Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Art of Happiness

While poking my nose in the religious philosophy section of my university library, I spotted a book with an interesting title. Seeing that it was by the (fourteenth) Dalai Lama, I decided to see what it was about beyond the title. The book is a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and a psychiatrist who is interested in the Lama's thoughts on happiness. Happiness, says the Dalai Lama, is the desire of every human being and our right. ("I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better than life.") He believes that happiness is attainable through the practices of compassion, patience, tolerance, and mental discipline. Happiness, reports Howard Cutler -- the psychiatrist -- is determined more by one's state of mind than by external events.

The above is a very rude summation of what is a very enjoyable book. The pair begin by exploring what it means to be happy: examining elements and practices of our lives that supposedly bring happiness. According to the Dalai Lama, happiness is a consequence of pursuing activities and emotions that lead to it -- compassion being one of those -- and avoiding activities that detract from it. Hate is an example of the latter. He believes that human nature is essentially good, and negative emotions and actions result from our search for love are thwarted. (This is one of the points where I disagree with him, although I do believe basic behaviors like compassion that we call "good" are the kind that result in joy and contentment, regardless of one's cultural upbringing.) In some ways, his philosophy reminds me of Stoicism.

After addressing happiness and its source (love through compassion), he addresses human relationships and explores the various kinds of love that we feel for one another. Here he comments on romance. In the next chapter, he addresses various aspects of suffering. He draws a distinction between physical pain induced by nerves and suffering, which he sees as the mental side of physical and emotional pain. Hatred is seen as suffering in his view. He then addresses obstacles: how they can be put to use and how they can be overcome. The last chapter consists of reflections on spirituality, which he separates from religion. In his opinion, most of the world is nonreligious: only two billion people, in his estimation, actually practice spirituality. For the rest, religion is just part of their cultural background and it does very little for them.

I enjoyed the book tremendously. The Dalai Lama does not bother with religious concepts: only once does he mention reincarnation. His focus is not on ritual and religion but on the art of living every day in the pursuit of happiness. (I should note that he uses "pleasure" to refer to fleeting enjoyment and "happiness" for steady enjoyment: I personally use "happiness" to refer to fleeting enjoyment and "joy" for the latter.) When I read his comments on spirituality -- how he describes the practice of being compassionate, tolerant, patient, and so forth -- I cannot help but think of Anne Frank, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Robert Ingersoll, and others who have taught me through their words. As Frank noted, "We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same." This, not religion, is the focus of the book. I found his advice to be quite useful and will share a few quotations from him on my philosophy/humanities blog. I very much recommend it.

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