I've defiled so many virgin journals in my life; I can never commit. I can be pretty good about keeping a journal when my life's in the crapper, but as soon as things turn around (which writing itself tends to induce) I lose interest and go back to fiddling with LEGOs or something. And that's no way to maintain a relationship.

Now, when I say "my life's in the crapper," what I really mean is "I'm depressed." From an objective point of view, my life is categorically *not* in the crapper. I have a beautiful girlfriend and a spacious condo within walking distance of the university where I am a successful graduate student in synthetic chemistry. I get along great with my happily-married-after-thirty-years parents and I see them once or twice a week. The stipend I get from the university is more than enough to live comfortably on. And yet my baseline happiness level is low; so low, in fact, that I am often tempted to the use of pseudolegal drugs to elevate my mood.

It's a pervasive phenomenon, now and probably always in American (and possibly general human) society: The person who has all the secular trappings of a happy life and yet is still fairly *un*happy on a day-to-day basis. A lot of people--my parents, for instance--would tell me that what's missing in my life is spirituality, and to a point I think I'm inclined to agree. This is a touchy subject for me, however; my break with the Church of Christ as a teenager was acrimonious and I am still bitter about it. I believe the essential tenets of Christian dogma are irrational and readily corrupted to justify all kinds of horrific actions and attitudes. What's more, by the time it's watered down enough that I can stomach it, it's become as limp and flavorless as unitarianism. I personally think the whole enterprise should be scrapped and our attitudes reconfigured along the lines of the Dalai Lama's teachings, the gist of which, as I understand them, is:

Compassion for the sufferings of others is the only lasting way to ease one's own, personal, suffering.

This is a philosophical judo-throw in the spirit of Adam Smith--the selflessness of selfishness. The analogy to laissez-faire economics is not hard to make. "By serving one's own interest, one ultimately serves the communal interest."

Some folks, I suppose, would be offended by that analogy. But I think it's accurate, to a point. The difference is that Smith's and the Dalai Lama's arguments are opposed in their causalities: Smith starts by asking "What makes for a happy society?" and answers "Selfish people"; the Dalai Lama starts by asking "What makes for a happy person?" and answers "Selfless concern for society." This is a vast simplification of both arguments, of course, and it may not be possible to draw any really meaningful conclusions from it. We should not, for instance, give in to the superficial temptation to say that capitalism is thus incompatible with personal happiness as the Dalai Lama sees it.

Or should we?

There's no doubt whatsoever that consumer society is bad for personal happiness, or at least that a philosophy which is grounded too strongly in materialism is bad for personal happiness. And it seems clear that when the monetary powers-that-be pursue their own rational self-interest in the spirit of Smith what results is a consumer society filled with advertisements and meaningless schlock to be bought and sold. And to make such a large market for so much stuff that people really don't need one has to generate a culture of consumption in which people feel inadequate without late models cars, appliances, homes, etc. Desire, the Buddhists say, is the origin of suffering.

Thus, isn't a culture that feeds on material desire really a culture that feeds on human suffering?I think just maybe it is. So how do I opt out?

Therein lies the rub.

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