Keynes vs. Buddha on Happiness

keynes vs buddhaImagine being 2, and having your name announced as the leader of your country. Then, imagine being 24 and leaving your country, never knowing when you would return. Sounds tragic doesn’t it?

Unfortunately this has been the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. He is now 80, and yet may never return to Tibet. This tragedy seems unsurmountable however, he has forgiven China and continues to represent peace and humility. He says there is no secret behind happiness, and it is a sense of mental satisfaction, and not a pleasurable experience.

So are humans necessarily fools running behind things that can be bought, instead of looking for happiness within? May be not, because a home, a stitch of clothing, and some food is always required. Buddha would say happiness is priceless, and the less you own the more happier you can be, as represented below.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 8.33.58 pm

However, happiness can be found in a bouquet of flowers, a plane journey for a vacation, or a cupcake.

It is not really a complex issue, but the engagements of daily life have turned it into a complex issue. Children always seem happy. So is it that the lesser we know, the happier we remain? This way the prodigies, educated, and elderly may never be happy. There is no end when gaining knowledge, and many times it can be involuntary. “The more you know, the more you realise there is to know”, said Einstein. So there is no end in ‘more’. The idea of more, and desires only multiply  with every earning received. No matter what form that earning may be in – capital, knowledge, food.

John Maynard Keynes’ work focuses on multiplying aggregate demand, and credit, and so the cycle goes on. He was on the opposite side of today’s minimalist idea in which we are trying to look for happiness. Reason being he saw material scarcity as a problem, whereas Buddha saw material itself as a problem. Keynes says the dream of a human race finally free from the economic problem of material scarcity, is what will lead to happiness. Keynes focuses on abundance, and how to continue the cycle of credit fuelled production.

On the other hand buddhist economics would say that (abundance or just) materialism is what leads us away from happiness. Material obstruction of defilements (kleśāvarna) is one of the two outlined defilements that keep us within entanglements, away from peace and nirvana. For Buddha, the material obstruction is what deflects our vision from happiness.

Thus, Keynes may say that is only after your stomach is full that you may find happiness, whereas the Buddha would say there is no point in life where your stomach may be full. One idea shows attaining happiness after material possesion, and the other without material possession. But they both agree on one factor, that happiness in itself, is not possession.

Even though Keynes was a short term economist he understood that only post destruction, would humans ponder on ‘how to live sensibly?’. He said, “assuming no important wars and no important increase in populations, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not – if we look into the future – the permanent problem of the human race”. The problem arises after we surpass that level of success.

After a certain point one may wonder ‘what more?’. We run behind things one after the other, but imagine if you already had what you wanted to earn from your hard work. Then what you would do in your retirement is what truly gives you happiness.

Buddhist Economist, E. F. Schumacher once spoke of a quakers group called the EarthQuakers, who asked somebody “you’re looking forward to your retirement?”


“What do want to do when you retire?”

“Oh, I’ll dig my garden.. and do this and that”

“Why don’t you do it now, what are you waiting for?”

Surprised even listening to that prospect they say “Oh hey, yes! I can actually do it now”.

Thus, they rid themselves of much disturbance. Happiness is a challenge in this very spot. It is a challenge when you already have what you need, and here Buddhist principles and Keynes look in the same direction. They look in the same direction when hoping to find happiness in free time. Keynes said,  “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”. If you know how to occupy your leisure time peacefully, with out always looking for a weekend, then you know you are happy. This assures that you are happy genuinely for what you are doing, and not due to the limited days on your visa, or a festival.

The 14th Dalai lama is certainly a different case, since he does not have a 9 to 5 job. But represents how a human can find happiness in doing the same acts of service for years, even beyond misfortune. Leisure time becomes toxic if acts of joy cannot be engaged with, and shared. Extending those acts of joy (from leisure time) to our daily lives maybe how we mortals can find happiness.

16th May 2016

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