Buddha

How the Happiness U-Curve Echoes the Buddha’s Teachings

Photo via Sally Morrow / RNS
A Buddhist statue on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Photo via Sally Morrow / RNS

I just learned about the U-curve — the basic psychological insight that most people get happier around age 50.

Judging from a variety of survey data from multiple cultures, people tend to be happy in their 20s and early 30s before hitting a less-happy trough in their late 30s and 40s, then returning to happiness in their early 50s. The line graph for this looks like a “U” stretched out on both sides, or, if you prefer, like a smile.

The predominant explanation seems to be that when we are young, we are ambitious and optimistic.

We feel good physically and have our lives in front of us. By our 40s, we start to worry about things we have not done yet, stymied by the realization “this” might be all there is. But by our early 50s we move on toward thinking “this” is not so bad after all.

At 54, I’ll admit my own experience seems to fit the pattern. I have less energy, my career has likely plateaued, and my parents will probably soon need closer care, but I still feel more satisfied. Is this because I got enough of what I desired? Or is it, perhaps, because I stopped desiring so much, or at least started desiring different things?

I teach comparative religion, so I know who spoke most clearly about satisfaction and desire. The Buddha taught these Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is dissatisfying.
  • Dissatisfaction is caused by desire.
  • Dissatisfaction will end only when the desires are extinguished.
  • The way to extinguish desires is to follow spiritual discipline. (For the Buddha, spiritual discipline meant the Eightfold Path).

I’m not kidding anybody: I have not extinguished all my desires. And I do not have much spiritual discipline. But maybe life is adjusting my desires whether I asked for it or not.

Five Things Christianity Can Learn From Buddhism

Image via Atosan/shutterstock.com
Image via Atosan/shutterstock.com

Could Christianity's future lie in Buddhism's past? This is a possibility that's been haunting me lately, but in a good way, I think.

One big critique, understandably, of postmodern views on Christian spirituality is that there's too much time and energy spent deconstructing old systems and ways of thinking that need to be torn down or reimagined, while lacking the same effort to build up something more helpful — more Christ-like — in its place.

This is true, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone. In my current spiritual practices as part of the current year I'm calling “My Jesus Project,” I'm trying to more fully understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus. So it might seems strange to some that I would look to Buddhism for help in rebuilding my daily walk along the path of Christ.

Author and monastic Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book years ago called Living Buddha, Living Christ, that had a profound impact on me. At the time, I was “A-B-C,” or “anything but Christian.” I had been thrown out of my church of origin for asking too many questions, and up to that point, I assumed there was no way I could ever associate myself with Jesus or the Gospel again. Thankfully — if surprisingly — it was a Buddhist monk who reintroduced me to Jesus.  

In his book, he draws many parallels between the life, teaching, and practices of Jesus and those of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as The Buddha after achieving enlightenment. For Jesus, I imagine a similar experience of enlightenment coming to him during his monastic retreat into the desert. And as I seek my own moments of illumination during My Jesus Project, it occurs to me that Buddhism has much to teach us about where we might take Christianity in the 21st century.

No Ego

One of the greatest weaknesses of modern Christianity has been the focus on the individual. This comes more from our individualistic culture than from Christianity itself. Though we focus on personal (often translated as sexual) sin, the idea of sin within the Hebrew Bible was more corporate. There was more of an interdependent, tribal culture, and as such, so were the shortcomings. We've also focused too much on personal salvation or a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” which has also led to such bastardized interpretations as the false gospel of personal prosperity.

In Buddhist practices, one must learn to let the self die, in a manner of speaking, in order to create a deeper, more meaningful relationship and interdependence with others and the rest of creation. This is actually more consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian thought than our modern, egocentric version of Christianity.

Living with Big Pharma

AS WE MOVE along in 2013, more initiatives will be coming on line from Obamacare (technically the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, although if you rearrange the letters it spells "death panels"). Starting next year, insurance companies can no longer deny coverage for anyone with pre-existing conditions, which is good news for Mitch McConnell, who might want to have his permanent frown removed. Additionally, the law requires that all tea party members take a spoonful of castor oil before bedtime and wear coarse undergarments close to the skin. (Hey, it was a big bill, with lots of fine print.)

What won't change, however, is our relationship to the pharmaceutical industry, known as "Big Pharma"—which is not, as you may have thought, the nickname of a linebacker from one of our agricultural-state colleges, but rather shorthand for "companies that combine ground-breaking science with the business model of a crack dealer." No offense to crack dealers.

I recently had a personal experience with Big Pharma, after two weeks with a projectile cough that filled the middle distance with an alluring prismatic mist. Office colleagues did not appreciate my little air rainbows, so I contacted my doctor for advice, using the convenience of email rather than driving over and changing into a disposable paper gown which—and I feel strongly about this—does not adequately flatter the body of a mature man.

I described my symptoms with a level of detail that only a professional writer can do, using the lushness of the English language to create a memorable narrative of my condition and symptoms. Naturally, I expected my doctor to reply in kind. But she didn't: "You're sick. Here's a prescription." (Science geek.)

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Jeremy Lin and the 'Messiah Formula'

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Fans show their support for Jeremy Lin during the game against the Timberwolves 2/11/12.By David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

No, he doesn't go down on one knee every time he nails a dunk or a perimeter shot. And as far as I know, he’s not building any hospitals in far-off countries. But the 23-year-old point guard for the New York Knicks suddenly finds himself in a spotlight familiar enough to Tebow that the pair should consider a face-to-face lunch to compare notes.

Like Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin “rode the pine” as a bench-warmer for years. Unlike the star quarterback, Lin was cut by two other NBA teams before landing a supporting role on the Knicks bench.

So why do we know about him all of a sudden? Although Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni would love to claim credit, he admits the only reason the American-born player of Taiwanese parents got his shot was because so many players ahead of him were injured.

Then, as if storing up his energy for months in anticipation of his big break, Lin lit up scoreboards, followed by sports talk shows and endorsement deals. Eleven days ago, he was a relative nobody. But it seems all it takes is leading your team to a six-game winning streak, posting 38 points against Kobe Bryant and snagging a buzzer-beater three-pointer against the Raptors to get the public’s attention.

So long Tebowmania; enter “Linsanity.”

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