What Should I Do?
Selfishness, Happiness And Benefiting Others

by David Edwards and Media Lens

Dissident Voice

September 23, 2003



Magic Keys


With the world awash with poverty, injustice, environmental crises, imposed confusion and toxic propaganda, we at Media Lens nevertheless regularly receive emails from people asking: “What should I do?”


It’s an interesting question ­- one that we have ourselves asked many times in the past -­ because it is often a kind of polite euphemism for other, rather more bashful, questions, such as: ‘How can I find the motivation to sacrifice my own free time, energy, money, and perhaps even career prospects, to take action and get involved in some kind of dissident activity, without feeling it’s all a futile drop in the ocean?’


Noam Chomsky, in his usual no-nonsense manner, discussed the issue in conversation with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio:


David Barsamian: “Often at the talks you give, there is a question that’s always asked, and that is, ‘What should I do?’ This is what you hear in American audiences.”


Noam Chomsky: “You’re right, it’s American audiences. You never hear it in the Third World.” 


DB: “Why not?”


NC: “Because when you go to Turkey or Colombia or Brazil or somewhere else, they don’t ask you, ‘What should I do?’ They tell you what they’re doing. It’s only in highly privileged cultures that people ask, ‘What should I do?’ We have every option open to us. None of the problems that are faced by intellectuals in Turkey or campesinos in Brazil or anything like that. We can do anything. But what people here are trained to believe is, we have to have something we can do that will be easy, that will work very fast, and then we can go back to our ordinary lives. And it doesn’t work that way.


“You want to do something, you’re going to have to be dedicated, committed, at it day after day. You know exactly what it is: it’s educational programs, it’s organizing, it’s activism. That’s the way things change. You want something that’s going to be a magic key that will enable you to go back to watching television tomorrow? It’s not there.” (Chomsky, ‘Collateral Damage, an Interview with David Barsamian’, Z Magazine, July/August, 2003)


In Chomsky’s interview, as in so many progressive analyses, the discussion ends there. The remedy, then, would appear to be for us to pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps: Be less selfish! Just do it!


But the problem is precisely that our fingers tugging at our moral bootstraps are enfeebled by the deep conviction that we have to do everything in our power to make ourselves as happy as possible in the short time we are alive. This seems particularly to be the case given that, at present, we are not doing a very great job of it.


Ours, after all, is a notoriously unhappy society. In 2001, the Observer reported that despite the highest British income levels ever, researchers had found that most people interviewed were profoundly unhappy: 55 per cent said they had felt depressed in the previous year. (Ben Summerskill, ‘Retail therapy makes you depressed’, The Observer, May 6, 2001) In 2002, it was reported that around one-third of British people suffer from serious depression at any one time. A 25-year-old today is between three and ten times more likely to suffer a major depression than one in 1950. It seems that young people with the highest living standards since records began are deeply miserable during “the best years of their lives”. Two-thirds of Britons aged between 15 and 35 feel depressed or unhappy.


The hamster-wheel repetition of our commute to work, the endless drudgery of our jobs, the perpetual burden of marital and parental responsibilities, the self-doubts, irretrievable losses, depressions, illnesses and frustration, all mean that many of us feel we are doing all we can to keep our heads above water, never mind helping anyone else. Even as we are asking “What should I do?” we are lamenting with Shantideva from the 8th century: “Alas, our sorrows fall in endless streams!”


How can it be sensible or reasonable for us to give up our spare time, money or energy to help others when our lives are already crowded with so much difficulty?


If there is to be a helpful response to the question: “What should I do?” it must lie in a credible answer to another question: Is there a response that satisfies both our need for happiness and the needs of the world around us?


We believe that people devote themselves to a self-centred life in pursuit of several perceived sources of happiness: pleasure, comfort, praise and status. We will propose, here, however, that not only do these goals not deliver happiness, but that they are themselves the direct cause of many of our problems. This realisation can progressively lead to a response that is as beneficial to us personally, as it is to the world around us. The answer to the question of how best to look after “number one” is not at all what we might expect.


The Pitfalls Of Personal Happiness ­ How Pleasure Chews and Grinds


One section of Aryadeva’s classic 3rd century work on philosophy, Four Hundred Stanzas, is entitled, remarkably: “Abandoning Belief In Pleasure”.


Aryadeva argued that the idea of positive pleasure free from suffering is an illusion ­ what we label ‘pleasurable’ is actually a moment of relief from one discomfort before the arising of another discomfort has become noticeable. Aryadeva gave an example as a template for understanding all ‘pleasurable’ experiences:


“When the discomfort of carrying a load on the right shoulder for a long time becomes intense and one moves it on to the left one, it is merely that a slight pain which is beginning stops the intense pain already produced, not that there is no discomfort at all. How can there be pleasure while a new and different pain is beginning or while intense pain is stopping?” (Aryadeva and Gyel-tsap, Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas, Snow Lion, 1994, p.93)


What we experience as ‘pleasure’ in eating, drinking, sitting after standing, coming in from the cold, winning money and applause, and so on, involves relief from one discomfort as another begins (itself soon becoming uncomfortable). Although we are merely caught between one decreasing and one increasing form of suffering, we label the feeling ‘pleasurable’, and believe the label. Aryadeva presents a vivid analogy:


“When a rich man, vomiting into a gold pot, sees his servant vomit into a clay one, though vomiting is equally unpleasant for both, he thinks how prosperous he is. Like the rich man who feels delighted, one mistakes for real pleasure the feeling of satisfaction when pain has been alleviated and becomes less acute; but there is no real pleasure.” (p.92)


That this is the case becomes clear when we continue the ‘pleasurable’ action, for example of eating, which soon becomes uncomfortable: “With the intensification of pleasure, its opposite is seen to occur.” (p.88)


Perhaps this ‘pleasurable’ cycling between constantly diminishing and increasing discomforts explains why, as the French philosopher Montaigne observed, “Pleasure chews and grinds us." And as for a pleasurable activity relentlessly pursued, Aryadeva paints a grim picture:


“It is like King Asoka’s prison called ‘Pleasant Abode’ where one could first choose one’s favourite form of behaviour, but since no other could then be adopted, this eventually became painful.” (p.89)


And it does indeed seem that when individuals fill their lives with all the pleasures money can buy, they find themselves, oddly, no closer to happiness. Researchers surveying Illinois state lottery winners and British pool winners found that the initial happiness at winning eventually wore off and the winner returned to their usual range of happiness. Likewise, a recent sample of 49 super-rich people found that 37% were less happy than the national average (See: Howard Cutler and The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998, p.10) In another study, there was no difference between the happiness level of 22 lottery winners and comparison samples of average people or paraplegics.


In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, psychiatrist Victor Frankl discussed this remarkable relativity of happiness and suffering based on his experience as a survivor of the Nazi death camps. Frankl explains how, after a train journey under appalling conditions, he and his fellow prisoners expected to arrive at Auschwitz to face imminent death. When they did arrive, however, they found that they were in fact at a much smaller camp where they were not in imminent danger of being killed. Disinterred from their train, the prisoners were forced to endure a murderous all-night punishment parade in  freezing conditions. The results were remarkable:


“All through the night and late into the next morning, we had to stand outside, frozen and soaked to the skin after the strain of our long journey. And yet we were all very pleased! There was no chimney in this camp and Auschwitz was a long way off.” (Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning, Pocket Books, 1985, pp.65-66)


Whether rich or poor, no matter how comfortable or distressing our condition, we apply the label ‘pleasure’ to an experience that involves a mere decrease in suffering. No matter how much we try, ‘pleasure’ of this kind must involve discomfort and its temporary reduction; it must grind us with its inherent suffering. This is why Buddhist sages have argued that a life spent in pursuit of pleasure is like sitting on a pin ­ every move you makes leads to suffering.


The Search For Status ­ Bogus Celebrity


How many writers, including dissident writers, are motivated by the desire ‘to be someone’ ­ to achieve praise, status and reputation, even fame? We at Media Lens have received supportive emails from some of the writers we respect and admire most, and also from many of our readers. What is so remarkable is the capacity of the egotistical mind to quickly lose the initial sense of satisfaction gained from this.


As with other desires, the 'pleasure' experienced involves relief from an uncomfortable situation - doubts and anxieties about our ability to do what we are doing effectively, for example. But as these doubts are partially reduced, positive comments - like food to a full stomach - rapidly lose their power to give the original pleasure. This is not at all to say, by the way, that supportive emails are irrelevant to us - they remain highly valued and important to us, regardless of the titillation they may or may not give our egos.


There are other problems with the pursuit of praise and status. It is easy to reflect on the fact that many writers, for example ­ no matter how incompetent and hateful their work ­ receive positive comments from readers. Hitler, after all, was adored by millions ­ positive comments proved nothing at all about him, so what do they prove about us? Shantideva writes:


“Why should I be pleased when people praise me?

Others there will be who scorn and criticise.

And why despondent when I’m blamed,

Since there’ll be others who think well of me?” (Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.113)


Like all desires, praise and fame seem to promise much, but the actual experience surely comes fraught with unexpected dissatisfaction, disappointments and difficulties.


The comedian Charlie Chaplin said of his fame:


“I wanted to enjoy it all without reservation, but I kept thinking the world had gone crazy. If a few slapstick comedies could arouse such excitement, was there not something bogus about all celebrity? I had always thought I would like the public’s attention, and here it was ­ paradoxically isolating me with a depressing sense of loneliness.” (Quoted, David Giles, Illusions of Immortality - A Psychology Of Fame And Celebrity, Macmillan Press, 2000, p.91)


Who would have guessed that achieving unprecedented success as a comedian would leave someone like Chaplin, not delighted by his triumph, but in despair at the superficiality of his fellow man? And who would believe that the adoration of millions could result, not in endless delight, but in loneliness and depression?


In his book, Illusions of Immortality, David Giles describes some of the adverse consequences of fame:


“Probably the single most important cause of unhappiness reported by celebrities is the effect of having to deal with so many people all the time. The loss of privacy is one aspect of this... The more social interactions we have, the more we have to compromise our ‘true’ selves ­ eventually something snaps.” (Giles, p.92)


In 60 BC, Cicero complained that, despite the “droves of friends” surrounding him, he was unable to find one with whom he could “fetch a private sigh”. Rousseau wrote: “As soon as I had a name, I ceased to have friends.” (p.95)


Giles comments:


“On meeting each new acquaintance, the question becomes not so much, ‘Does this person like me for who I am?’ but ‘Does this person like me for what I am?’” (p.95)


We might think the rich and powerful live contented and happy lives ­ but high-ranking politicians and business moguls are slaves to their positions. Aryadeva examines the issue in discussion with an imaginary king:


“Assertion: Pride is appropriate because a king is free to enjoy all objects.


“Answer: It is not appropriate. What wrongly appears as a cause for superlative happiness to you, king, is seen as a source of suffering by those with discriminating wisdom and disciplined sense. Since you experience uninterrupted suffering in the process of protecting large communities of people and must live by working for others, it is not a cause only for happiness.” (p.119)


In other words, status and power come with ten thousand Lilliputian ropes of stressful responsibility and commitment, which take us very far from a sense of individual freedom and perfect enjoyment.


Dependent Arising ­ The Curious Nature Of Problems


The difficulty that underlies the entire attempt to achieve personal happiness through self-centred goals relates to the whole nature of what it is to have a ‘problem’.


A problem does not exist in splendid isolation as a concrete fact in the real world. Instead, problems arise in dependence on our definition of happiness. If, for example, we have set our heart on a particular person or object, anything that interferes with the attainment of that goal will obviously be labelled ‘a problem’.


We are not angry with a romantic rival simply because he or she exists, but because he or she threatens to take away what we believe will make us happy ­ he or she is therefore ‘a problem’. In response, we may become irate, frustrated, jealous, furiously angry and even violent. If, on the other hand, we do not believe that a particular person is an important source of happiness, then the person who might otherwise have been a rival is no longer an obstacle - the problem has literally ceased to exist in the same way that a rainbow disappears when a cloud obscures the sun.


The point is that this is true of all problems. Belief in happiness through the satisfaction of self-centred desires automatically creates conditions in which thousands of problem ‘rainbows’ can arise. As we identify a must-have partner, job, car, house, level of success, we thereby instantly generate vast numbers of ‘problems’ in relation to them.


If we realise that none of these things actually can give rise to lasting happiness - that they tie us to an endlessly rotating wheel of suffering, diminishing discomfort (pleasure), and arising discomfort - then our problems begin to diminish in number and intensity.


To the extent that we lose faith in the power of desired objects to provide happiness, we dismantle the conditions that lead us to define certain events as ‘problems’. And just this, according to the world’s major spiritual traditions, is a state of genuine peace and happiness.


How can we test this remarkable claim? We might argue, after all, that a life without desire would be a life of unrelenting boredom. But, on reflection, we can realise that boredom is precisely what we feel when we are blocked from satisfying a desire ­ from talking to a prospective partner chatting to our friends at the next table, from moving to a better job in some fantastic place. Boredom is not a condition without desire; it is a condition in which desire is both present and frustrated.


So how can we experience a condition, perhaps only temporarily, in which our normal focus on selfish concerns giving rise to ‘problems’ is temporarily ‘switched off’ or diverted in a way that tests the truth of the proposition being made here?


The answer is that we can ‘switch off’ our normal focus on our own problems and happiness by focusing on the problems and happiness of someone else. Victor Frankl described this brilliantly. In a situation of deep despair on a work team in a frozen death camp, a casual comment from a fellow prisoner caused Frankl to remember the face of his wife who was also imprisoned. He writes that his mind imagined her face “with an uncanny acuteness”:


“Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation... in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.” (Frankl, op.cit., p.57)


By focusing concern away from our own welfare, a loving and compassionate mind has the power to annihilate problems even in the most extreme conditions. Problems exist in dependence on a self-centred focus, and so feelings of love or compassion free the mind from problems.


Psychologists often tell us that much modern depression results from people comparing themselves to others who are better off. As Montesquieu wrote:


"If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are."


It also makes sense, then, that deep reflection on the infinitely worse suffering of others ­ a standard practice in many cultures ­ gives rise to a stable feeling of contentment and well-being. Thus one Buddhist meditation recommends:


“On seeing a wretched man, unlucky, unfortunate, in every way a fit object for compassion, unsightly, reduced to utter misery with hands and feet cut off, sitting in the shelter for the helpless with a pot placed before him, with a mass of maggots oozing from his arms and legs, and moaning, compassion should be felt for him in this way: ‘This being has indeed been reduced to misery; if only he could be freed from his suffering!’”


Again, our problems are not concrete realities - they literally shrink in our minds when set alongside, even imaginatively, the far worse sufferings of others. Science is beginning to support the idea that compassion of this kind is indeed a powerful antidote to personal unhappiness.


On September 14, the New York Times reported from the University of Wisconsin, where Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, is currently studying brain activity found in Buddhist monks meditating on compassion. Davidson says:


“It’s something they do every day, and they have special exercises where they envision negative events, something that causes anger or irritability, and then transform it and infuse it with an antidote, which is compassion. They say they are able to do it just like that.” (Stephen S. Hall ‘Is Buddhism Good for Your Health?’, The New York Times, September 14, 2003)


Davidson's research has previously found that people who have high levels of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain simultaneously report positive, happy states of mind, such as zeal, enthusiasm, joy, vigour and mental buoyancy. On the other hand, Davidson found that high levels of activity in a parallel site on the other side of the brain - in the right prefrontal areas - correlate with reports of distressing emotions such as sadness, anxiety and worry. Experiments on one monk, a “geshe”, generated remarkable results. Davidson reports:


"Something very interesting and exciting emerged from this. We recorded the brain activity of the geshe and were able to compare his brain activity to the other individuals who participated in experiments in my laboratory over the last couple of years... The geshe had the most extreme positive value [indicating happiness] out of the entire hundred and seventy-five that we had ever tested at that point." (Daniel Goleman, Disturbing Emotions ­ And How We Can Overcome Them, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.339)


Davidson describes the geshe as "an outlier" on the graph - his reading was "three standard deviations to the left", far beyond the rest of the bell curve for positive emotion and happiness.


In the New York Times article describing these results, journalist Stephen Hall comments that “the fact that the brain can learn, adapt and molecularly restructure itself in response to experience and training suggests that meditation may leave a biological residue in the brain”. Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard neuroscientist comments:


“This fits into the whole neuroscience literature of expertise where taxi drivers are studied for their spatial memory and concert musicians are studied for their sense of pitch. If you do something, anything, even play Ping-Pong, for 20 years, eight hours a day, there’s going to be something in your brain that’s different from someone who didn’t do that. It’s just got to be.”


Conclusion ­ Motivation For Dissent


Possible options for all who ask “What should I do?” are clear. The first thing we can do is reflect on our own experience of life in considering the possibility that the self-centred pursuit of pleasurable experiences does not deliver on its promises.


Forever placing our needs, our problems, at the centre of our focus in this way ensures that they always seem enormous. By focusing with compassion and love on the (often far worse) problems of others, we can reduce our perception of the importance and severity of our own problems, even in the most difficult circumstances.


We can consider, then, that compassionate thoughts and actions ­ working to relieve the suffering and increase the happiness of others ­ can be a powerful path, not an obstacle, to our own personal happiness; that these can act as an antidote to the catastrophic problems caused precisely +by+ our single-minded attempts to make just ourselves happy.


The problem, then, is not that we already have too much on our plate to be concerned about others, but that we have too much on our plate +because+ we are not concerned about others. This need not be taken on anyone’s advice ­ it is something we can consider in relation to our experiences of everyday life. As we reflect on these possibilities, and perhaps progressively erode our faith in the delusive happiness of self-centred living, we may well find ourselves naturally seeking out opportunities to benefit others.


Motivation is not a problem for anyone who accepts the extraordinary truth contained in Yeshe Aro’s ancient prescription for happiness:


“On this depends my liberation: to assist others ­ nothing else.”


David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: editor@medialens.org. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org   


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