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(Un)sustainable happiness

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. These days a new opening. Back to normal? When it started, it seemed a short-term crisis. It wasn't. For those working in higher education, immediate concerns were not only about avoiding infection, but also avoiding a serious disruption of education, or a degeneration of it.

Today online (or remote) teaching looks more normal, although it seems that nobody manages to make it working well. Dark boxes with cameras and mics switched off are new ways for students to 'keep distance,' albeit at a more fundamental level.

One thing (among others) that stands out in this whole situation is the apparent contradiction that the pandemic has exposed in our society. For decades (actually, for generations), the rich and wealthy West has thrived by inculcating an ideal of happiness based on specific forms of enjoyment. Sensual enjoyment, yes, but also purchasable enjoyment. Stuff you need to consume, hence to buy.

The 1.5 m distance rule and the periodic lock-downs significantly threatened this supply of happiness. No surprise, then, that the Pandemic has been a psychological and existential challenge for so many people, especially youngsters. What has been required from everybody is simply to live a life for which nobody had been prepared.

Now it looks again as if we might get back to 'normal.' And yet, it might be helpful to ask whether we want to get back there. Is it smart to rely so much on an external socio-economic structure (upon which we have scarce control, if any) as a basis for inner happiness and contentment in life?

Living secluded in a small room might sound like a dreadful punishment for some, but also a blissful promise for others. It depends on how one understands solitude, and how one relates to oneself. The point is not that we should all become hermits, but that we can all learn something from their experience. Maybe they have skills that might be beneficial also in more ordinary conditions, and which might make everybody a bit more independent from external circumstances.

In the Buddha's teaching, physical seclusion is recommended. But seclusion in the domain of thoughts is even more important. Here, seclusion means been aloof and far away from unwholesome intentions. And it is there that the pleasure of composure arises. However this is not something one incidentally stumbles upon. It demands understanding and training. Perhaps another skill that public education might include in the curriculum?

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