In the course of de-cluttering my office yesterday, I came across a long-forgotten piece I'd written for RS Greetings, a spiritual magazine published by Radha Soami Satsang Beas, back in the days when I was a member of this India-based guru-led organization.
As I said in a 2004 post about the article, "Sadly, ego-loss didn't arrive in the mail," I'd argued with the editor of the magazine about their policy of not including the author's name.
So I told the editor that their Anonymous policy prevented readers from offering valuable feedback, and from authors learning from those readers. That’s the way of science, open discussion and review of purported findings. The magazine powers-that-be apparently felt, however, that not publishing authors’ names was spiritually healthy. I guess not being recognized for a charitable article contribution earns more karmic Humble Points than having your name attached to it.
Naturally the first thing I did after getting a copy of the piece twelve years ago was write in my name in thick black ink. The second thing was curse at whoever failed to notice that the title of the essay misspelled "enlightenment."
Leaving that aside, when I finished re-reading "My Mini Enlightenment" after so many years I thought, Man, that's some damn fine writing, if I say so myself, about myself.
Here's the piece, which in addition to its humor makes some semi-serious observations about what leads to happiness. Interestingly, I ended up buying a Mini Cooper S in 2011. I still have it.
I predicted at the time, "My 2011 Mini Cooper S should bring perfect happiness." I was almost right. Every time I drive it, the car makes me happy. Not perfectly happy, but happier than I am when I drive any other car.
Often you hear the adage, material things don't bring happiness, positive experiences are what make us happy. But I don't get this. What if you need a certain material thing to have a positive experience? Anyway, read on...
My Mini Enlightenment
by Brian Hines
It was a great day when my consciousness attained a state of pristine clarity that I had never experienced before. Finally, after more than thirty years of daily meditation and deep study of the world’s most profound religious and philosophical writings, I finally knew in my heart of hearts what would bring me genuine happiness.
A Mini Cooper.
More precisely, a Mini Cooper S, racing green with a black top, navigation system, Xenon headlights, sunroof, and premium sound. I didn’t doubt that having this car in my garage would be the missing link in my spiritual evolution, because such was the evident message coming from God.
How else would you explain this miraculous series of events?
One Saturday I opened the newspaper to the weekly Auto section and found a glowing review of the new Mini Cooper. Until that day I had seen only a single Mini Cooper on the streets of my city. Then, walking to a downtown class later that morning, I espied a yellow Mini with a white top tooling down the street.
I ogle it. I go to my class. After class, I head back to my boring Volvo station wagon.
And there, at the very intersection where I had seen it two hours before, drives by the same yellow Mini with a white top. At that moment I knew that God does not speak more clearly than this to His beloved sheep, namely me, whom He wishes to make happy by generously bestowing the glorious gifts of His creation, in this case a supercharged Mini Cooper.
However, when I got home and enthusiastically shared my divine revelation with my wife, Laurel said, “How do you know it is God sending the message?” Well, the nerve! Who else could it be? “Doesn’t God want us to lessen our worldly desires rather than add to them?” she asked irritatingly. Then, as Laurel turned back to the stack of women’s clothing catalogs she was drooling over, she added, “Plus, I hate how Mini Coopers look.”
A distressing jolt of theological truth shook my psyche: man proposes, God disposes, and then the wife has the final say.
After thirty-one years of marriage I should have known that a Higher Power controls my destiny, and her name is Woman. Further proof of this came a few months later when Laurel prominently displayed a page from an issue of TIME magazine so I wouldn’t miss the article called “No Price Tag on Happiness.”
To make sure I got the point, she crossed out “Porsche” and wrote in “Mini Cooper” on the first sentence: “Think that Porsche and boat and beach house you have been dreaming of would make you happy? Think again.” The article went on to say that Richard Easterlin, an economist, had found that “while healthy people are generally happier than unhealthy ones and married people are happier than unmarrieds, increases in wealth and material possessions improve happiness only briefly.”
Well, since I’m healthy and married this was good news as regards my happiness potential.
But since I had been counting on being even happier once I was healthy, married, and a Mini Cooper owner, this also was bad news. So I chucked the magazine in the recycling bin and looked forward to forgetting all about this happiness research, memories of which were taking up brain cells that I needed for more fantasies about my dream car.
Unfortunately, soon I couldn’t help noticing another article on the New York Times web site about the same subject. This article had an even blunter title: “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.” It went on in this vein for seven pages. After I had finished reading it I could see my Mini Cooper dreams being crushed in the harsh wrecking yard of psychological research reality.
The gist of the article was that people aren’t very accurate in predicting what effect an event will have on their happiness. “On average,” I read, “bad events proved less intense and more transient than test participants predicted. Good events proved less intense and briefer as well.”
So according to researcher Daniel Gilbert, “Things that happen to you or that you buy and own—as much as you think they make a difference to your happiness, you’re wrong by a certain amount. You’re overestimating how much of a difference they make. None of them make the difference you think. And that’s true of positive and negative events.”
It seems that each of us has a happiness set point that we have a strong tendency to return to, no matter what we do or what happens to us.
Like sine waves, we cycle up and we cycle down, but overall we don’t stray very far from the straight line that is our inherent level of happiness. We imagine that this or that will make us much more happy or much more unhappy, but we aren’t good at predicting our level of future happiness once this or that happens.
Not that it matters much. Because whether our happiness trends up or down in the short-term, most events in our lives don’t have a lasting effect on our basic sense of well-being. And this is where happiness research seems to have some profound spiritual implications.
If we can’t tell what will make us happy, and if our happiness tends to revert to a base level, then we shouldn’t worry nearly as much as we do about seeking out supposed good things and avoiding supposed bad things. For we can’t predict what is “good” or “bad.” And even if we could, so what? For soon our happiness level will come down from the good that made it rise, or will bounce back from the bad that made it fall.
The implication is that it is more important to raise our whole happiness set point to a higher base level. This is one of the effects of enlightenment, spiritual illumination, satori, psychological breakthrough, whatever you want to call it. Not relying on outer events or other people to make us happy is the true key to happiness. Since happiness is within, that’s where we’ll find it, not outside.
Marcus Aurelius, the philosophical second-century Roman emperor, wrote in his Meditations, “Happiness, by derivation, means ‘a good god within.’” Such is the meaning of eudaimonia, the Greek word for happiness. Thus happiness and spirituality go hand in hand.
I know this. I really do. Still, I can’t forget a conversation I had with a Mini Cooper S owner, Bill, in which we managed to arrive at a wonderfully supportive pseudo-Taoist foundation for our autoholic tendencies.
We reasoned that to be attached to non-attachment is itself an attachment.
So if it doesn’t matter whether things are this way or that, whether one owns a Mini Cooper or not, then why not have a Mini Cooper? So the Mini Cooperist sage detaches from non-attachment, and attaches himself to an automotive attachment, so that he stays centered close to the divine still point between detachment and attachment.
Now, since I’d like to aid Bill’s further spiritual progress, I figure that what he needs to do at this point is detach himself from his present attachment and sell his Mini Cooper to me for a song. Research predicts the car won’t make me happy for long, but since I feel that God wants me to test that hypothesis, who can stand in the way of sacred science?
Two people, unfortunately: Bill, and my wife.