Aging, Buddhism, and Happiness

In the excellent book The Pursuit of Happiness by David G. Myers, Myers quotes fellow happiness researcher Richard Kammann as follows: “Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in a theory of happiness.”

This astonishing statement, made by a scientist familiar with all the studies done about happiness, is well worth pondering as it relates to aging—an “objective life circumstance” if there ever was one. It is also helpful in reflecting on whether Buddhism has, or is, a theory of happiness. More on this in a moment.

But first I might as well take this opportunity to explain that I really have two purposes in doing this blog. One is to explore—for myself and others in a way that is actually helpful and useful to people—the experience of aging and its connection to the spiritual aspect of our life. The other is to reflect on my own long study of the Buddhist tradition and my involvement in the spread of Buddhist thinking in the West over the last century and ask the question: Well, is any of this Buddhist stuff actually useful when it comes to the actual experience of growing older?

Most of my Buddhist friends would say, Yes, indeed! I would tend to agree in principle, but I’m not sure how close we are to making the connection between all the lovely Buddhist practices and teachings we have learned and the actual challenges of growing older in the 21st century—take shrinking 104(k)s for example. I think the challenge of aging will prove to be a good test for Buddhism’s usefulness, and I’m as I go deeper into this project I’m willing to be surprised in both directions.

So back to happiness. The statement that happiness has little to do with one’s outward life circumstances certainly strikes me as a Buddhist kind of observation. The Buddha taught that it is only through transforming one’s inner, rather than outer, circumstances, can true contentment be found. Buddhism has taken a lot of flack through the ages and currently for its weakness in actually dealing with the social and economic causes of suffering, and I think much of that criticism is justified. But when a respected expert in scientific happiness research makes the same claim, we have to look more closely.

I’ll have a lot more to say about happiness, Myers’ book, and the emerging research on “Happiness studies” in future blogs.

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