Economics affects how we live and how happy we are. Yet most people ignore economics even though it has a powerful impact on our lives and our future.
Take our two biggest worldwide challenges: global warming and income inequality. United Nations climate scientists warn that time is running out if we are to avoid destroying our planet and our way of life. Income inequality rivals that of the Gilded Age, with economists predicting that inequality will continue to grow, along with political turmoil.
Both of these challenges are profoundly influenced by economics. Overcoming them will require a complete rethinking of our economic system, our lives, and what matters to us. We must learn to live in harmony with Nature and with one another.
I have been an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, for a lifetime and a Buddhist for a decade. As a professor of economics and a student of Buddhism, I have been grappling for some time now with the troubling disconnect between free market economics and the issues of the real world. In an era marked by vast economic disparities and the threat of environmental collapse, with opulent living for a few, comfortable living for many, and deprivation with suffering for most, something is clearly wrong.
Free market economics assumes that markets produce optimal outcomes and people have the resources to create satisfying lives. In measuring national well-being, economics focuses only on income and consumption, and excludes many of the pressing issues that define our modern life.
What would a Buddhist approach to economics, in which people are regarded as more important than output and a meaningful life is prized above a lavish lifestyle, look like? I began to wonder.
My thinking about how to reframe economics from a Buddhist perspective was inspired initially by studying Buddhism with compassionate, knowledgeable teachers at the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley. Then a Tibetan Buddhist meditation hall opened not far from our house. My husband and I stopped by and heard a talk given by Anam Thubten Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, and began practicing with him. As I embraced the core Buddhist concepts of interdependence, compassion, and right livelihood, I wondered, “How would Buddha teach Introductory Economics?”
Four years ago, I put my musings into action by teaching a sophomore seminar on Buddhist economics at Berkeley, in part to develop my own thinking on the subject. The students energetically engaged in addressing questions about inequality, happiness, and sustainability, teaching me what I already suspected: you don’t have to be an economics major or practice Buddhism to join in the conversation about how Buddhism can connect the human spirit and the economy to create well-being and happiness for all people.
As a Buddhist and an economics professor, I join the chorus of economists asking whether there is an alternative to an economy ruled by desire and ill equipped to address the challenges of environmental deterioration, inequality, and personal suffering.
What makes people happy? This question takes us to the heart of the difference between free market economics and Buddhist economics: our human nature. According to Buddhist economics, human nature is generous and altruistic, even as it also cares about itself. Buddha taught that all people suffer from their own mental states, with feelings of discontent that come from desiring more and more. The Dalai Lama tells us that the feeling of not having enough and wanting more does not arise from the inherent desirability of the objects we are seeking, but from our own mental illusions. Buddha taught us how to end suffering by changing our states of mind, which translates into finding happiness through living a meaningful life.
Free market economics holds that human nature is self-centered and that people care only about themselves as they push ahead to maximize their incomes and fancy lifestyles. According to this approach, buying and consuming—shopping for new shoes or playing a new video game—will make you happy. Forget that soon you will grow tired of the shoes, become disappointed with the game, and be off shopping again. In this endless cycle of desire, we are continuously left wanting more without ever finding lasting satisfaction. Free market economics is not guiding us toward living meaningful lives in a healthy world, nor is it offering solutions to our concerns about global wars, income equality, and environmental threats.
Buddhist economics, in contrast, provides guidance for restructuring both our individual lives and the economy to create a better world. “Practice compassion to be happy” replaces “More is better.” “Everyone’s well-being is connected” replaces “Maximize your own position.” “The welfare of humans and Nature is interdependent” replaces “Pollution is a social cost that the individual can ignore.”
NO TIME TO LOSE
Climate scientists warn that we don’t have much time left to make the switch from an income-driven world with little concern for environmental harm to an economy that dramatically reduces our carbon footprint. Scientists around the world release a steady flow of reports on how human activity is causing global warming and how it harms our lives now and will into the future. Yet most people seem too busy to listen and take action.
On the same weekend in January 2015, two very different articles appeared: one, in the highly respected journal Science, reported that threats to our environment endanger our way of life; the other, in the New York Times, described the servicing of private super yachts that require professional crews and cost millions of dollars. The Science article reported that an international team of eighteen scientists has found that four of the nine earth biophysical processes crucial to maintaining the stability of the planet have become dangerously compromised by human activity: the systems of biosphere integrity (extinction rate), biogeochemical flows (phosphorus-nitrogen cycle), land system change (deforestation for crops and cities), and climate change (atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration). The New York Times article reported that more than one fifth of the estimated five thousand superyachts in the world were purchased in the last five years, during the Great Recession. I suspect that many more people paid attention to the New York Times article than the Science article; despite our knowledge about the disastrous damage that we are inflicting on the earth, consumption continues to fascinate and accelerate. Materialistic drives are pushing us toward the “sixth extinction,” as many are now referring to today’s ongoing extinction of species.
Inequality is equally relentless. In many economies, inequality has dramatically increased as the surge in income and wealth since the mid-1970s has been captured by the top 1 percent and done little to benefit the majority of families. Economists have warned us that inequality can slow economic growth and reduce people’s sense of well-being. But during the Great Recession following the global financial crisis of 2008, ordinary people paid the price of a crisis that was caused by the powerful financial sector, which recovered just fine as a result of government bailouts. In the United States, the bailout cost taxpayers $21 billion, plus billions in lost wages.
Income inequality is not uniform across nations. Some countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and China) have created much more inequality than others (including many European nations and Japan). Such inequality is not inevitable; it is a national choice that results from government policies. For example, Denmark and Sweden have a progressive tax structure and social programs that provide everyone with health care, child care, and education along with a safety net for hard times. In contrast, the United States has a much less progressive tax structure and a flimsy safety net, and private companies are in charge of much of health care and child care.
Similarly, climate scientists have demonstrated that burning fossil fuels, causing carbon dioxide emissions that heat the planet, is the result of many choices that governments make. The United States has aggravated both global warming and inequality by allowing big business, especially the fossil fuel and finance industries, to be big political players. Countries choose to institute policies that result in global warming and inequality, and they can reverse them if they so desire.
The term “Buddhist economics” was first coined by E. F. Schumacher in his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher foresaw the problems that come about with excessive reliance on the growth of income, especially overwork and dwindling resources. He argued for a system that valued individual character development and human liberation over an attachment to material goods. In Schumacher’s view, the goal of Buddhist economics is “the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”
My approach expands on Schumacher’s notion of Buddhist economics to accommodate a world that couldn’t have been envisioned in 1973, and to advocate an approach to organizing the economy so that a meaningful life reflects our caring for one another and global sharing of the world’s resources in a sustainable system. Buddha taught that true happiness does not come from the external world, not from fame or consumption or friends or power. True happiness comes from within ourselves as we surrender to the great unknown, develop love and compassion for everyone, and become aware of every precious moment of life.
We are failing at both the personal and the national level, and we must wake up and take action. And we do not have to don sackcloth and stop living comfortable, interesting, and fulfilling lives to do so. We can reprogram our economic system to create, measure, and evaluate what we value, to develop well-performing economies that provide meaningful lives for everyone while protecting the planet. Buddhist economics can guide us along the way.
BUDDHIST ECONOMICS IS NOT JUST FOR BUDDHISTS (OR ECONOMISTS)
As I learned by teaching my sophomore seminar at Berkeley, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to embrace a Buddhist approach to economics. You need only share the Dalai Lama’s belief that human nature is gentle and compassionate and embrace the idea that economics can be a force for good, one that goes beyond self-centered materialism.
In urging kindness and compassion, Buddhism does not stand apart from other major religions. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism all have their own versions of the Golden Rule, “treat others as you would like others to treat you.” As the Dalai Lama teaches, “Every religion emphasize[s] human improvement, love, respect for others, [and] sharing other people’s suffering,” with all the major religions aiming to help people achieve lasting happiness. The main difference between Buddhism and other religions is that it does not posit an external god; instead, each person is regarded as sacred, and each of us has our own inner Buddha, which is our perfect true self and an inexhaustible source of love, compassion, and wisdom.
Many people all over the world have read about or tried Buddhism, and even those who decide that the practice is not for them still likely agree with the basic principles. For example, in The Happiness Project, the bestselling author Gretchen Rubin writes, “I had to find some way to steer my mind toward the transcendent and the timeless, away from the immediate and the shallow … to appreciate the glories of the present moment … to put the happiness of others before my own happiness. Too often, these eternal values got lost in the hubbub of everyday routines and selfish concerns.” Anyone who believes in these sorts of lessons, and approaches life with an open heart and an inquiring mind, can benefit from Buddhist economics.
Being interdependent with one another and with Nature does not mean uniformity of action, or conformity. We don’t have to give up our unique personalities, which help us navigate life in the external world. Rather, being connected means being mindful of each precious moment in life, as well as mindful of our feelings and our impact on others. In Buddhism, we want to be in touch with our true nature so that we are not driven by our ego, which plays and replays our daily habits of fear, guilt, shame, greed, jealousy, hatred … the list goes on and on. Our continual judgment of ourselves and others, our attachment to possessions and relationships with continual longing for more, our ignorance of the suffering we are causing others and Nature by our lifestyle—all cause pain and make us unhappy. But if we know ourselves and are aware of the people and world around us in each moment throughout the day, then our regrets about the past and our worries about the future dissolve. We awaken to the magic of the moment and find happiness as our suffering ends.
When we are feeling discontented in our egocentric materialistic world, we use strategies that bring momentary distraction and maybe even brief periods of happiness. We may go shopping for new clothes, or play a new game on our iPhone, or stream a favorite television show. In a Buddhist world, in contrast, a person experiencing pain may sit quietly to let go of the feelings and illusions causing the pain, or talk to a friend who understands the pain, or enjoy a family meal. Instead of escaping the feeling of unhappiness or discontent, a person is mindful of what is happening and finds ways to enjoy what is meaningful in life. Each moment is too precious to waste in self-made pain, and we can use awareness to enjoy life to the fullest without relying on consumerism.
On a personal level, many people benefit from mindfulness practice, which is being aware of the moment without judgment while you relax your body, quiet your mind, and open your heart. Usually people practice mindfulness while sitting in a chair or on a cushion. Others find that walking slowly, or practicing yoga, or shooting archery, allows them to live fully in the present moment.
In this millennium, mindfulness sitting has taken the country by storm. We see mindfulness meditation headlines on the covers of magazines ranging from Parade (2015) and Time (2014) to National Geographic (2005) and Scientific American (2014). Mindfulness meditation is lauded by a Harvard Medical School newsletter and has been shown to increase brain activity and have other health benefits. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has produced a couple of short, spiffy videos that show how meditation changes your brain so you feel happier. Watch them if you want inspiration. Many people have found that practicing mindfulness sitting makes them happier. They feel less like a separate self and more interconnected with the world as they shift from “me to we,” and as they see how their beliefs do not represent true reality.
Certain studies have shown that monks’ meditation practices have changed the way their brains function, as brain activity in the right insula and both sides of their anterior cingulate cortices has increased. Other studies have observed that neuroplasticity occurred, meaning that long-term Buddhist meditators have altered the structure as well as function of their brains.
Mindfulness meditation lessons are taught in many forms, for a wide array of prices. But you don’t have to leave home to try mindfulness sitting. Find a comfortable chair or cushion and sit quietly with your back straight and your hands in your lap or on your knees. Focus on your breath as it flows into your nostrils. Relax your shoulders and feel your entire body relax as you focus on your breath. Let go of your thoughts. If a thought arises, let it pass by without following it, without judging it. Sit quietly and let your illusions about life dissolve. Let go of any regrets about the past, for yesterday is over. Let go of your relentless to-do list, for the future has not arrived. Enjoy the preciousness of the moment. Sink deeply into the peacefulness.
In my Buddhist economics seminar, we sit for five to ten minutes at each class, and the students think the mindfulness sitting is one of our deepest lessons. I suggest that they practice sitting quietly whenever they find themselves in a stressful situation, to quiet their minds so that they can ease their pain and think more clearly.
As the class deadline for turning in their journals approached, a student named Joan wrote me a long email about her computer woes and ended with, “I’m sort of freaking out and wanted to see if it would be all right if I sent you my journal folder a little later today. Like I said, I have them. I just need to get a new charger before I can send them in!”
and know you will be ok.
Fine to turn in journal once computer is working.
Joan wrote back, “Right after emailing you I remembered you telling us to meditate, take five, and sit after something stressful happens. I did and man I felt better!”
On a personal note, I sit daily for twenty to thirty minutes. Sitting helps me get in touch with myself and shake off my relentless ego and judgmental thoughts, and the stress and pain that go with them. Sitting provides a time for my mind to rest and restores my balance. Try it yourself. Begin by sitting five to ten minutes each day. See how you feel and function. Once you have learned to relax and quiet your mind, you can sit on the subway or on the beach, along a pathway in a park, or at home—anywhere.
LET’S JOIN TOGETHER IN CREATING CHANGE
Many people want to live more meaningful lives and want to take action to save the planet. What is holding us back?
I see three main forces getting in our way: First, our “busyness.”
None of us has enough time to do all the things on our to-do list. Work, family, friends, community are all important to us, and they demand our time and talent and drain our energy. I hope this book will help you think about how to get off the treadmill and focus in a meaningful way on the things that are truly important to you.
Second, our denial. Moving from free market economics to Buddhist economics takes courage and determination. Learning how to live a meaningful life undermines many people’s sense of a successful life. Addressing climate change threatens two concepts many people hold dear: free markets and unending progress. Denial of the problems is one way to live with them, but it doesn’t work in the long run.
Third, our ignorance. Waking up to the toll of the treadmill, and to how our lifestyle is harming others and killing the planet, requires that we educate ourselves and change the way we live. This is a big deal, but it is our moral responsibility, both to ourselves and to others. Buddhist economics tells us that in so doing, we will become happier.
These forces may also get in the way of your reading this book. You may be too busy to read it, much less to think about what is important to you and put steps in place to restructure your life. You may think that free market economics has it right and throw this book against the wall. You may like living in ignorance, preferring to leave the saving of the planet to others while you live a life where external status, filled with lots of stuff, plays a major part.
But you may also be looking for something more. I have met many people who are already on the path to living meaningful lives in harmony with Nature. This book is written for them, as well as for those who want to learn more about this path. It is within our power to go beyond consumption, to be connected to others with compassion, and to exist in harmony with Nature. Let us begin.
Brown, Clair. Buddhist Economics. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.