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15 September 2008

Buddhism, Capitalism, and Happiness

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I notice that most of you were interested in the political dimension of my article on happiness (you commented on the reasons why lefties are less happy than conservatives or on why women's happiness is declining over time). Few commented on the religious dimension.

Why are religious people happier? I suppose that this is actually one of the main goals of most religions: to make people feel better in the face of tragedy (death, poverty, violence, and so on) by having them believe that there is a better world, a paradise, a Nirvana, or some future better incarnation.

One religion that is quite explicit about this is Buddhism. One of the basic principles of Buddhism is the “Four Nobel Truths”. In fact, the first thing that Gatama Buddha taught his disciples after he achieved Nirvana is the Four Nobel Truths. I believe that, in plain language, the Four Nobel Truths are:

First: suffering is an inevitable part of life.

Second, the reason for this inevitable suffering is the existence of craving or “unfulfilled desires”.

Third, therefore, the way to reduce suffering is to reduce your desires.

Fourth, the way to reduce your desires (and therefore the path to Nirvana) is to follow the teachings of Buddha and the Eightfold Path.

The eightfold path consists of eight ways to achieve the cessation of suffering through the purification of the mind (path number (1) understand reality as it is, not as it appears to be, and (2) thinking with no ignorance), ethics and morality ( path number (3) speaking the truth, (4) acting in ways that do not harm other human, (5) acting in ways that do not harm things), and meditation (path (6) making an effort to improve, (7) contemplation and (8) meditation).

What I find fascinating about all this is the Third Nobel Truth: since suffering is caused by the distance between what you desire and what you have, the path to happiness is to desire less. Here is where a Buddhists and an economist like me differ: yes, you can reduce the difference between what you desire and what you have by desiring less… But there is another obvious way to reduce that distance, and that is HAVING MORE!!! Most people (and this includes the citizens of high-growth East Asian countries-many of whom happen to be Buddhists) seem to agree with me since they seem to want to pursue happiness by getting more income in order to buy more stuff. And this was the main point of my article on happiness: money allows you to buy stuff that makes you happy.

Finally, If Buddhists and I disagree on the third Nobel truth, we have to disagree on the fourth truth also: the way to achieve happiness is not the Eightfold Path. The way to happiness is a liberal market economy.

P.S. You can tell that this weekend I did not travel and had a lot of time off, can’t you?

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Starting January 30, 2012, I decided to put the random (economic) thoughts that I was posting on Facebook, in a blog. In this site you will be able to read all Facebook notes going back to 2008, (without my Friend’s comments, unfortunately), but we will only maintain the new thoughts. If you want to check out the old comments, they are still posted on Facebook. If you want to comment on them, you have two options (1) Become a Facebook Subscriber. Since all the posts will also appear in Facebook, you will be able to comment there. (2) Comment on Twitter, as each post will also be announced in Twitter.