work as a philosopher is to ask how and if it makes sense and works. If you think of any great thinker, east or west, he/she will probably have done a lot of work comparing / drawing analogies between and amongst different traditions and ways of thinking.

      Faith comes up a lot in Buddhism (though many Western Buddhists are adverse to it). And karma is often discussed in terms of past and future lives, which few of us have any empirical access to. But I think your absolutely on the right track with asking what we do with karma if we don’t buy all of the bits from the Pali Canon, Tibetan, or Zen (or other tradition) that we happen to choose to affiliate with or study. I introduce Kant only because I think his thought on the soul/God is helpful for fellow moderns who want to hold on to a belief in karma. I’m sure we won’t always agree (on that for instance) but I do appreciate hearing your two cents worth, and I hope you’ll say more when I do write more on Kant :) Having people who agree with me is nice, but having people who disagree in a friendly and articulate matter is much better.

      As for the move to Patheos, see here

      Best wishes – justin

  • David

    Now that you have your About page up, I have a better idea of where you’re coming from. But, ah – here’s another cent – personally, I don’t think anyone’s thoughts on God/soul are helpful to anyone. Might as well write a treatise on the Great Pumpkin. But that just the kind of hairpin I am.

    • Justin Whitaker

      What about God/the soul as cultural concepts? They are not ‘real’ in the sense of external, independent entities, but instead as culturally accepted ideas, like money and national borders. If people are willing to kill or die for them, isn’t there some value in trying to figure out why? Perhaps asking such questions puts me ‘inside’ the world of theological debate (as a philosopher only, though. I’m not concerned with God per se, but with people’s conceptions of God)…

      Anyhow – I definitely empathize with a desire to get beyond ‘god-talk’ – and I think Kant did too :)

      • David

        I guess I’m rather narrow-minded. I’m only really interested in Buddhism these days, which I do not see as being theological. I think Buddhism explains indirectly why people kill in the name of God and offers a cure for that.

        “a desire to get beyond ‘god-talk’” is putting it mildly. I am sick to death of the subject and that’s why I have little patience with it.

        • Justin Whitaker

          David, I’m all for a Buddhism-centric life and I’ve definitely had my times of Buddhism-only (which has usually been good for me). But to paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhism is made of non-Buddhist parts. The way the Buddha taught was conditioned by his society, and how we understand Buddhism today is likewise conditioned by our society. I won’t go so far as some and say that social conditions prevent us from really understanding the Buddha or his teachings, but I do think it’s important to look at both his context and ours. And that often means ‘god’ or ‘brahma’ talk.