Economics 101 Meets Buddhism

by Kimberly Palmer, US News, February 23, 2009

Amherst, Massachusetts, USA -- Chances are, your college economics course didn't involve much meditation. But after completing a fellowship at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Amherst College economics professor Daniel Barbezat decided to introduce meditation, along with other Buddhist practices, into his course on "consumption and the pursuit of happiness."

He encourages students to reflect on what produces feelings of satisfaction and happiness so they can better interpret the numerous studies on the subject. I recently spoke with Barbezat about his approach. Excerpts:

How did you get the idea for this course?

I thought it would be interesting to get students to become aware of what they're doing when they're consuming in a context of economic modeling rather than talking abstractly about the typical consumer.

How do you get them to think about that?

We do contemplative exercises. I have them sit in class and become aware of their breath. I ask them, 'Now sit with a sense of satisfaction." Then, after a little while, they return to their breaths and then I ask them to sit with a sense of happiness. Then I have them jot down what they saw. There are significant experiential differences between the two, [satisfaction and happiness]. In general, students reported satisfaction was felt more in the body, as a sense of calm and ease. Happiness was more mental, a memory or a happy time.

They also look at what seems to affect their mood over time. Every day, three times a day, they write down a mood log. 'I'm happy, I just ate a nice meal, I'm unhappy, I've been doing homework."

I tell students over and over again, I have no idea how much they should consume, but I think as we become more aware of what we're doing as we do it, I think there will be less anxiety, less "pursuit" of happiness.

What is the goal of those exercises?

That informs a whole section of readings from psychology and economics about the measurement of well-being. Most of the papers [on happiness] we're looking at use subjective well-being data. They ask a series of questions about your life satisfaction, then you report how you feel. All those questions are aggregated and transformed into an index number. I wanted them to think about the nature of those questions and how they might influence people's responses.

Do you think students' well-being is being affected by the recession?

Yes. They see the college has taken a large hit on the endowment, and a lot of operating costs are funded that way. It affects staff, faculty, and students, including potential lay-offs and future financial aid packages.

Then, they're concerned about the short and long run impact of entering a job market in a recession. The ability to get the kind of job you thought you would, and benefits, maybe income will be affected. They have a sense of that.
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