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!

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