Happiness And Suffering, Socrates And The Buddha

The Dalai Lama often states, “Everyone wants to be happy. Nobody wants to suffer.” Irrefutable!

The power of these two claims might be lost on us, however, if we simply gloss over them, accepting them as mere bromides.

If, instead, we examine them, we find that they are real jewels.

Socratic Question

Consider the first statement: “Everyone wants to be happy.” Here, the confusion begins:

(a) Very few know what happiness is.

(b) There are competing and conflicting conceptions of happiness operative in the modern world.

(c) In fact, many of us use the word happy in different ways–not uncommonly as we move from one sentence to the next–with the result that we’re likely mired in a kind of conceptual incoherence (cf. MacIntyre on “moral incoherence”).

(d) If you don’t know what happiness is, how can you know whether, right now or over the course of your life, you’re unhappy or unhappy?

(e) If you don’t know what happiness is, how can you genuinely pursue it? (Cf. Meno’s paradox of inquiry in Plato’s Meno.)

(f) Due to a lack of metacognitive awareness of the kind cultivated in rigorous meditation, you may not even know when, and whether, you are happy or not. In fact, you may not even be able to provide such a clear report–to yourself or to others.

From a-f, it can be inferred that we are living in a kind of haze at this point in modernity.

Buddha’s Reply: One Starting Point

One place to begin to get this inquiry underway is to accept the Buddha’s premises.

P1. With a little bit of practice, you can be aware of your suffering.

P2. If you are suffering, then you are not happy.

P3. The end of suffering entails abiding happiness.

At first glance, the third premise may be more difficult to stomach, but practice, experience, and guidance tell in its favor. For now, it suffices to take a closer look at P1 and P2.

To get yourself going, all you need is to recognize that you are suffering and thus that you are not happy. Then we can give a modified P3:

P3′ (weaker version). Dissolving at least some suffering makes you feel happier.

Therefore, any genuine insight in spiritual practice gives us, wrote the late Rob Burbea, to experience a diminution in suffering and therefore some greater happiness.

If the above still feels murky, then simply ask yourself the question: “Without this persistent form of suffering X, how would I be? Without X, how would my life be?” This question will get you going if you take it seriously.