‘The Happiness Equation’ and Buddhism

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.

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. ()

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.

3 thoughts on “‘The Happiness Equation’ and Buddhism”

  1. Hey Simon,

    I am reminded of Jesus’ words roughly on this subject about storing treasures in heaven . His words remind us that worldly goods are impermanent. It could be said that he was advocating for a re-alignment of desires towards God, rather than things of this world. Desires, as discussed in the NT, can be both good and bad. Paul, for example, writes about God “giving them over to their base desires” (wherever he says that).

    I think it is a little bit of a language game. In Buddhism (of which I don’t profess to know a great deal) desires are treated as a source of suffering. The middle way is thus a way of fulfilling your material, physical needs to a minimal extent as to avoid unnecessary suffering caused by treating impermanent things as permanent. However, you could say that there is a desire to have no desire (just to play with words a bit), or a desire for enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of rebirth. In Christianity, desires are good and fulfilling if they are in right relationship with God. That is, towards a proper, ultimate end. But desires can also be bad if left to their own devices. In this view, then, Buddhism and Christianity do not differ terribly in their treatment of desires. They align humans desires with their views of ultimate reality and its ultimate ends.

    Does the author of the book provide any empirical evidence on the correlation between , for example, the desire for money and happiness? I thought that might allow one to make the argument that desires can cause unhappiness. It does seem that real question is, desires for what?

    1. Hey again, Adam. I think you’ve summarised things nicely, here. Powdthavee’s conclusion says much the same thing as you have about Buddhism, and I also agree with your summation of the Christian position on desire and fulfillment. Christians need not be afraid of desire if it’s chief end is the glory and enjoyment of God – our human desires should line up with ultimate reality and its ultimate ends.

      As this post was actually written over a month ago, and therefore I finished the book over a month ago, I have to scratch around in memory to answer that question. I’m fairly sure the findings on this matter are presented like so: If you live in a particular suburb (for example), and you have much the same wealth, or greater, as those living around you, then you will be more likely to be happy. If you live in a suburb where you are surrounded by people who are wealthier than they are, then you will likely be less happy or quite unhappy. So people’s happiness is relative when it comes to money. I suppose his presentation suggests that the desire for money makes one unhappy.

      I’m happy to dig around and find a substantive quote if you like. That was off the top of my head.

  2. Very good, Simon. Very good. That’d be great if you could dig around for a substantial quote and for anything else that might be in the equation.

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