I have just finished reading Nick Powdthavee’s book The Happiness Equation. It is an economics/psychology book. (Powdthavee is a behavioural economist.) In it, he explains the research about happiness in the world of economics.
For example. in his discussion about the happiness related to having children, he concludes “for an average person in the UK, the first year of having a child is exactly the same as winning a serendipitous sum of money of around $3,750 for that year.”(p. 90) In other words, he works out how much money can buy a certain amount of happiness, then applies that to real life situations. It’s disturbing, interesting, and ultimately a bit of a stretch. One large weakness of the book is that it lacks substantial conclusions. He has very little to say about what we can and should do with his findings. That isn’t such a bad thing, but makes the book lack punch. What I do want to discuss here, though, is the conclusion of the conclusion.
Once he has given his reader some vague thoughts about how to proceed, he begins to discuss Buddhism. Buddhism, according to Powdthavee, is the solution to all of our happiness problems. He spends the closing pages explaining Buddhism. It’s a very pithy summary, and makes for some of the most interesting reading in the book. Let me quote him, and then let me explain why he’s wrong.
“Although the Buddha never denied that there’s happiness in the world . . .to him happiness was impermanent; and when one inevitably loses the things that make one happy, one suffers. In other words, according to the Buddha, the pursuit of happiness itself is suffering.”(p. 209)
He then advocates what Buddhism calls ‘the middle path’:
“By following the middle path one can achieve a state of midfulness whereby feelings such as desire, ill-will, or wants are realised to be nothing but thoughts. And once we can realise and be aware that they are just thoughts, we can let them go.”(p. 209)
In summation, if we can see that desires for things, for happiness, for more stuff, are “just thoughts” we can then let them go and avoid suffering. No more desires = enlightenment. Here’s where he is so wrong. Desires are not bad. Happiness is not bad, and wanting more of it is good and healthy. Our desire for other things (food, love, sleep, wisdom, sex, a new car) is not bad either. Here’s why.
Powdthavee is right on one thing; no natural desires can be adequately fulfilled. We always get hungry again after we’ve eaten.We should not let these desires go, though, to avoid suffering. We all have desires because they point us to something greater. They are like a giant arrow pointing us to a “heavenly country”, where the Triune God will fulfill every desire we ever had.
The real happiness equation is You + (Father+Son+Holy Spirit) = Happiness.
16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.