Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

Enjoying the Happiness of Others

Is Humanism about reason or about emotion? It might seem that reason is all we need, but as scientists such as Antonio Damasio have demonstrated, without feelings, we are unable to make choices. Reason guides us toward our goals, but to have goals and values, we need preferences, which come from emotions.

So, is it all about the pursuit of happiness? In some sense, it is. But not just our own personal happiness. The happiness of others matters. In their book, Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, Lex Bayer and John Figdor write, “We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.”

I spoke to John Figdor about this idea, which relates to the concept of sympathetic joy, an idea well known in Buddhism. In fact, certain meditations such as loving-kindness meditation, can increase the sense of social connection and have the potential to help you share in the happiness of others. John also explained a technique of interrogating your desires to see where they stem from that, although it comes from philosophy, is a kind of mindfulness technique. Here is the interview:



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John Figdor


Rick Heller








John Figdor serves as the Humanist Chaplain for the Humanist Community at Stanford. He holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Divinity School. He formerly served as assistant humanist chaplain at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

Rick Heller leads the Humanist Mindfulness Group at the Humanist Community at Harvard. A freelance journalist, he has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Buddhadharma, Free Inquiry, Tikkun, and Wise Brain Bulletin. His web site is and he can be followed on Twitter @SecularMeditate.

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Originally published on Patheos


Nobelist Angus Deaton and a Noble Truth

In my forthcoming book, Secular Meditation, I discuss what leads to life satisfaction. I refer to a paper by Angus Deaton, who just received this year’s Nobel Memorial prize in Economics and co-authored by Daniel Kahneman, a previous recipient of the prize.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Memorial prize in Economics for his contributions to the psychology of economic decision making. In a 2010 paper, Kahneman and the economist Angus Deaton asked the question, “Does money buy happiness?” They concluded that it was impossible to answer the question without distinguishing two factors that make up happiness: emotional well-being and life satisfaction.[1]

When I attended a talk by Kahneman, I asked him about these two factors. He described emotional well-being as corresponding to ongoing experience from moment to moment. By contrast, “Life satisfaction is much more of a judgment,” he said. “This is what happens to you when you think about your life. You don’t think about your life all the time.”

Clearly, mindfulness can affect moment-to- moment emotional well-being. Intriguingly, Kahneman and Deaton found that once a household had an income above $75,000, further income made absolutely no difference in people’s emotional well-being. It seems to me that, once your basic needs for food, shelter, clothing and health care have been met, mindfulness can be the secret to moment-to-moment emotional satisfaction. It provides a tool to shift negative emotions into neutral and shift the neutral toward the positive. So that’s half the secret to happiness right there.

[1] Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-Being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 38 (2010): 16489–93.

It might seem like the mindfulness approach, which is nonjudgmental, would ask us to avoid evaluating our lives. But perhaps it’s too much to expect people to never compare themselves to others or to their life goals. Indeed, mastering meditation might be a goal, and wouldn’t it be useful to take stock once in a while to see whether you’re on the right track?

But clinging to goals can be a major source of suffering. This is the wisdom of the Buddha’s “Second Noble Truth,” which I believe is perfectly valid on naturalistic grounds. Have goals, try to achieve them, but hold onto them lightly, and if it seems a goal is unachievable, don’t torture yourself over it.