Shankar Vedantam had a Science page article in the Washington Post today, Is Great Happiness Too Much of a Good Thing? He begins with an anecdote about an 80 year old man who, after suffering a head-first tumble over the handlebars of a bicycle at age 70, has not only survived the ordeal but finds reasons to feel grateful about life. The man reportedly feels neither regret nor sorry for himself despite losing the use of his legs due to a spinal injury. Vedantam goes on to highligh the results of a new study by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, which superficially seems somewhat out of phase with the anecdote.
According to Vedantam, Oishi says that people who experience many more positive than negative events seem to get less joy from additional happy events — and ever larger bad effects with each negative event. “Getting to ‘very happy’ is like climbing an ever steeper mountain. Additional effort — positive events — doesn’t gain you much by way of altitude. Slipping backward, on the other hand, is very easy.” Vedantam reports.
I find interesting confirmation and correlation to Buddhist principles in relation to this piece. Undoubtedly most people would prefer to be happy. But what is happiness? Is it the absence of hardship? In the article, Vedantam mentions satisfaction, short-term contentment, global happiness and day-to-day happiness among other things, but misses, I think, taking the critical step of defining terms. Rapture, one of the states of being (or worlds) in which human beings may move through each day from moment to moment, is something we experience when things go exceedingly well and we are overjoyed–from the mundane effects of the touchdown scored by our favorite team, the taste of a great piece of cake at a happy celebration, or even the peak of an amourous encounter. All of these fall under the rubric of relative happiness. As the referee disallows the touchdown for an out of bounds catch, the cake is all gone, or–well you can imagine about the amourous encounter, the happiness is gone.
Absolute happiness, in contrast, is that confidence and conviction–that sense of contentment like that of the 80 year old, that no problems in life cannot be surmounted. I have no doubt that I will experience frustrations, difficulties, and various negative phenomena on a regular–if not a daily basis. This is especially true when I am exerting myself strenuosly to accomplish some objective I find important. I no longer find this reality disturbing. Yes, it is annoying; but it does not diminish my happiness. On the contrary, it elevates it. Having been married twice unsuccessfully, I hazarded a third marriage despite a death threat from my prospective father-in-law. The outcome has been 27 years of happiness increasing on a day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year basis. That is the power of challenging one’s destiny, challenging the fundamental darkness that would keep me from the path of the Buddha. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.