The Impossibility of Outsourcing Happiness
Outsourcing is not a modern invention. Throughout human history, we have been outsourcing our problems and pains through the extensive use of tools, natural resources, animals, division of labor, machines, and now robots. Anything we enjoy, we embrace, but anything we dislike, we tend to push away and disassociate ourselves from it. This routine has evolved even further with money becoming the common currency across borders and across generations. Money has enabled us to acquire more of what we desire and outsource more of what we hate; we dump toxic waste in other countries and borrow resources from future generations.
Efficiency in the market economy appears to equal a reduction in the amount of work, work hours, and even the “headcount” involved. We are getting rid of work and labor. Development seems to mean doing less and doing fewer things faster, instead of engaging in something more meaningful and valuable. In the book Small is Beautiful, Schumacher suggested that, according to Buddhist teachings, work has at least three important functions: (1) to utilize and develop our faculties; (2) to overcome our self-centeredness by collaborating with others; and (3) to render the goods and services necessary for living. Work, from a Buddhist perspective, should not be considered merely a means to satisfy our endless desires. Instead, it is an integral part of life, and a skill- and character-building process. Work, if conducted in accordance with the concept of Right Livelihood, is a practice of sustainable happiness.
As we outsource work, pushing away the problems and the undesirables, we are also outsourcing happiness. We have been educated or indoctrinated by advertisements, social norms, and peer pressure, all originating from the market economy, about what should make us happy—food, fame, power, education, healthcare, family, children, career, and so forth. In the case of Hong Kong, achievements in education, property ownership, career, and family seem to be the secret recipe for a happy life.
When we need all these achievements to be happy, we are de facto outsourcing our happiness—our happiness is dependent on the possession of these items, which exist outside of us. We will be stressed, unhappy, and depressed if we loss control or ownership of them because we truly believe that they are the sources of happiness. We enjoy the experience of possessing them and identify our “selves” with them. We may even extend our ego and identity beyond our physical bodies and thoughts to other material possessions and experiences. In Buddhism, this process begins with ignorance and is the first of the 12 links of Dependent Arising—the failure to realize the dependent arising of the nature of the internal and external world. Together with greed, ignorance leads us to misconceive that some parts of the internal and external world belong to us, are controlled by us, or are identified with us: “this is mine, I am this, this is my self.”
Buddhist teachings illustrate a completely different perspective of selflessness. If there is no permanent “self” under our control, how can we talk about meaningful ownership or sustainable happiness that builds upon the unsustainable nature of this world? Indeed, the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha are as much about happiness as they are about the cessation of suffering. Buddhist analysis of suffering is not pessimistic but optimistic; by understanding suffering clearly, we will no longer confuse it with happiness. We gain faith in the fact that there are different levels of happiness, accessible to all through practicing the Noble Eightfold Path and guided by moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom.
It is only when we realize the true nature of happiness, the origin of happiness, and the path leading to happiness that we can truly alleviate suffering. As much as we cannot outsource our problems, it is impossible to outsource our happiness. It is equally impossible to serve as the “contractor” for the happiness of other people. Even though we can cultivate the conditions leading to happiness, whether we actually feel happy is a different story.
The Cantonese-language movie, Mad World, which inspired this article, showscases some of the social problems of urban life in Hong Kong, where suffering seems to be more prevalent than happiness
Becoming rich or happy overnight is a fairytale. We need to stay away from high-risk, high-return volatile financial assets as they are an emotional roller coaster that cannot be relied on. To protect ourselves from emotional “sub-prime” turmoil, when tragedies or chaos hit us we need to develop a better understanding of ourselves and our external world, and build resilience accordingly. We need to invest in our own emotional capital and that of our loved ones in order to withstand any sudden drain or overdraft of this type of capital.
Although happiness is a state of mind, there is no easy “on” or “off” switch. To see the present moment as a wonderful moment, to see happiness in the here and now, we need to uproot our entrenched thoughts and our tendency to grasp, as well as our fixation on the past and the future. Pursuing sustainable happiness through the Noble Eightfold Path takes time, effort, and patience—but it is worth it.
This article was inspired by the recent Cantonese-language movie Mad World. In one scene, the father of the main character, Tung, observes: “It is easy to shrug off responsibility by claiming that we have tried hard enough. Is there a limit on how we outsource our problems to others?”
Schumacher, E. F. 1984. “Buddhist Economics.” In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Sphere Books. Original edition 1973. http://www.centerforneweconomics.org/buddhist-economics
Bhikkhu Bodhi. 2013. The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition). http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html
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