The Art Of Happiness: Book Review
“The Art of Happiness“, by the world-renowned spiritual leader known as the Dalai Lama, is a guide to living a happy life. The book makes a good case for inner transformation and mind training as avenues to freedom and fulfillment.
The Big Ideas!
- Happiness is a state of mind, a habitual way of thinking that fosters an inner sense of satisfaction and peace.
- People cultivate happiness performing what Buddhists call right action, which is acting from a place of kindness, honesty, and respect for life.
- Humans are naturally kind, happy, and peaceful.
In this book, the Dalai Lama provides lessons often organized in question and answer format, posed and translated by co-author Howard Culter.
The Dalai Lama believes that humans are naturally gentle, peaceful creatures. He believes that aggressive, selfish behavior comes from conditioning, poor role models and frustration when basic needs are not met: food, water, shelter, and happiness.
Some people believe humans are only concerned about their own needs above all else. As an example they focus on newborn babies- the baby only cares about being fed, changed, and cared for without offering anything in reciprocation. However, the Dalai Lama argues this viewpoint. While babies cannot reciprocate equally, they do give something in return. Babies instinctively make eye contact, smile, and laugh at adults, which ultimately fills the people with intense joy and peace. Even the act of breastfeeding, which some say is selfish and greedy, relieves pressure from the breast, therefore promoting health and comfort in the mother.
People can change. The human brain adapts and is capable of great creativity- training the mind to think differently, to focus on thoughts that bring happiness and promote care for others causes actual physical changes in the brain. New neural pathways are formed as the brain forges new connections. Once the brain is rewired toward happiness, things that were once upsetting lose their power. Gratitude for what one has becomes a predominant thought. Instead of defaulting to negativity, the brain is hardwired to be positive.
An important part of this transformation is not only to think and act positively, but to refrain from negative thoughts and actions. People may think that lying or stealing to get what they want makes them happy, but these actions fuel negative beliefs, guilt, and low self-esteem. Approaching life as an opportunity for growth and happiness makes even the most uncomfortable situations bearable.
Suffering and Obstacles
Deterrents of happiness are, of course, obstacles and suffering. The Art of Happiness points out that many people create their own suffering. They long for things they do not need, make choices that benefit them only in the short term, and view their situations in the most negative light possible.
One method for transformation is to focus on happiness rather than pleasure. The Dalai Lama gives examples of wanting something appropriate versus wanting what can bring misery. A person who lives in a modern society where a car is necessary for work and a healthy social life is practical in their desire to own an automobile. Buying a reasonably priced, useful car brings facilitates a life fitting to their surroundings, and could thus lead to more happiness and fulfillment in their lives. However, buying a very expensive car to draw attention, to feel superior to others, or that will bring them financial debt and stress will only serve as a temporary, instant pleasure. In the long run, it will make that person unhappy and unhealthy. The car is not a useful necessity in that instance and will mainly be a burden. Choosing pleasure over happiness or mistaking the two creates suffering. The key to living a happier life is to make important life decisions based on what will bring long term happiness rather than physical comfort or temporary joy.
Furthermore, acceptance of the ways of life is vital in feeling a sense of peace and happiness. Life must possess a sense of balance, in terms of the negatives (e.g. work, school, and chores) and positives (e.g. hobbies, activities, socializing with friends and family). There is no way a person can get what they want 100% of the time. Acceptance, and making the best of what one is given, allows a person to tolerate a difficult situation.
… no matter how much violence or how many bad things we have to go through, I believe that the ultimate solution to our conflicts, both internal and external, lies in returning to our basic or underlying human nature, which is gentle and compassionate.”
The Verdict ⠀
The Art of Happiness is one of the best books you can read for achieving happiness. It states the most important lesson for change, a lesson that many books downplay or gloss over so as not to scare away readers: Happiness is obtained only from devoted, focused attention on changing your way of thinking. Like anything else worth attaining, it takes work. Pointing to external circumstances or people as the reasons for your unhappiness is denial of the reality- that you, and only you, choose how you feel.
The Dalai Lama is a perfect example of the ability to be happy no matter what happens. Born into poverty, he rose to the esteemed position of Tibet’s spiritual leader before exiled at fifteen, kicked out of his country, and cut off from the people he was supposed to have led. Despite his plight, he happily travels the world spreading knowledge and comfort to others.
The book’s co-author Howard Culter, MD provides a psychological perspective and excellent explanations of the Dalai Lama’s more philosophical and metaphorical lessons. You do not need to know anything about Tibetan Buddhism, or even have an interest, to learn from this book. The focus remains solely on conditioning the mind toward happiness without going into Buddhist doctrine.
The instant a hateful or angry thought enters your mind, identify and challenge that thought.
Ask, what triggered that thought or reaction?
Did I overreact? Did that person intentionally try to hurt my feelings?
Is holding a grudge really worth the pain and unhappiness you inflict upon yourself?
Sometimes looking at the situation differently, perhaps from an outside viewpoint, can change your emotion. It is also helpful to remember that negative emotions harm you, creating physical ailments like sleep disturbances, muscle tension, and upset stomach. People have to evaluate if the consequences of a negative emotion is worth their personal well-being.