Sam Harris: The Happiness Experiment

Sam Harris: The Happiness Experiment

Bestselling author Sam Harris describes an experiment many have run on themselves to get at a truer version of happiness.


I think he misses the point entirely on two fronts. The ultimate goal of the dhamma is to help the aspirant transcend attachment. Happiness, in our common use of the term, is a positive reaction to subjectively positive phenomena. We win a million dollars and become happy. We lose a million dollars, we become sad. It is a form of attachment. The “happiness” of the arhat, if such a thing exists, is self-referential, not attached. Once you have blown out the ties to worldly phenomena, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a cave in Thailand or a mansion in New York. Makes no difference. Solitary confinement is a legally and ethically derived punishment for (what are often) violent, attached, unrestrained minds. He misses the mark in that regard too. The key is self-control and self-knowledge, not artificially incarcerating oneself.

“Leaving aside all the metaphysics, mythology, and mumbo jumbo…” Who is he to leave aside parts of traditions that are not his? How much knowledge does he have of them? Would he “leave aside” notions of karma, samsara, paṭicca samuppāda? I’m not a fan of his tone.


Buddha taught many kind a of happiness.
Sensual pleasure also a part of it.

I really don’t understand how what you say in your comment about the contrast between worldly happiness and pleasures, on the one hand, and the happiness of the Arahant, on the other hand, is markedly different than what Harris says in the video.

He seems to say the “contemplative path” is to not do things or have things. The Buddha is clear on this point. Sleeping on a bed of thorns isn’t helpful. The path can’t be defined negatively.

Well, there is no question that the Buddhist path includes the foregoing of all acquisitions, and the cultivation of seclusion. The ultimate seclusion that is required is mental, but physical seclusion is taught as highly conducive to mental seclusion. All of the arahants are portrayed as going through a period of intense cultivation in solitude before final attainment.

This has nothing to do with a bed of nails. The Buddha also taught in opposition to the physical mortification of extreme asceticism and the seeking of sensory displeasure for it’s own sake. The aim of physical seclusion is to create conditions conducive to dispassion, non-attachment and release.

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It seems to me that the Buddha’s teaching on sensual pleasure is fairly clear. They shouldn’t be sought. When they arise, they shouldn’t be clung to, and their impermanent nature should be known. They also should not be allowed to give rise to feelings of aversion or be actively pushed away. They are seen by the wise as arising and passing away, without giving rise to any desires for either their perpetuation or future acquisitions. They aren’t important.

If one, longing for sensual pleasure,
achieves it, yes,
he’s enraptured at heart.
The mortal gets what he wants.
But if for that person
— longing, desiring —
the pleasures diminish,
he’s shattered,
as if shot with an arrow.

Whoever avoids sensual desires
— as he would, with his foot,
the head of a snake —
goes beyond, mindful,
this attachment in the world.

A man who is greedy
for fields, land, gold,
cattle, horses,
servants, employees,
women, relatives,
many sensual pleasures,
is overpowered with weakness
and trampled by trouble,
for pain invades him
as water, a cracked boat.

So one, always mindful,
should avoid sensual desires.
Letting them go,
he’d cross over the flood
like one who, having bailed out the boat,
has reached the far shore.

I am not sure that Sam Harris has said anything in this video that hasn’t been said before by many Buddhists through time, or Greek philosophers (eudaemonia vs. hedonia), or the Stoics. His talk is old wine in a new bottle, it seems.

Bhante Sujato has given some good talks on happiness, as well as Ajahn Brahmali. One that I recall now is a talk that Ajahn Brahmali gave that discussed the Four Noble Truths not as starting with the truth of dukkha, but a teaching and strategy that started with the truth of happiness ( ie The first noble truth is that there is happiness). Happiness, or noble contentment, stems from the truth of happiness, its causes, its development, and the means of cultivation via the Eightfold Path. Framed this way, the Buddha taught a Path that leads the practitioner to a place of noble happiness, and away from dukkha.

Modern neuroscience is also studying what leads to a sense of noble happiness or contentment. There seems to be a connection between having good social constructs on one’s life ( kalyana mitta and sangha), a purposeful vocation or lifestyle ( Right Livelihood), a positive view and goal (Right View, Intention, Action) and some form of a spiritual practice ( the Path).

So, we needn’t look too far from what the Buddha taught in terms of cultivating a meaningful and flourishing life. Add in the Buddha’s teachings on renunciation, meditation, and altruism, and it seems to me you’re on a path of perfection that leads to a happy life well lead, and even one that might lead to release.

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Many kind of feelings.

The Blessed One said: "Ananda, Udayi’s way of presentation, with which Carpenter Fivetools disagreed, was correct, indeed. But also Carpenter Fivetool’s way of presentation, with which Udayi disagreed, was correct. In one way of presentation I have spoken of two kinds of feelings, and in other ways of presentation I have spoken of three, of six, of eighteen, of thirty-six, and of one hundred and eight kinds of feelings.[2] So the Dhamma has been shown by me in different ways of presentation.

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Yes, this is true, in the sense that an acquisition is an attachment. But my point is simply that an attachment to silence or seclusion is just on the opposite end of the spectrum. What I was trying to say earlier is that simply flipping gold into a lack of gold doesn’t help on the path. It’s not a path defined by absence. What must be present is an understanding of and faith in the dhamma.

This is also true. Perhaps I was too harsh on Mr. Harris. I have my biases certainly. Regardless, I am still grateful that we have the authority of the suttas to guide us in the practice.


Well, I don’t think anyone can ague with that. :slight_smile: But I think Harris’s point was that Buddhism and other contemplative traditions have all held that there is a deep source of true happiness, fulfillment, enlightenment - whatever one prefers to call it - that is somehow discovered to be present and realized only when all of the conventional sources of happiness, pleasure and entertainment have been relinquished. And that relinquishment includes relinquishing the obsessive verbalizing, inner conversations and intellectualizing that people with active minds use to relieve their boredom and satisfy their curiosity and other mental cravings, in both secular traditions and religious traditions.

I’m not saying that one cannot lead a relatively good, full and “fulfilling” conventional life within the Buddhist, Christian, secular humanist or other traditions without undertaking this total renunciation. But it seems to me the attainment of the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path requires, in the end, the utter abandonment of all acquisitions and a state of spiritual poverty, where nothing either material or mental that fall within the realm of one’s experience is experienced as “me” or “mine”.

It is possible, in theory, that one could attain this state even surrounded by material goods and delights that are one’s legal possessions according to the laws of the world, but where one is no longer psychologically attached to any of them, or in which one is surrounded by an internal or external mental environment filled with endless chatter and discursive thought. But in practice, it seems quite unlikely one can successfully sail to the safe port by charting a course through so many violent worldly winds. Almost all of the saints of the scriptures followed the Buddha’s invitation to go forth from worldly life, so they could practice in peace and relative quiet among wholesome and restrained spiritual friends, with possessions stripped down to the bare minimum, and also spend abundant time alone in total seclusion.


The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality,
not the beautiful sensual pleasures found in the world.
The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality.

The beauties remain as they are in the world,
while the wise, in this regard,
subdue their desire.


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According to which Buddha or which sutta in the EBTs?

9. ‘Do I take delight in solitude?’ This must be reflected upon again and again by one who has gone forth. AN 10.48

Dhp 183. To avoid all evil, to cultivate good and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas. Enduring patience is the highest austerity. “Nibbana is supreme,” say the Buddhas. He is not a true monk who harms another, nor a true renunciate who oppresses others. Not despising, not harming, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline, moderation in food, dwelling in solitude, devotion to meditation — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.


Sir, there comes a point when arguing gets tiring and unproductive. I retracted some things I mentioned about Mr. Harris and my broader points were already discussed here. There are citations and philosophical points I can use to reply to your comment, but more importantly I will focus on my own mindfulness and metta. To the extent this forum helps with those goals, I will be happy to contribute to the conversation and offer what I can. If it’s to your benefit to think you “defeated” me, then please accept my defeat. :sunglasses:

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