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Can sustainable habits and a change in lifestyle provide a way to have long term happiness?

Western cultures can alter their perspectives to adopt more eastern practices to result in sustainable happiness.

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Can sustainable habits and a change in lifestyle provide a way to have long term happiness?

One of the most fundamental aspects of humans is the concept of happiness. There are various thoughts behind how to be happy, some choose a shorter painless route that is hedonistic in nature while others look at a broader aspect towards a group’s happiness such as utilitarianism. Buddhism resembles more utilitarianism out of the two but still has distinct differences. However, before discussing a solution,  a baseline definition is required to have a common understanding. In the Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama claims that there are two types of happiness. The first can be synonymous with pleasure, furthermore, “pleasure through our senses.” The Dalai Lama contrasts pleasure with happiness from a deeper, more gratifying feeling which he calls “joy” (Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, et al. 2016). The feeling of joy stems from various sources such as “love, compassion, and generosity.” As a result, those who fill their life with joy rather than pleasure may have a longer and more sustained feeling of happiness. A similar discretion of happiness is discussed in Lost Connections by Johann Hari, an author of two New York Times best-selling books on psychology. Instead of pleasure, he uses the term “extrinsic values”. Extrinsic values such as sex, money, and status mimic the pleasures mentioned by the Dalai Lama. Hari then brings up the “rival value, intrinsic values. These values fall in alignment with the joy described by the Dalai Lama (95; pt.2). This paper will attempt to find a solution in which intrinsic happiness or joy is maximized for longer periods of time due to the deeper sense of fulfillment joy provides through the analysis of philosophies and lifestyles. In specific, analyzing two philosophies for obtaining happiness, hedonism, and Buddhism. In addition, studying the consumerist culture, which has become significant amongst the western world in the last hundred years, gives more insight into how money and material possessions affect one's happiness. Using a comparative method a solution will develop to show that potentially less hedonistic and more Buddhist habits in life could result in longer sustained happiness.

According to Maxime Taquet, a renowned scientist with a Ph.D. from Université Catholique de Louvain, et al., hedonism may be a feature within everyone. Through his study on hedonism, he and his colleagues found ways of predicting when someone was going to do a certain action based on the current mood of said person. Participants in “bad” moods were more likely to do a good action later on in the day to compensate while participants who were in good moods are more likely to do a “bad-mood” action, such as “cleaning a room” relatively soon (2016). Having a predisposition to hedonistic habits could make transitioning into other lifestyles like Buddhism harder due to humans being animals of habit. In addition, this leaves the participants at the fate of their mood, having their actions dictated by emotions. In the book Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene, author of six international bestsellers with some on human psychology, describes that the best leaders base their decisions rationally. Pericles, the elder statesman of Athenian politics, was famed as one of Greek’s greatest leaders. He achieved such a title by acting with rationality. Instead of focusing on the emotions that drove him, he gave his attention to “nous” which represents mind and intelligence (13; ch.1). Pericles’ final decisions were justified on the basis of what would be good for society as a whole. Hedonism focuses on the self, maximizing pleasure rather than taking the time to consider what option will make them happy in the long run, such as being compassionate. John Stuart Mill, a founder of utilitarianism, and others like him believe that every action they do is deemed good if the consequence of the action resulted was positive and avoided as much pain (Nordquist). On this note utilitarianism emulates hedonism. On the other hand, act utilitarianism, a branch of utilitarianism, is based on the idea that the net good should be considered for all parties rather than a single individual. Hank Green, an online educator of various academic topics such as philosophy, exemplifies act utilitarianism in his Crash Course video by providing the situation in which an act utilitarian would kill one man to save five others because there are five lives being saved rather than one resulting in more “good” (CrashCourse). A more Buddhist viewpoint focuses on the individual’s happiness while helping those around them through compassion. Robert Thurman, a retired professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, in the foreword for Lorne Ladner’s book The Lost Art of Compassion, outlines that Buddhism is the exact opposite of hedonistic principles, stating that, “empowering the humanly natural altruistic outlook and habits that are the real key to the greater life energy of real happiness and joy” (IX-XI). For these reasons Buddhism will be the central philosophy for optimizing happiness as it does not focus on possessions but compassion and hardship.

In modern western society, money and the consumer-based world has prompted both problems and opportunities for one's happiness. According to Daniel Kahneman, a 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economic Sciences, and his colleagues, $75,000 has often been linked as the point of optimal income for happiness (107). However, the annual income of an individual and its relationship to happiness is not so apparent. Ruut Veenhoven, director of the World Database of Happiness, conducted research on various aspects of happiness. A graph, scheme 7, depicting happiness vs countries’ wealth displays a curve known as the “law of diminishing returns.” It is suggested affluence does not lead to unhappiness and as you receive more money, less happiness is returned. Furthermore, the graph suggests there are external factors that result in happiness. These external factors are not bought or obtained through money such as the joy described by the Dalai Lama or intrinsic values by Johann Hari. Bill Gates, a multi-billionaire, has stated that he is happy (2017). He obtains happiness through many of the traits and values described previously such as compassion and generosity. A prime example is the Bill and Melinda Foundation in which they have given out $50 billion in grants to various parties (“Foundation Fact Sheet”, 1994-Present). Those who choose to use the majority of their money on consumer goods are cited to have less life satisfaction according to Joseph Sirgy, management psychology Ph.D. from MIT. In addition to having less satisfaction, Sweeting, who has a Master of Arts in Psychology from the University of Edinburgh, et al.,  report that those with a high number of possessions, especially expensive possessions, have higher chances of being angry (2012). Through the aforementioned authors, the idea that money and possessions could have a negative impact on one's mental health and by extension their happiness becomes prevalent, making hedonism a less favorable lifestyle. Ruut Vehoven simply put this phenomenon as spending is a way to fill one’s wants instead of needs (2004).  Higgins, Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University, describes self-centered spendings as a “hedonic principle.” Living such a way has led to fluctuating unsustainable happiness (52). With that in mind alongside the provided evidence, living a non-consumerist life may lead to more long term happiness as it leans into the Buddhist philosophy.

Consumerism has detrimental effects on one's well-being. Since people cannot spend money all the time it becomes unsustainable to rely on money as a source of happiness. The concept of having material possessions ranges throughout history. In 1890 William James, often known as “Father of American Psychology,” proposed that in the coming years material possessions will become part of oneself (Cisek). With over a hundred years of various developments such as the radio, television, and the internet, consumerism has become unavoidable in modern society. A survey conducted by Halit Karaxha, who has a Masters of Science, and her colleagues found that for business owners, 54% of their budgeting went towards television and 28% towards radio (2017). With people being bombarded by advertisements every day, it drives that consumerist culture to purchase goods that they may not need. Veenhoven suggests that “[t]hey, [consumers], are seen to be victims of the drive to keep up with the Jones's and to be misled by the advertisement industry. Consumer 'wants' do not reflect real 'needs' and hence consumption does not buy happiness.” With this mindset, people often buy items not because they personally need them but because advertising is so strong and pushing them into thinking they need it. Often more stress is put on individuals when this happens due to the lack of money they may have, known as “money anxiety.” A survey conducted by OnePoll for Ladder in 2019 showed that out of two thousand Americans on average they were spending around fifteen hundred dollars a month on various items such as cable, restaurants, and subscriptions (“National Life Insurance Day Survey 2019”). Following the Buddhist philosophy, through mental training, these people could save fifteen hundred dollars every month which could be going into buying the basic level of needs outlined by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which includes food, water, shelter, and clothing (“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”). Some may claim that there is no reason to abstain from the technology and items we have obtained through years of research. People do not have to abstain from luxury items like the top of the line smartphones. They can just purchase one smart device instead of having a tablet, phone, tv, and laptop thus minimizing the items they have to a single item that has maximum utility.  Such a culture has sprung up to embody these principles known as minimalism. In the west, this was spurred on by the 2008 recession (Meissner 2019). Such a change may be necessary in order to find more sustainable happiness as according to the World Happiness Report in 2020 the happiness in the United States has been declining (Helliwell et al. 2020). 

The author suggests that a reason maybe with how American’s spend their time. As Veenhoven suggested with the law of diminishing returns when it came to one’s affluence it may be beneficial that after an individual reaches an annual income of seventy-five thousand dollars they spend less of their time working and more of their time pursuing personal ventures and hobbies. Bill Gates, for example, launched the Bill and Melinda Foundation with his wife to help improve the lives of those who are suffering from poverty and disease. Doing acts of compassion, such as donating and volunteering, has been shown to increase one's happiness (Harbaugh, W. T., et al. 2007). However, the individual may need to consider their current economic status as volunteering does not always bring happiness to an individual. In most cases the higher level of income you have and the more you volunteer for lower-income the more joy you feel. However, this option may not be suggested for low-income individuals as it has a negative association with happiness (Lee 795). In light of this information, an individual of low income may seek other acts of compassion such as helping out their immediate community. The studies also support the idea of compassion that was mentioned by the Dalai Lama. Another way to spend your time is working on crafts. Qiuying Zheng, a graduate of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, and his colleagues found through three studies that participants felt a deeper pleasure when experiencing an event rather than buying a product (479; vol. 33). An example is growing a bonsai tree rather than simply buying one from a mass retailer. As a result, an individual, in part, can increase their long term happiness by changing their lifestyle to reduce consuming unnecessary goods and reallocating their time to more fulfilling tasks. This has been shown through studies to provide people with happiness and these actions can be done throughout someone's life.

Hedonic principles currently dominate western consumerist culture, specifically in the United States. This may be one of the reasons why the United States is falling on the World Happiness Report. As a solution individuals should perhaps turn to alternatives that produce situations resulting in long-term happiness, known as joy from the Dalai Lama. A utilitarian philosophy could be a solution; however, it still holds onto the hedonic principle of avoiding pain. Rather,  an individual should begin to abstain from simple pleasures like trying to earn an extraneous amount of money or buying indefinite subscriptions that will constantly have their pockets shrinking. At the beginning of transitioning into a different lifestyle, one that follows the suggestions from this paper, it may be difficult to change habits due to humans being tied to routines. After changing the lifestyle to reflect eastern-Buddhist and western-minimalist ideologies, an individual should experience a long-lasting more fulfilling joy in their life. This is due to the seemingly overwhelming evidence that has been introduced throughout the years with studies linking various types of minimalism and compassion towards others with happiness. Adopting a more compassionate personality allows for a sustainable source of happiness as helping others has little to no cost and can be done all throughout their life. Potentially a reason why more individuals have yet to adopt this solution is due to a disregard to evidence that disagrees with their life philosophy or initial hardship that may be met in change.

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