What Do You Want? Comparing Psychological, Sociological, and Buddhist Theories on Happiness



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Philosophers, religious leaders, and spiritual practitioners, from both the east and west, have been investigating the question of what happiness is and how to cultivate more of it for thousands of years. More recently, happiness is becoming a topic of investigation in the fields of positive psychology and sociology, which begs the question: how do these ancient and modern theories on happiness compare? For my research, I compared three different happiness theories, drawing from psychological, sociological, and Buddhist perspectives, and provided reasons as to why differences amongst these theories exist. I looked at Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman's positive psychological theory, Dr. Jonathan Haidt's sociological theory, and Dr. Matthieu Ricard's theory, rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Seligman, Haidt, and Ricard agreed on two points: that individuals exert a greater influence over their experience of happiness than they may realize and, more fundamentally, that happiness is something that can be cultivated. But, they disagreed on how to balance our efforts between internal and external pursuits, as well as on what those efforts might be. I argued that these differences arose for two main reasons: Seligman, Haidt, and Ricard were referencing different kinds of happiness and arguing for different balances between long term efforts for inner transformation versus more immediate or practical solutions, depending on the level of the individual (in terms of attachments and desires). Finally, this project ended by raising questions about the applicability of certain ancient philosophical principles, such as renunciation or detachment, towards the pursuit of happiness today.