Aspen Ideas: Was bin Laden happy?
June 30, 2011
ASPEN – When positive psychologist and author Martin Seligman announced at the Aspen Ideas Festival that “Osama bin Laden flourished” during his notorious life, a tremor of distaste rippled through the audience. Some had watched the poignant photographic tribute to 9/11 at the Doerr-Hosier Center where the vivid horrors of bin Laden were too fresh, too raw. Could this demonic figure have actually flourished?
Seligman was not trying to elevate bin Laden’s image. He was a making a dramatic point about the complexities of personal happiness. By Seligman’s own PERMA equation, bin Laden was a happy man. He was filled with Positive emotion. He was fully Engaged. He enjoyed loyal Relationships. He attached deep meaning to his Mission. He felt accomplished in what he Achieved.
The PERMA acronym fit Bin Laden, just as it fits some of the American troops Seligman’s work is currently targeting for the U.S. Army. Putting morality and nationalistic interests aside, those whose role it is to kill and be killed can enjoy a measurable amount of personal happiness. On the flip side, allowed Seligman, suicides and post-traumatic stress disorders are endemic because, for some, injuries, despair, and lack of spiritual meaning erodes necessary PERMA traits.
Happiness is a fickle emotion, and in an amoral world of cultural relativism, it is difficult to evaluate. Bin Laden’s happiness would be abhorrent to most Americans, many of whom rejoiced at his death as newspaper headlines shouted, “May he rot in hell.” Still, happiness has no bounds. If it is simply a matter of meeting the PERMA standard, happiness is achievable to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Seligman’s counterpoint in this discussion was Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, author, and the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. Ricard chose not to comment directly on bin Laden, but he suggested that “altruistic love” is the best approach to even the most “bloody dictator.” Through compassion, defined by the ability to project ourselves into the lives of others, happiness can take root, grow and spread.
Ricard described happiness as a “way of being, a cluster of human qualities: love, passion, inner peace and inner strength.” Personal happiness of this nature, said Ricard, can withstand the ups and downs of sadness and sorrow from loss and disappointments. One may not always feel ebullient, but a loving way of being remains a source of succor and solace, a reservoir of emotional depth in which to weather the storms.
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Ricard said it is essential to reinforce personal happiness through constant attention to it. By reflecting or meditating on good feelings, positive emotions can become habitual. “You water a plant a little bit every day,” he said. “You don’t feed it a gallon once a month. The trickle of happiness becomes a stream that flows through you.”
Ricard explained that the Dalai Lama is sometimes asked why people flock to see him. “He reflects that his daily meditation on altruistic love might have something to do with it,” said Ricard, “but I think it’s that the Dalai Lama has a big heart, and that is what attracts and endears him to millions.” Ricard said a good practice for personal happiness is to identify a moment of altruistic love with a child, a pet, a friend, a family member.
“That feeling has the qualities you want to cultivate,” he said. “Bring it to mind and keep it there.”
Ricard warned against the “ego bubble” of selfish happiness, where the individual strives only for self. “This is at odds with reality,” he said, “because we are all interdependent. When you show loving kindness, it is recognized by others. This is attuned to reality.”
When asked how personal happiness squares with an overbearing sorrow over world poverty, war and suffering, Ricard answered: “War medics can’t cry over every dead and wounded soldier they treat. They have to keep on doing their job, so keep doing yours. Sorrow doesn’t mean an end to happiness.”
The most obvious and practical ingredients for happiness, agreed Ricard and Seligman, are freedom, security, comfort, sense of purpose, productivity, good health, free choice, spiritual meaning and loyal relationships – an ambitious mix. Wealth figured only marginally on the happiness scale, but unemployment ranked high as a long-term detriment.
In the U.S. today, unemployment diminishes national happiness, as do other failings. Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard, explained that the foremost happiness benchmark for nations is trust in government, something that has kept America down in the ratings because of special interest politics. “Policy makers don’t go off each morning determined to make the American people happier,” said Bok. They go off to make their paying constituents and lobbyists happy. Bok suggested changing America’s happiness quotient through campaign finance reform, stronger civil service, and better health care.
The challenges to happiness are many and complex. Humans are, by nature, compelled to seek out faults and foibles. “Consciousness is like your tongue,” quipped Seligman. “It is always looking for a cavity, a rough spot. It is always looking for something wrong.”
Can national happiness rise when we distrust our government, when social benefits are shrinking, when unemployment is high, when there are so many wrongs to attract our tongues? Can personal happiness have meaning in a world where mass murderers like bin Laden are able to flourish?
Happiness can happen if we take Ricard’s advice and practice a regimen of altruistic love. Happiness can happen if we warm the world with our good hearts. It’s a simple solution that is anything but easy. Happiness is more than a smile.