Was Buddha Wrong?

Some perspectives on happiness and success…

I was finishing my early morning run in the woods of Snagov and disconnected the audiobook to enjoy the birds chirping and the landscape for the last few hundred meters. The sun was making its way through the bright green of May while three scared dears crossed my way.

Smiling, I suddenly decided to take a short detour and prolonged my cool-down walk in order to play one of my favorite meditation guides from the Plum Village App, Thich Nhat Hanh – “The First Four Exercises of Mindful Breathing”. I find the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh to be one of the most calming and kind voices I’ve heard.  I arrive at the car and play another 5’ open eyes sitting meditation guided by Shirzad Chamine.

Arriving home my kids and wife had just woken up and the little one jumps on me to play on my chest and climb on top of my head. Take a quick shower, make my coffee and sit in the armchair looking forward to play a bit more with my kids before starting the work. I feel…grateful and happy.

The happiness subject has been fascinating me for a long time but more and more lately, realizing how differently wired we are and how differently we interpret it.

Of course, I know happiness means something else for each of us however I have found three very interesting angles and thought of sharing them with you. To be noted that nuances are very important and nothing is in absolute terms. Especially on such a subjective topic.

A happiness related global study presented in the “Happy” documentary by Roko Belic (filmmaker of Bruce Almighty, Genghis Blues, I am, etc.) shows that happiness is, as presented in the figure below – 50% genetic, 10 % related to social status and material wealth and 40% intentional activity (own choices).

The above conclusions from the The Happy Movie are also introduced in a pretty similar way  in “The Happiness Hypothesis”, where the writer, Jonathan Heidt, introduces us to one of the most important ideas in positive psychology – an idea that Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, Schkade and Seligman call the happiness formula:

For the sake of clarity though I will refer here to temporary joy when referring to a very short lived “happiness” (such as most satisfactions coming from the “C” element ) and to happiness when I talk about the more profound, more longstanding state of mind.

I am sure some of you will challenge this by saying there is little or no difference but I consider it ok for us to have different views. 

“when everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much” – Walter Lipmann

The first – a business angle

When meeting prof Kevin Kaiser years ago (then at INSEAD, currently at Wharton), I was intrigued and fascinated by his perspectives, on value creation and ethics. If you read his book The Blue Line Imperative you will understand what was so fascinating. Not to mention being part of his class…

In this book he talks from a business perspective about value as being just another word for happiness:

“No matter what products or services we strive to create, our overall purpose is the same: delivering happiness to ourselves and creating ongoing value in our lives. (..) For a business to survive or grow, it has to deliver some form of “happiness” customers are willing to pay for. “

He continues by saying that if a product or a service is interesting, useful, exciting, relaxing, removing discomfort, etc, then it brings happiness. If you figure out what makes people happy, produce it earning a competitive ROIC and then try to deliver it sustainably, then it is value creating.

He defines businesses as “creators of products and services that make us a little happier each day”.

As always I find his theory well written and strong yet there are 2 other elements I see proliferating around us that make me wonder how many of the existent businesses today are really focused on delivering sustainable value?

One element is related to the greed and fears and egos I see in many businesses. They distort /affect the impact of the value provided to their stakeholders (I wrote about this in an earlier article you can check out entitled In search of meaning)

The second element is related to many of the messages we get via advertising which imply tacitly that happiness is coming mainly from the outside  and that by acquiring more, by buying more, by doing more, the more possessions we have, the more beautiful we are, etc. the happier we will be.

These subliminal (or often direct) messages that we should worry about almost everything –  about aging, about physical flaws, about not being fashionable, about being left behind, etc. – suggest we need this stuff to be happy.

But do we really need this much to be happy?  We certainly need some of them to cover our day to day needs, but the unbalanced pursuit of owning stuff (mostly luxury goods) is a happiness trap, as we are often pursuing it believing that it will make us happy and it actually doesn’t.

Not to mention that one of the biggest lies we tell to ourselves is “I will be happy when” and invest most of our time and energy chasing a target without enjoying enough the trip to the target, a trip called… life.

All the above make me doubt that, if we would not be kept busy with chasing success, kept busy with by worrying news and commercials we see in media and instead, choose to be happy with our own non-upgraded existence, it would be good for business.

And when I say success, I mean success as the current society defines success – fame, money, size of businesses, number of likes, etc. Having very little emphasis on meaning, positive impact, real value creation. Of course, many could argue that paying and sustaining the living of thousands of employees is value creation.

In my view it is just partially and I consider it real value creation only if those thousands of people whose lives are sustained are rallied under a meaningful mission and purpose. And if that company harms others’ health and safety with its products or services then it is not. Or if it does (as with many of the unhealthy food producers for example) it must take strong measures to counterbalance and outsmart its primary effect.

Does happiness come only from within?

The Buddhists and stoics’ theory is that we have all we need inside ourselves and the impact of everything else can be controlled.

Nobody says that’s easy, just that we humans could find happiness by stopping the outside disturbance of the inner peace. As happiness is our default mode.

Shirzad Chamine. Stanford university professor and a great inspiration to myself, my team and to many of our clients, states in his great book Positive Intelligence that “Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically”.

Dr. Dean Ornish from Harvard Medical School states in a book called The Spectrum that 

“when we are more inwardly defined – i.e. when we realize this peace is our natural state until we disturb it –  then we can go out in the world and accomplish even more, without getting so stressed and sick in the process.  People have power over you only if they have something you think you need. The more you experience inner piece, the less you need and more power you retain. Sometimes the ones that appear the most successful and powerful people are the unhappiest. It’s hard to tell yourself that if you could just go from having 2 billion to having 3 billion then you’ll be happy.  Before, at least they had the myth that Success brings happiness. Now they know better.”

Matthieu Ricard, one of the people whose level of happiness had been measured via fMRI brain scans and showed  extreme levels of happiness defines it as “ a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind…not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” (…)  happiness is a skill that can be trained. That training begins with deep insight into mind, emotion and our experience of phenomena, which then facilitates practices that maximize our inner wellbeing at a deep level, ultimately creating sustainable happiness.”

After more than 12 years of meditating regularly on different techniques such as Transcendental Meditation, Mindfulness and PQ as well as using apps like Plum Village, I have to say that due to meditation, my level of positiveness and health and happiness has increased tremendously. I have to say though that the next angle is the one I personally resonate most with.

This 3rd angle I was referring to, is that the theory of happiness coming only from within is not 100% right and happiness can also be found outside.

As mentioned a bit earlier, despite resonating very much with the Buddhists and stoics’ theory, and I mean here about finding the largest part of our happiness inside, I think we can also find it outside. In the relationships we have with friends and family*, in the help we provide to others, in accepting love from the others, in expressing gratitude, in doing good.  

I also tend to resonate a lot with Dr. Viktor Frankl when saying that “success, like happiness cannot be pursued”; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by – product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. “the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it”

Unfortunately, I feel we take for granted too many “neutral” things such as breathing, not feeling pain, being able to walk, to play with our kids, having enough food, etc. And I cannot help myself wondering why is it that we have to go through dramas to value more of these simple and beautiful things?

Let’s reflect on this:

  • First, make a list of top of mind things that have made you/are making you happy.
  • Challenge them to make sure they are not temporary (like putting down your backpack after a long hike)
  • Then look in your past 1-2 months schedule and see how much time and energy you’ve invested in activities that make you happy and how much in activities you think will make you happy.

Is it worth it?

We can choose to be victims of “I don’t have the time to take care of myself“, of “ I will be happy when” or we could choose to be aware of what is actually making us really happy and do something about it. As the only thing we can’t buy anymore with the money we strive to make, is the lost time.

Looking forward to your thoughts, not before leaving you with two tests:

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