The Secret of Happiness (It's Not What You Think)

06/22/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

The following is an excerpt from Daniel Goleman's new book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World.

"What's the source of happiness?" a student at Princeton University asked the Dalai Lama.

Looking around at the students waiting for his answer, the Dalai Lama paused a beat or two, then called out: "Money!"

Another beat or two: "Sex!"

And then: "Nightclubs!"

His joke brought down the house.

Then he went on to say that when we see the world through a materialistic lens, we look to such sensory stimulation--even things like shopping, food, music, watching sports--as the source of satisfaction or joyfulness. But, he added, focusing only on sensory delights leaves us perpetually dissatisfied, because such pleasures are short-lived.

Immersion in consumerist indulgence as a way of life, so rampant in the First World and quickly spreading now throughout emerging economies like China and India, does not lead to real happiness but "cheapens life, feeding our lesser nature."

From time to time the Dalai Lama mentions once being the guest of a very wealthy family, at whose house he stopped for a lunch visit to break a long journey. In the bathroom, he says a bit sheepishly, he noticed the medicine cabinet door was open, so he peeked in--and found the cabinet full of tranquilizers and painkillers.

The Dalai Lama's critique of modern economics goes to its very assumptions about the basis of fulfillment.

"Many people feel money is the source of a happy life. Money is necessary, useful--but more and more money does not bring happiness. Relying on money to be happy is too materialistic."

A flaw in that way of living is that even if we enjoy ourselves, "such joyfulness can go together with much worry at a deep mental level. It's a painkiller: The pain is still there, but you forget it for a moment while you are distracted."

We may feel some temporary relief, but then when something causes that deeper worry to stir, we forget the happiness. So "we need a deeper basis for contentment."

He clarifies: "The proper way to reduce pain is to work at the mental level itself, not through sensory gratification." The challenge lies partly in reorienting our attitudes toward the source of satisfaction and away from materialism.

"This is difficult to change. Our real hope is the people of this century"--today's young and those not yet born--getting what he calls a "proper education" about values and the true basis of a satisfied life. "I think that's the only hope."

He adds: "Nowadays, many people have the belief that if material progress continues, then everything will be okay. That way of thinking is a mistake. Material goods provide comfort for the physical body but not for the mind."

Money, as the song lyric has it, can't buy you love--or happiness. Happiness, as Richard Layard's research shows, depends much more on the quality of our personal relationships than on our income. In many ways, the most important external factor in well-being is whether we feel this closeness.

By the same token, the Dalai Lama points out that feeling kindness, affection, and trust within our circle of family and friends makes us happier than do luxuries. He cites social-science research showing that the emotional benefits of gaining wealth are temporary--and that the overall level of people's contentment in a society is better the more evenly distributed its wealth is. That seems why countries like Denmark continually rank at the top of ratings of satisfaction and happiness.

If the goals of government were its people's well-being, Layard argues, then it would regulate the economy to be more stable rather than in ways that help a few people become extremely wealthy.

While economists' faith in the GDP has held that money represents a person's happiness, Layard points out an irony: The very economist who first developed the GDP warned against using it to gauge people's welfare.

A great deal of data, Layard says, shows that factors like your health and the quality of your relationships matter the most for happiness. Income accounts for only about one percent of the variation in people's happiness.

Layard stands at the forefront of a movement among economists to find a more meaningful metric for well-being than the GDP. He believes that countries should be judged by how satisfied their citizens are with their lives. Layard, a member of Britain's House of Lords, has helped move this agenda into government policy there.

As a result, first Britain and now all countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (which seeks to further worldwide economic growth and employment and to raise standards of living) include measures of life satisfaction in their official statistics.

The Dalai Lama encourages such progressive thinking beyond economics alone to promote well-being. Despite the innovative creativity that drives economic activity, we have yet to provide the bare essentials for living to billions of people. Only an economy oriented around compassion, he argues, can overcome the vast disparities between the poorest and wealthiest.

Given that true happiness begins with a modicum of material comfort but then depends on cultivating qualities of mind like contentment and caring, the purpose of economic development, in the Dalai Lama's view, can be found in furthering both goals.

He has applauded groups that encourage countries to define the success of their policies in terms of "Gross National Happiness." But, he adds, he's still waiting to hear about creative ways this ideal of a compassionate economy might become action--not just talk.

From A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World. Copyright 2015. Daniel Goleman. Reprinted with permission from Penquin Random House.

The audiobook for A Force for Good is available from More Than Sound.