One City

One City

The Causes of Happiness

by Ellen Scordato

What makes us happy? Nicolas Kristof recently wrote a thought-provoking piece in the New York Times on what makes us happy: “Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving.”


Since we are reading and writing a buddhist blog here, we probably are fairly familiar with the idea that whatever makes us happy is as impermanent as happiness is, or as we are. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make an investigation of happiness worthless.


There is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation that goes as follows: 

“May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness;
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering;
May all beings never be parted from freedom’s true joy;
May all beings dwell in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.”

So what exactly are we asking when we ask that all beings have the causes of happiness?

Based on new research in neuroscience and psychology, Kristof notes that being part of a community, and specifically giving to that community, is a powerful producer of happiness.

“[A researcher]] notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself. . . . 
“Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.

“The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.”


Wow, giving to a cause lights up the sex brain?! 

Hand me that checkbook! Kind of amazing. Bodes well for the giving that’s going to be needed to help Haiti, or for the growth of new buddhist organizations like the Interdependence Project, whose members produce this blog. And for the practice of dana, or generosity, the first of the paramitas, part of the boddhisattva path in mahayana buddhist practice.


And kind of weirdly uncomfortable, too, but only if one feels guilt about feeling good. Is it selfish to help others in order to light up one’s own sex brain, one’s own pleasure center? If that’s the only reason, it probably won’t work. Or maybe it will. it will certainly connect us with a community, and perhaps start us on the road to thinking about someone else’s causes of happiness. 

Giving to others gives us personal gratification. And at the same time, it is the giving, or dana, that produces good karma, that is a paramita, that is part of waking up and realizing the true relationship between self and other, self and community. 

I’d like to ask two questions:
What does giving do for us and others? Specifically, for you, today, reading this blog? 
What does community mean to you? 

How do we form sanghas, or buddhist communities, and how do we give to them? I’d really love to know–write in!

Comments read comments(6)
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posted January 18, 2010 at 7:03 pm

I’m completely focused on getting a car.
So that I can go to school.
So that I can learn new skills, so that I can work.
It is this total concentrated effort, of giving to myself, always, that is bringing me much happiness.
After, I attain this covetous item, I will be able to join a Buddhist church, where I can enjoy the nature of Buddhist community.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 4:46 am

I never gave a serious thought to giving till I met the teachings. And now I see why it’s the first step- because it’s so easy to do(compared to the rest) and we gain so much from doing it. I asked myself why I give. Practically because I have enough and they need it more.. because I can.
My Buddhist reasons are as a training for myself – to make giving itself force of habit.
To reduce my attachment to things. Because it’s the attachment that binds us.
I now see that I need to practice giving mentally too. .. whatever reputation, praise, mental pleasure, merit …gosh this is going to be hard.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 4:52 am

The Dalai Lama has famously said that until we are completely enlightened (i.e have realised emptiness and selflessness) we have to be ‘wisely selfish’. That means understanding that giving to and helping others is the only way to make one genuinely happy. All other types of pleasure are temporary and tainted because htey are based on mind-states that ultimately cause suffering.
There’s a famous example in Tibetan Buddhism which says that if something were genuinely delicious, sexy etc. then we should be able to have that thing all the time, every day without getting bored of it and everyone else will feel the same way about that object as well. However, we all know that doesn;t happen. If we eat chocolate cake all the time, we soon get bored of it or want to try a different type or get fat etc.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 11:56 am

In what seems to be a dark and difficult time for our planet, this research is a bit of good news….that human beings have a basic, fundamental, chemically-driven need to give, to share, to help. My Grandfather always said that when you are feeling blue, the best thing to do is to go do something for someone else. Turns out there is a bio-chemical reason, not just a psycho-social reason why he was right!

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Anan E. Maus

posted January 20, 2010 at 7:39 pm

there is neat talk on TED about happiness, by the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard
I think real happiness is about being about peace with yourself and your life…and having a clear conscience.
without a clear conscience, I don’t think real happiness can exist…maybe some momentary excitement, but not real happiness.

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posted June 23, 2010 at 8:13 am

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