Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ben Bernanke wants to know if you're happy

Want to know if you're happy? There's an app for that.

It could be useful information -- and not just for your own amusement. No less than Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke wants to know.

The Associated Press reports that Bernanke told economists this week that gauging happiness can be as important for measuring economic progress as determining whether inflation is low or unemployment high. Economics isn’t just about money and material benefits, Bernanke said. It is also about understanding and promoting “the enhancement of well-being.”

Bernanke and Fed policymakers rely on reports on hiring, consumer spending and other economic data when making high-stakes decisions about the $15 trillion U.S. economy. The Fed’s dual mandate is to maintain low inflation and full employment.

“We should seek better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being,” Bernanke said Monday in a video-taped speech shown to a conference of economists and statisticians in Cambridge, Mass. After all, promoting well-being is “the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”

Here's where the confused vajra copy editor perks up. While the news reports have all remarked on Bernanke's interest in Americans' happiness, he uses the term "well being," which actually is closer to what Buddhism considers a positive state.

We put a LOT of emphasis on happiness. I have a shelf of Buddhist books with happiness in the title, and I've seen a number of teachers referred to as "the happiest man alive," among them Mathieu Richard, Ajahn Amaro, and Yonge Mingur Rinpoche. Ponlop Rinpoche said that when Tibetan Buddhist teachers gather, they tell jokes.

But they have a non-western understanding of what happiness is. Happiness, in Buddhist terms, is a sense of ease in the world -- outer and inner. They are aware of suffering, but they aren't caught in it. There's no anxiety clinging to the hem of their robes, no grasping for something else.

Matthieu Ricard, in his book "Happiness," defines happiness as "a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind." It's more a sense of well-being -- of being well despite circumstances and conditions -- than what westerners call happiness. We think of happiness as all giggles and glitter, neon yellow smiley faces with no space for sadness or grief. All good all the time.

For westerners, happiness is seen as something we deserve -- it's written into our Declaration of Independence that we have the right to pursue it. Because it's not something we inherently manifest; it's something we have to chase after and hunt down. And when we catch it, it quickly slips away.

Or we suspect that it has. Because other people look happier. Especially the people in advertisements. And if we had what they had, we'd be having that much fun. We're like hamsters on a wheel, thinking that if we run fast enough we'll get to happiness. Instead we become exhausted and discouraged.

Which is why we need an app to measure whether we're happy.

Or maybe we don't. I'd sent my most app-happy friend a link to an article about an app used by Harvard researchers to study happiness.

She replied: I don't need an app to tell me I'm generally happy. Although I think I
will download it for, ahem, scientific research purposes.

She went on to say that she'd recently watch "Happy," a movie, with her spouse, who asked if there was anything that would make her happier. "I told him that all I'd need is to meditate
more. ... It has made me happier."

Bernanke's talked before about the economics of happiness.

“As your parents always said, money doesn’t buy happiness,” Bernanke said in a May 2010 commencement address at the University of South Carolina, noting that research has found that once basic material needs are met, more wealth doesn’t necessarily make people happier.

In his latest remarks, Bernanke turned to the more practical — and difficult — task of measuring a subjective emotion. So far, most efforts have involved surveys in which people are asked about whether they are happy and what contributes to their happiness. Those surveys have found some consistent answers: physical and mental health, the strength of family and community ties, a sense of control over one’s life, and opportunities for leisure activity. Bernanke on Monday laid out a few other questions: How secure do Americans feel in their jobs? How confident are Americans in their future job prospects? How prepared are families for financial shocks?

Bernanke’s own definition of happiness might baffle some, AP reporter Chrisopher S. Rugaber writes, although not most Buddhists. He called it a “short-term state of awareness that depends on a person’s perceptions of one’s immediate reality, as well as on immediate external circumstances and outcomes.”

In other words, happiness is an impermanent state that depends on the mind's perceptions of external circumstances.

Well-being, however, is closer to Ricard's definition of happiness as "an optimal state of being."

He continues: Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since, while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.

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