The Dalai Lama argues that the happiness material wealth and goods provide us with are only sensual in nature. Rather than bring about genuine happiness, material goods often result in unhappiness and inner suffering. His view is accurate, balanced and can withstand criticism.
Material goods can only provide us with a superficial level of happiness that is restricted to the “level of the senses” (p16). In other words, it can only make us physically more comfortable or improve our physical well-being. The fact that we have “thoughts and emotions as well as imaginative and critical faculties” (p16) is a clear indication that our needs are not purely physical or sensual. Material goods cannot provide us with satisfaction beyond the physical realm. It cannot help alleviate our feelings of “anxiety, stress, confusion, uncertainty and depression” (p16). In fact, material wealth is often a cause of such feelings. This is evident in the prevalence of such feelings and emotional suffering in materially developed countries (p5). According to the Dalai Lama, genuine happiness is “lasting and therefore meaningful” (p57) unlike contentment derived from material wealth. Genuine happiness stems from inner peace, which is grounded in concern for others, empathy and sensitivity. The fact that inner peace is the “principal characteristic of happiness… explains the paradox” (p55) that there are people who are unhappy despite being materially wealthy and people who are happy despite being poor.
Detractors to the Dalai Lama’s view might argue that material wealth contributes to happiness that goes beyond sensuality. First and foremost, money opens many doors and gives one more choices, effectively providing one with freedom of action as it frees one from financial instability. This in itself is a path to a happy life, for the constant stress and discontentment about one’s financial situation can take a toll on one’s mental health. Furthermore, as the adage goes, ‘health (as opposed to wealth) is happiness’ yet healthcare does not always come without a cost. We thus require a certain degree of material wealth to afford healthcare and improve our physical well-being. This allows us to rise above physical suffering, and reduce unhappiness and worry that often comes with physical discomfort and illnesses.
That said, it is important to recognise that money does not directly provide one with happiness except another opportunity to find it. One can still find happiness without material wealth. The Dalai Lama is right to note that people in materially developed countries are “less satisfied, are less happy, and to some extent suffer more than those living in the least developed countries” (p5) who have less material wealth. While material wealth is able to alleviate a degree of emotional suffering through improving our physical health, the significant unhappiness created by material wealth cannot be ignored. According to a Social Trends survey conducted by the...