The Western idea of happiness is that it can be found externally. We need to buy consumer goods, create successful organizations, get the promotion, have more responsibility, and generally shape the world according to our desires.
The Eastern idea is different and superior.
Both the Buddhist and Hindu ideas tell us that happiness comes not from the world, but from controlling our minds. Our minds are where we process all of the inputs from our senses, which create an understanding of the outside world and form consciousness.
Material success is irrelevant if our minds are troubled. And often, we try and gain money with the idea of seeking tranquility, when tranquility can be gained at any moment if we choose to do so.
This reminds me of a joke:
A businessman was standing at the end of the pier in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The businessman complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The fisherman replied that it only took a little while. The businessman then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish. The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The businessman then asked: “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman said: “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life”.
The businessman scoffed. “I am a Wharton MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The fisherman asked: “But how long will this all take?”
To which the businessman replied: “Fifteen or twenty years”.
“But what then?”
The businessman laughed and said: “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions”.
“Millions? Then what?”
The businessman said: “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends”.
The real joke of course is on the businessman, who needs to work fifteen or twenty years to achieve a lifestyle that he could have right now if he was willing to give up his material lifestyle.
The leading cause of death for men in their working years is suicide, and perhaps this is to do with the pressure of “being successful” and the lack of tranquility that this brings to their lives.
No fancy watches, nice cars, and crafted meals will help if you are feeling awful inside. If you are anxious about the future, if you cannot focus on the current moment, and if you have no ability to control and manage your mind and emotions.
We should spend less time with a focus on the outside world, trying to mold it to our wishes, and more time on ourselves. Can we sit alone in a room and be calm? Can we stay without distractions? Do we know what we have to do and why it matters? Does a slight disturbance in our day make us angry for hours at a time?
We need to become acute students of our minds, and this starts with an understanding of evolution, and how evolutionary pressures have shaped our species to be who we are today. While some of the outcomes may have been advantageous in the Savannah 100,000 years ago, they can cause a great deal of harm today.
An obvious example is how easily we can be hooked to eating food with large amounts of sugar and fat because these send signals to our brains that are hard to resist. This is fine when this is a very occasional thing and the main problem was starvation, but now in our times of abundance, this is causing an epidemic of type II diabetes.
We need to get back to the basics:
- How to stay still
- How to breathe
- How to think clearly
- How to eat
- How to sleep
It sounds childish, almost ridiculous. How can you possibly need to learn how to sleep properly? You’ve been doing it all your life! We cannot be focussing on such obviously simple and basic things, we should be looking at what’s complex.
What’s the 5-year strategy for our business, our plan for achieving success?
The real issue is that while we have heard the idea that material wealth will not bring happiness, we do not believe this constant regurgitation. Deep down, many of us feel that we just need to reach the next level, or a few levels up in society, and we will finally be able to relax and be happy.
The sad thing is that if you reach that place by not being happy, this will become a learned behavior, and you will quickly want to reach the next level up, and so on.
I’ve gained more wealth in the last ten years than I thought it would be possible when I first started working, and I am not particularly happier for it. In fact, perhaps I should have worked less and meditated more, but that was a mistake I made.
The issue is that very few wealthy people speak candidly about wealth. We see carefully crafted snippets of their lifestyle on social media and in the press, but you do not see the full story, but eventually, it comes out. Divorces, suicides, overdoses, and so on.
Is it quite fortunate that the Buddha was a prince born to a very wealthy family! He then decided to give everything up, and he was able to give a true account of the experience of both having as many materials goods as you could possibly need, as well as having nothing.
Without lots of time spent on emotional and spiritual practice, we end up as children in adult bodies. We look like we have experience and maturity, but actually, we didn’t mature inside. We are still liable to wild emotional swings, and we are hardly ever tranquil.
We know what we want (tranquility), but we don’t understand how to achieve it. We think getting richer and running on the hedonic treadmill will save us, but it won’t.
I want to end with an interesting observation. I have lived in both the West and the East, and at this time in history (2022), I feel that many countries in the West, especially in Europe, have a significantly more tranquil lifestyle than countries in the East, who are rapidly developing and abandoning many of their philosophies.
I find Italy to be far calmer as a place than Vietnam or Cambodia, but perhaps this is because, on the whole, people are more materially secure in a first-world country than in an economically developing country.
When it comes to money, it is about having enough to not worry about money, but not much more than that.