Who knows the way to happiness: Positive Psychology or Bhakti Yoga?
“Feel free with the internet. The broad band is yours,” my sis smiled. Happy, I spent several hours a day on TED’s website TED.com during my 3 weeks at her home. TED is a non-profit ‘devoted to spreading ideas worth spreading’ through short, powerful talks. They cover all topics, from science to business to global issues. Interestingly, they had many speeches in the ‘most viewed’ category with titles that suggested spirituality: The power of vulnerability, My stroke of insight, The puzzle of motivation, The power of introverts, Why we do what we do, Your elusive creative genius…. These were my first picks.
I am a monk. I came across Bhakti Yoga, a genre of Vedic spirituality, in graduate school. Convincedthat Bhakti was the path to happiness, I shaved my head and joined a monastery in Mumbai soon after completing graduation. Now after eleven years of soldiering on I bare my soul. Looking back, I wasn’t really convinced when I joined; it was more enthusiasm than conviction. And worse, I still occasionally see doubts lurking within. On the brighter side, now I understand how the whole thing works: surefooted conviction comes slowly through spiritual experiences, and those experiences come slowly through decades of sincere spiritual practices. So realistically, my conviction is in growth phase. And as the roots of my conviction grow deeper and wider by the day, as I really begin to understand how Bhakti can contribute to one’s happiness, I see another creeper grow alongside – my desire to come out and share Bhakti with the world. But how do I share my ideas with others eloquently? For answers I turned to TED talks, where the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers share their life’s work – in eighteen minutes or less.
As I watched those talks – the ones that verged on spirituality – I reminded myself, I am here not to take in new ideas, but to take in eloquence(to foreclose on new ideas wasn’t a policy; simply that my priority was different). I jotted keywords used, looked for common patterns across presentations, and studied the slides displayed. But despite my resistance I was routinely hijacked by the ideas, especially those backed by convincing scientific research, data, and logical analysis. The speakers demystified elusive mental states – satisfaction, contentment and motivation – unravelled secrets of wellbeing, and identified parameters that underpin happiness.
These talks had introduced me to a new offshoot of psychology called Positive Psychology. It was born in 1998, ironically the same year I had quit science – thinking science ineffective in the ‘happiness space’ – and had embraced Bhakti Yoga.
Inquisitive, in the coming weeks I plowed through the internet to learn advances made in happiness research. The website of the Greater Good Science Centre (GGSC) based at the University of California, Berkley, has awesome content, both quantity and quality wise. They provide the bridge between happiness researchers and the public through a rich array of articles, podcasts and videos that aid application of research findings to personal and professional life. Browsing through, I was struck by how Positive Psychology resembled Bhakti Yoga. The core themes GGSC professed – gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, mindfulness, altruism, happiness, and empathy – were the exact same values Bhakti Yoga preached.
Also, a flagship research method of Bhakti is similar to a proposed research method of Positive Psychology. For deeper insights into Bhakti, the Vedic literatures recommend a ‘zoom-in lens’: from the wide angled vision that includes all practitioners of the process, they recommend that we narrow our focus on select few individuals. That we thoroughly study exceptional people who have sincerely practiced Bhakti for sufficiently long. In fact, Srimad Bhagavatam, one of the main text books of Bhakti, a large portion of this literature is devoted to stories, narratives, and accounts of accomplished Bhakti Yogis. In Oxford Handbook for Methods in Positive Psychology, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson recommend a similar method:
The good life unfolds over time, and positive psychologists must therefore undertake longitudinal studies. We do not deny that laboratory experiments can provide important insights into the topics of concern to positive psychology, but they provide snapshots that must eventually be placed in longer perspective….. Positive psychologists must take seriously stories, narratives, and accounts, the typical starting points for qualitative research. Case histories of exceptional individuals should be encouraged.
Now, how about pitting Positive Psychology against Bhakti Yoga? Sounds interesting, but how to go about it? I got a clue from Simon Sinek’s TED talk How great leaders inspire action. He introduces the concept of ‘golden circle’. If you aren’t among the 23 million that have already viewed this talk, I urge you to. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript that’s relevant to our discussion:
Why? How? What? This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t. Let me define the terms really quickly. Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by “why” I don’t mean “to make a profit.”That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry — all think, act and communicate from the inside out.
I caught a key message from the talk: ‘Why?’ is the BIG question.
Why practice gratitude? Why practice compassion? Why practice forgiveness?… I revisited greatergood.berkeley.edu bearing these big questions. Apparently the site anticipates them from visitors: they readily display a litany of answers for all the above whys. And topping the answers’ list, almost always, is the answer, “Because practicing ______ makes you happy.” (Fill the space with gratitude, compassion, etc.)
I turned to Bhakti Yoga, again wielding the same big questions. This time the answers had to be dug out, not from a single website, but from a stack of Vedic tomes a mile high. That didn’t take too long though; after all, Vedas are staples of my monastic life. Just a few hours of careful study, and the answers jumped out at me – “Because practicing ______ makes God happy. And because we are related to him in love, when we are successful in making him happy, we automatically feel happy.”
There is no division over the end result – happiness. But as it turns out, Positive Psychology is I-centric while Bhakti Yoga is God-centric.
Intuitively, I-centricity seems self-defeating when it comes to practicing virtues like gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. We all have experienced those embarrassing moments of over-obsessive selfishness, when nothing but the ‘I’ occupies the spotlight, nay floodlight, of our consciousness. How hard it was then for thoughts of gratitude, compassion or forgiveness to enter that arena! To rely on that insatiable ‘I’ for the practice of those same virtues – perhaps not a good option.
According to me, and I am sure many will agree with me, God-centricity seems a better option. For one thing, we have pushed the ‘I’ off the limelight. Then if we are sincere about being God-centric, we better love all living beings as our brothers and sisters. And that attitude makes the practice of gratitude, compassion and forgiveness easier. Also, if we scour through history, eastern and western alike, for champions in these noble traits, we will find the names of innumerable saints. It’s no secret that people who were driven by love for God effectively pulled through situations that severely tested their gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. Examples are Jesus Christ from the West and Sant Tukaram from the East.
However, it’s nice to see Positive Psychology and Bhakti Yoga as complementing each other. Positive Psychologists are perhaps the first group of scientists willing to hold out an open space for God-related-ideas (I found many articles on GGSC website that substantiate this). And Bhakti is the only stream of Vedic spirituality that says that everything – including the research findings of Positive Psychology – can be and should be used in the service of God.
For practitioners of Bhakti, many of the research findings of Positive Psychology can boost their enthusiasm to practice what their own process recommends: gratitude, forgiveness and compassion. This is especially true of beginners who haven’t developed trust in Bhakti per se, and haven’t had much Bhakti experiences. And for Positive Psychologists, researching Bhakti Yoga and accomplished Bhakti Yogis, I am sure, will provide them newer insights into the science of happiness.
There was more to discover in Positive Psychology, new ideas and new ways of presenting ideas. But my stay at my sis’s had overstretched. For the first time since I entered monasticism was I away from fellow monks for so long. The camaraderie of a healthy monastery being addictive, I routinely cut short my trips due to homesickness. Why did this trip seem different? Perhaps I was feeling homely with the new folks I had discovered on the web. Though we widely differed in mores, we shared a common aspiration – of making the world a happier place.
(Author of this article Gopinath Chandra Das, a disciple of Radhanath Swami, is a monk at Radhagopinath Ashram in Mumbai)
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