There is a game called musical chairs. All the kids walk around circle as music plays and in the middle of the circle are a collection of chairs. When the music stops everyone needs to find a seat. But there’s a catch. There aren’t enough seats for everyone so one of the kids will be left out. When that happens, the kid who couldn’t find a seat is out of the game. The moderators remove another chair and the whole process starts over again, repeating itself until there is only one winner. This is a classic example of a zero sum game. If I’m sitting down, that’s one less seat for someone else. Worse, at the end of the game there can be only one winner so the incentive is to focus as narrowly as possible on my own self-interest.
According to the Buddha’s teaching, real happiness is not a zero sum game. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The more we see our own happiness as divorced from the well-being of those around us, the more likely we are to suffer. Conversely, the more we understand our fortunes to be tied to the good will of others and devote our lives to building healthy and positive relationships through giving, the happier we become. That probably sounds like common sense but, in practice, most of us are motivated primarily by narrow self-interest, exactly the opposite of what leads us to happiness. So how do we change?
As with most problems, the first step is to admit the problem. Once we have accepted that there’s room to grow, it’s time for training. Thankfully, the Buddha provided us a ready-made training program called insight meditation that teaches us where happiness comes from and how to make more of it. If we follow the Buddha’s instruction, there are an unlimited number of empty happiness seats waiting to be filled.