Teaching Nirvana: Can You Learn Happiness?

Maybe it’s not so easy to buy happiness, but what about learning it? That’s what the Dalai Lama and UK glad-mongers Action For Happiness offer in a free class launched last Monday. The 8-week mindfulness course promises to “leave people happier and more likely to help others”, but journalists everywhere remain sceptical of wellbeing’s accessibility, asking whether meditation can really act as a cure-all for life’s woes.
To investigate, I contacted the Mahabodhi Kadampa Buddhist Centre, a registered charity in Edinburgh that offers its own mindfulness courses. “We tend to look to science for the final or definitive answer to things,” says Kelsang Gomchen, a monk and teacher at the centre, when I mention recent studies that back the psychological benefits of mindfulness. “People see [empirical support] as ‘science is validating Buddhism’. But from the Buddhist point of view, experience validates Buddhism. Many of the things that scientists are discovering are actually just reaffirming things we’ve known to be true for centuries.”
The scientific study of human wellbeing has flourished in recent years, dredging up manifold factors acting on any one individual’s sense of happiness. Variables from clinical depression to poverty challenge Buddhism’s mind-over-matter ethic, indicating that perhaps a lack of mindfulness isn’t the only thing standing in the way of joyful living.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that personality traits linked to an overall sense of happiness, such as high levels of sociability and low levels of anxiety and neuroticism, are greatly influenced by genetics and not just one’s lifestyle or worldview. “We did find a large genetic influence for subjective wellbeing, but most variation comes from people’s unique environments,” says Dr. Michelle Luciano, who helped to conduct the study. “Indeed, it might be things like meditation practise, relaxation, sport, social involvement [and] support, and hobbies that contribute to most of the variation.”
Yet Luciano points out that the science on mindfulness’ advantages isn’t conclusive. “More randomised control and longitudinal studies are needed to confirm whether mindfulness can increase happiness levels,” she says. She adds, however, that “empirical evidence is accumulating to show mindfulness to be beneficial.”
The practice of mindfulness begins by noticing the present, says Gomchen, usually through a simple breathing exercise. The point, he explains, is to drive attention away from harmful distractions. “A negative mind – filled with stress, anger attachment, those sorts of things – they all arise from three main causes, and one of these is inappropriate tension. A mind like this, a mind that dwells and exaggerates, then perpetuates the experience of unhappiness,” he says. “But as you strengthen your ability to focus, your mind then ceases the inappropriate tension it holds toward all the things happening in life.”
Yet it remains the case that external factors still define the basic elements of our lives. Political and social forces can make the difference between existing in an environment of abundance and pleasure or one ravaged by war, famine, or oppression. There’s something about spending time turned inwards, rather than actively helping to change undesirable circumstances, that nags at me. So I inquire about the possibility that too much meditation might inadvertently maintain some of the causes of human suffering.
“Some of the people who have made the biggest political changes in the 20th century were meditators,” answers Izzy McRae, spokesperson for Action for Happiness, pointing out that Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were known to practice mindfulness despite political adversity.
Others agree. “Not only can mindful meditation act as a precursor to positive activism, I would say it is a prerequisite,” says Ani Rinchen Khandro, speaking for the Edinburgh branch of the Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. “Otherwise one risks acting from a disturbed state of mind which then leads to negative outcomes.”
While empirical investigation into finding inner peace is well and good, meditators insist the ancient act of mindfulness has produced results for centuries. “The evidence is all around us,” notes Khandro.

The Mahabodhi Kadampa Buddhist Centre is not affiliated with Action for Happiness or the Dalai Lama.

Image: mwibawa

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