Belonging and happiness

This morning during alms round, a young woman came up to talk with Ajahn, and off we went through the market stalls toward a house. Ajahn quickly explained that it was someone’s birthday, and he had been asked to offer a blessing. We soon got to a little deck where an elderly gentleman was sitting surrounded by family members. It was his ninety-seventh birthday. A chair was fetched for Ajahn, and the rest of us knelt on the ground while he chanted a prayer in Pali.


The elderly gentleman was obviously delighted. He was celebrated by his loved ones, he received a blessing from the monk, and he gave him a gift basket. He seemed lucid, and he looked less than his age. He seemed pleased to see a foreigner there as well. I thought that’s not a bad way to spend your last years, living at home with several generations of your offspring.


I suppose there is nothing particularly special about this, and this is probably how most people around the world spend their final years. It seems like the most natural thing, to grow old with your family. The elderly have the joy of seeing their grandchildren grow up, and these young ones learn early on about old age and respect toward their elders. And it creates a natural sense of belonging, support, and community.


It occurred to me while kneeling there that although belonging might be a completely mundane thing for most people around the world, it can be such a rare commodity in the West. How many people grow old this way in our so-called developed countries? Somewhere along the process of material development, the conditions for belonging seem to have eroded, whether we’re talking about the traditional family model or other forms of togetherness. And the result is the epidemic of loneliness and mental illness we see in our countries. I wonder what the rate of depression is among societies where people live together more. How odd that we presume that development is a good thing when it’s obviously linked to a breaking down of the conditions for belonging and the joy it brings.


As we walked away, I thought of the countless people of all ages who feel lonely in our developed countries because they don’t belong. There is a real poverty there, in the heart of our wealthy nations, a poverty that causes much suffering. From what I’ve seen in Latin America, Africa and Asia, belonging is roughly proportional to happiness and roughly inversely proportional to material wealth. It’s obviously possible to be wealthy and to have belonging, but something about material development seems to erode belonging.


I’m not saying belonging is the way to ultimate happiness. It is obviously a conditional happiness, as it depends on many factors that lie outside our control: people die, or their feelings change, or circumstances change. When I asked Ajahn about this, he said that belonging is a wonderful thing, because it makes life more pleasant. Since we’re not yet enlightened, he said, it’s important to have a balance and not isolate ourselves, thinking only the search for inner happiness matters. But since the happiness of belonging is conditional, it can’t provide the kind of happiness we’re actually looking for.


Fortunately, since this inner happiness is unconditional, it is already right under our noses, in our hearts and minds, waiting for us to uncover it, he said. And the thing is, if we don’t tap into it, no amount of belonging will really make us happy. We can spend our lives trying to belong and to find the right people for us, but this will only work once we’ve perfected our relationship with ourselves. In other words, inner belonging is more important than outer belonging. And finding inner happiness makes things lighter, which supports outer belonging. So although true happiness can only be found within, he says, we should not neglect belonging and other conditional sources of joy.

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