Yvonne Roberts: Buddhism or a J-Lo butt? Your choice

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The Independent Online

Happiness is ... a J-Lo butt, to order. Sharon Brown, aged 35, has bought her place in history and put a smile on her face by becoming one of the first women in the country to have silicone stuffed into each buttock, at a cost of £4,800. What a cheek!

"It's the same as a boob job - only lower down," she told the Daily Mail last week. Except that she couldn't sleep for a fortnight or sit down for six weeks. But when she eventually saw her big end, for the first time, "high, pert and perfect", she reports that all those years of self-hatred melted away. "I'm happy, outgoing and I have thrown away my baggy clothes."

Ms Brown, aided and abetted by the surgeon's knife, may well have given rumpy-pumpy a whole new meaning and bought herself eternal joy - but, according to American research also published last week, there are far less bruising routes to the secret of happiness. And aren't we all desperate to know?

Brain scans of devout Buddhists have found exceptional activity in a spot called the left pre-frontal lobe which is associated with positive emotions and good moods. Commenting in New Scientist, Professor Owen Flanagan said he did not think Tibetan Buddhists were born with a "happiness gene". A more likely explanation for their joy was some aspect of Buddhist practice that produced happiness.

Before we flatten each other in a rush to meditate, there are two aspects to this particular path to felicity that, in our consumer-crazed society, may not go down quite so well. First, the Dalai Lama is not a big shopper. In fact, he's stuck to the same wardrobe for years. Second, true Buddhists have no interest in keeping up with the Joneses. So, happiness is not a bigger warehouse conversion, a smaller mobile phone, and a flatter television set than the guy up the road. Or a hand-carved body that grants you the bum and the boobs that nature denied.

In short, what gives Buddhists contentment subverts the very idea of what is supposed to make the rest of us ecstatic. Economists (foolishly) insist that well-being in Western society is equated with consumption: to buy is to smile.

Happiness is literally big business. It generates profits and it keeps politicians in power. If, that is, they can correctly gauge how to tweek the mood of the people. These days, it's enough to make a minister weep, because in spite of relative prosperity, according to some studies, we've never felt more morose.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler argue that what matters isn't the wanting but how people feel after acquiring what they want. Too often these days, it's summed up in one word: empty. (So they go back to the fridge and consume another couple of cheesecakes and drink 14 units in one night, but that's another story.)

Research in a number of European countries shows that in periods when social democrats are in control, as opposed to governments of the right, the subjective well-being of citizens improves - perhaps because the endorsement of a welfare state and a safety net provides that most precious commodity of all: security.

Academics such as Andrew Oswald of Warwick University talk of the hedonic treadmill. Since, in the affluent West, we always compare ourselves with our neighbours, if, for instance, we all have our incomes doubled, some will still be unhappy. Why? Because everyone else has more, too. Hence, perhaps, the lack of concern from many quarters at the widening gap between rich and poor. Contentment can be a nasty business.

Other surveys tell us, perhaps unsurprisingly, that what also breeds rapture is a strong marriage; good health; a network of friends and relatives; a belief in a faith; voluntary work; and a lack of cynicism. A portrait that sounds alarmingly like the mythical good old days of yesteryear. In truth, we live in untrusting, insecure times, when the only deity that receives constant mention is the god of greed. Of course we're glum.

According to Professor Oswald, happiness follows a U-shaped pattern, the nadir being in our thirties while contentment returns in our sixties. Perhaps, 60 is the point at which - having recovered from post-traumatic shopping disorder - we finally become blithe spirits, aware that all that really matters is decency, fairness, goodwill to others and a belief in something other than the filthy dollar.

So, it's back to Buddha.

Joan Smith is away