The UK government intends to shape its policies according to what promotes happiness and wellbeing. But what is happiness, and what are the factors, according to Buddhism, that develop it? Thought for the Day 17th January  2012

When my two year-old son got his main Christmas present his face lit with intense happiness. Then he learned he couldn’t have all the other presents he wanted and he howled with frustration. It’s a familiar problem to parents. As the government’s Wellbeing Agenda recognises, being happy is a central human concern. But it’s elusive. It’s not the same as pleasure, and, as my son discovered, some happiness produces craving and then brings misery. Yesterday’s report from the institute of Economic Affairs questioned whether fostering happiness is the business of the state at all.

Nonetheless, psychology has learned that states like stress and depression aren’t as intractable as they seem and we can to foster wellbeing by adjusting our attitudes and behaviour. The Happiness Movement urges us to help others, keep learning and have a positive approach, and over the years I’ve tried to follow similar advice from the Buddha. However, I think Buddhism has something distinctive to contribute to the debate.

Buddhism starts with the fundamental character of human existence. Everything we experience, it says, is impermanent and constantly changing. That’s true of our possessions, our relationships and our bodies, as I’m uncomfortably reminded whenever I look in the mirror and wonder where my hair went. Everyone wants to find happiness and avoid suffering, but we go about this in unhelpful ways: clinging to what we find pleasant and resisting what we find unpleasant. Finding an alternative means changing not just our behaviour, but our minds themselves; drawing on our inner resources, rather than seeking happiness outside ourselves; and adapting ourselves to life as it is, not as we’d like it to be.

This is an agenda for personal change, not just a philosophy. It follows that a simpler life with fewer possessions will probably leave us happier than a complex life with more. Clarity and understanding are more helpful than constant stimulation and entertainment. And generosity and compassion accord with the truth that we are deeply connected to others and therefore bring more satisfaction than selfishly pursuing our own concerns.

The Wellbeing Agenda is encouraging because it suggests that we can take the initiative in creating our happiness. But that inevitably raises fundamental questions about what happiness really is and how it comes into being. That’s where Buddhist insights into experience and Buddhist practices for changing the mind, can help. The issue for Buddhism isn’t how we can make ourselves happy, but how we can live in accordance with reality so that happiness naturally arises.