Most of the discussion on the good life and happiness in the Western tradition, particularly of psychology is concerned with the hedonic aspects, focusing on positive and pleasurable emotions. There also exists to a lesser extent the Western philosophical tradition of eudemonia associated with Aristotle which proposes authentic happiness as virtuous human flourishing. Recently Positive Psychology which has been to some extent influenced by a Buddhist perspective has proposed happiness as life satisfaction, sense of flow and finding meaning. Hinduism is more oriented towards the good life in the moral sense; wellbeing and happiness being byproducts of an ethical and spiritual life.
Scientific studies and tests have shown that the practice of Transcendental meditation in the Hindu tradition leads to enhanced brain activity related to a sense of relaxation, peace and wellbeing. In a study young Indians who believed in the Hindu work ethic of doing one’s best without expectation of reward had higher levels of satisfaction. A study in Australia found that while western young people scored higher in personal happiness, the Asian youth had more next generation optimism. This long term inter-generational positive outlook has found to be a significant factor in sustaining cultures through ups and downs, which then mature into civilizations where human wellbeing and flourishing is possible
A study in an American University has found that Anglo-Saxons preferred individual achievements and freedom as more valuable but the Asians also valued qualities of trust and loyalty. On being asked to define happiness a group of rich Indian farmers suggested that contentment could be achieved through total immersion in ‘dharma’ and killing our ‘ahamkara’ (ego). “A happy man is he who can control desires”. Poor villagers in north India on the other hand focused on basic physical needs or they fantasized about a luxurious life style.
Generally Western psychology (except the recent Positive Psychology) has been concerned more with curing illness or correcting behavior rather than achieving higher levels of well-being. Psychotherapy in the West emphasizes the synthesizing and integrating role of the ego and boosting self-esteem, while in India according to Sudhir Kakar; psychological maturity is compatible with a less differentiated and relatively passive ego. A good healer in the Hindu society has to be both a psychologist or therapist and a spiritual Guru. He/she is becomes a philosopher and a guide who teaches how to lead a good and happy life by personal example.
Transcendence towards spiritual and altruistic goals has emerged as a significant factor in achieving well-being. Transcendence can be divided into the metaphysical realm and the pursuit of moral and altruistic goals by transcending personal interest. Sudhir Kakar while psycho-analyzing mystics like Ramakrishna has found that the mystical experience invariably is signified by an oceanic feeling, a feeling of oneness with the world or even the universe as well as unity among all beings. There is a deep experience of a joy as rapture. The World Health Organisation in its study on subjective wellbeing or happiness in India has identified a particular quality of transcendence which enhances well-being and which within the traditional Indian outlook leads to altruism.
Unlike Western psychology which stresses on enhancing the reality sense and reality adaptation, the Hindu tradition seeks to radically alter subjective experience of reality through alternative modes of perception. In the West skilled external and mind stimulation leads to creativity and pleasure. In Hinduism, mind the jumping monkey has to be calmed and made empty of negative conditioning through introspection to enable it to perceive its pure original blissful consciousness.
Hinduism emphasises nonviolence and peace as a core value for wellbeing and a good society, both as a means and as an end. As it is said in Sanskrit; “ahimsa paramodharam” or nonviolence is the greatest ethical principle of Dharma. Mahatma Gandhi inspired by Hindu norms stressed nonviolence in mind, words and behavior. Gandhi also proposed that happiness for him meant the harmonizing of one’s thought speech and action. The Dalai Lama has emphasized the role of peace within and peace outside in achieving happiness in society and in the whole world. Being a Buddhist he gives primacy to peace within just as Unesco affirms that wars start in the minds of men, therefore peace has also to be bred in the mind. Yet one cannot be truly at peace when the society is in conflict. A balance has to be found between the Western stress on social conditions and the Hindu- Buddhist primary focus on peace within.
Unfortunately the happiness literature in the West largely ignores the role of mental peace and lack of social conflict as a source of happiness. Ed Diener in his recent book on Happiness has noted that for people of Asian cultures happiness means being calm and controlled while for Americans it is more likely to mean being excited and joyful and that this trait is socialized early in life. Asians prefer calm and harmony producing activities while North Americans choose upbeat, energetic positive emotions.
Even though in practice Hinduism is bedeviled by many ills like the caste and low status of women the wisdom of Hinduism at its best helps in gaining a spiritual outlook, meaning and purpose in life, and a sense of community, belonging and social support which are significant indicators of wellbeing and happiness. This is contrary to the West where alienation, narrow idea of progress as only economic development, loss of meaning and inability to anchor values in spirituality, and breakdown of families and communities are more prevalent.
The greater traditional emphasis on spiritual aspirations and a sense of community in Hinduism provides the possibility (if not always actualized in practice in our present times) for less individualistic hedonism, consumerism and better chances to move from lower, baser motivation to higher goals, so that happiness can be conceived as a more profound fulfillment and deeper wellbeing