The Art of Happiness, by The Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler, is a book about how to be happier. The primary author is Howard Cutler, a western-trained psychiatrist, who performs a series of interviews with the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), who is a Tibetan Buddhist monk (exiled from Tibet) regarded by many as having great wisdom and insight. This summary and review will be longer than my others because the ideas being presented are complicated and they cover a lot of different territory.
To set the context for the Dalai Lama’s statements in The Art of Happiness, it is important to review some basic information about Buddhism. As a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama believes in a form of reincarnation. According to Buddhism, though the time for each of us in this world (in our current form) is limited, there is a more permanent aspect of ourselves which will be passed on to some other ‘sentient’ being upon our death. The new sentient being can be human or non-human. As a general rule, if a person lives a virtuous life, that person will tend to be reborn into a more elevated form in the next life. If a person doesn’t live virtuously, then he will be reborn into a worse state. Actions taken in this life can affect both your current life and lives that follow. You may actually suffer in your own life, in part, due to the past actions of your permanent self in a prior life. This is the concept of karma. The goal of all sentient beings, as per Tibetan Buddhism, is to achieve an ultimate state of enlightenment (Buddhahood) and to help others to achieve the same.
The Dalai Lama, in The Art of Happiness, establishes from the outset some basic truths with which to approach the topic of happiness. First of all, he states, all humans both desire and deserve happiness. All humans want the best outcome that they can have for themselves. But how can they get it? To begin, the Dalai Lama makes clear, you must have in mind a desire for true, long-term happiness and not just the pursuit of short-term pleasures. Though never completely defined, he refers to true happiness as focusing on a complete life that is both calm and fulfilling.
The Dalai Lama speaks of various types of fulfillment as being important to happiness, such as good health, having material facilities (a place to live for example), friendships, and enlightenment. (Buddhism more generally discusses four important areas of fulfillment: wealth, worldly satisfaction, spirituality, and enlightenment). In deciding what things to pursue in life, the Dalai Lama distinguishes between good and bad desires. Good desires are for those things (like friendship or compassion) which he feels will help you in the long run. Bad desires are for things that either you probably don’t really need (a better car, for example) or the desire to do things which will sabotage your happiness in the long run. An example of this last is desiring to get money by robbing someone. In doing this, you may gain the money in the short run, but you will destroy your life in the long run, as you now need to run from the police, you must be distrustful of others, etc..
All of this serves as a sort of preamble to what the Dalai Lama clearly feels is the most important issue in dealing with happiness: controlling your state of mind. In Buddhism, it is the state of mind which is the key to the whole endeavor of becoming happier. The Dalai Lama refers to ‘hateful thoughts’ or ‘anger’ as disrupting your mental equilibrium and destroying your happiness. The fundamental task for Buddhists is to learn to maintain a calm mind, above all. The greater your mental calmness and peace - the greater your enjoyment of life. By mental calmness and peace, he doesn’t mean apathy, but includes also a sensitivity to your world, a sense of compassion for others, and an affection for others. This mental approach is much more important, in the Dalai Lama’s view, than any material thing you could have. He states: “As long as there is a lack of the inner discipline that brings calmness of mind, no matter what external facilities or conditions you have, they will never give you the feeling of joy and happiness that you are seeking. On the other hand, if you possess this inner quality, a calmness of mind, a degree of stability within, then even if you lack various external facilities that you would normally consider necessary for happiness, it is still possible to live a happy and joyful life.”
In The Art of Happiness, it is proposed that we train our minds (and various techniques are discussed) to eliminate the things which destroy our happiness (hatred, jealousy, anger - all of which are viewed as negative states of mind) and pursue the things which promote happiness (kindness, warmth, compassion, empathy - which are regarded as positive states of mind).
Throughout the rest of The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama promotes various ways of promoting these positive states of mind. Here are the highlights:
(1) The Dalai Lama makes several arguments to suggest that our fundamental human nature is gentle, as opposed to aggressive. The implication is that we should move in the direction of our gentler nature.
(2) He promotes becoming more compassionate towards others by considering their fundamental motivations. Since everyone, even your enemies, ultimately wants to be happy, you can use this as a starting point in understanding them and even having compassion toward them. The more similarities you can see between your enemies and yourself, the more you are likely to feel kindly towards them.
(3) Even in what are normally considered chance or non-important relationships - such as with people you have minimal contact with on the street (while buying something from them in a store, or sharing an elevator with them) - there is a benefit to forming a connection to those people - even if in small ways. As humans you are both connected - and so in this way you will not feel you are among strangers - but among beings with similar basic overall desires.
(4) The Art of Happiness promotes learning to empathize. Putting yourself into their position and seeing that you might also react as they are reacting. Understanding and compassion for that person will follow.
(5) For your more substantial relationships (a husband or wife, a best friend, etc.) make sure that these are based on deeper values, not superficial ones such as a person’s power, money, or position.
(6) Fortify your ability to bear suffering - The Dalai Lama notes that there is suffering in every life - and so - it is good to face up to this now and to realize that you too will suffer in the future and that this is a part of life. In this way, when you do in fact suffer, you won’t experience it as being quite so startling - but rather you will be able to bear it with a calm mind.
(7) In a related point to suffering, you must also realize that nothing is permanent - not even your own life. If you face up to the your own death, it becomes something less feared and so causes less pain. Additionally, you appreciate the gift of life while you do have it.
(8) Shift your perspective or point of view. The Art of Happiness promotes developing your ability to look at your life from a different perspective. Different perspectives can allow you to appreciate the good in what might otherwise be viewed as a bad thing.
(9) Avoid extremes - the Dalai Lama discusses many cases of going to extremes, and suggests avoiding these. For example, in terms of self-esteem, you can feel too ‘puffed up’ with you own importance- or you can go too far in the other direction and feel generally very bad about yourself. It is better to have a realistic and positive feeling about yourself, he advocates. He reviews other aspects of life in which the right course is between extremes.
(10) Practice meditation. This helps you to focus your mind, he notes. The Dalai Lama also uses it as a way of reinforcing his intentions (postive affirmations or reminders of what to do and how to behave).He also advocates the practice of a special kind of meditation called Tong-Len, in which you attempt to experience the suffering of others and to visualize taking the suffering from them, and giving these others your resources, health, and happiness.
(11) Realize that the process of improving yourself and your happiness takes a long time. Be realistic about your progress toward these goals.
(12) The Dalai Lama clearly feels that certain things promote a calm mind and happiness. These include honesty, anything which reduces anxiety, compassion for others, and having the appropriate level of self-esteem.
(13) The Dalai Lama thinks that all religions are similar in that they can help you to pursue the positive states of mind he is advocating. Religion, though, is not essential. He believes that you can reason your way to similar conclusions as his, and still live a happier life as a result.
In discussing this book, it is important from the outset to distinguish between the different views that are being presented. The main content of the book, which I will focus on most, are the Dalai Lama's ideas. But, while the Dalai Lama is clearly a Buddhist, it isn’t always clear in the book which part of what he is saying is taken from Buddhism directly and which parts are his thoughts alone. In addition the interviewer (Dr. Howard Cutler) also makes statements of his own, or interprets what the Dalai Lama is saying, or adds his own information to the discussion. Thus the Art of Happiness is a book mainly comprised of the particular ideas of a pre-eminent Buddhist as revealed by a western interviewer who himself sets the structure of the book and the context of the Dalai Lama’s statements.
On the whole, I found Dr. Howard Cutler’s added information to be only superficially interesting. In many instances, after the Dalai Lama had introduced a new idea in the book - Dr. Cutler would scour modern western literature to find something relevant to it. In every case that I can recall, he would find material which tended to support what the Dalai Lama was saying. This became so frequent that I was left with the impression that Dr. Cutler was simply trying to find information that supported what the Dalai Lama was saying - as opposed to thinking deeply about the material himself.
(1) Emphasizes happiness as a goal - The Art of Happiness is refreshing in that it explicitly identifies happiness as a goal that we all seek and it is advocated as a natural and proper goal. (This certainly sets it apart from modern Christian perspectives, for example). I believe that just having this goal be so explicit helps Buddhists and the Dalai Lama to make some progress in getting happier.
(2) Promotes honest introspection - I believe introspection (looking inward at your sensations, thoughts, desires, and emotions) is just as important (for happiness) as understanding the external world. The Dalai Lama clearly also believes it is important. He engages in and promotes introspection often. He does not appear to be faking anything. When asked a question by Dr. Cutler, the Dalai Lama takes his time to think about the answer and appears to give his honest assessment or conclusion - and at times answering honestly: “I don’t know”
(3) Promotes skepticism and thinking for yourself - The Dalai Lama promotes the idea of understanding things for yourself and of challenging his ideas if they don’t seem right to you. This notion, that the truth is available to all who inquire without reference to mysticism, is very refreshing coming from a religion.
(4) Promotes an appealing world view - The Dalai Lama promotes what would seem to be a ‘nice life’. He wants us all to avoid ‘ugly’ emotions such as anger, hatred, and jealousy and to live calm lives filled with appreciation for what we have, appreciation for all the people and things in this world that we come into contact with, and to live in harmony with others as much as possible. Life for him consists in treating others with warmth and compassion and of introspecting and learning to become more enlightened.
(5) Contains practical advice - The Art of Happiness includes much practical advice which strikes me as reasonable although not necessarily Buddhist or religious in origin.
(1) Promotes emotional suppression - The Art of Happiness perspective on emotions seems misguided in my opinion. This is a very complicated topic so let me outline my own view (which was also Ayn Rand’s view) of emotions first.
Emotions are your automatic responses to the value (to you) of certain events, objects, or people in your life. I say they are automatic, because, in the short-term, they simply occur without your being able to control the experience. You can control whether or not you express them or admit them to yourself or act on them - but not whether you experience the emotions themselves. Now, in the long term, you do control emotions in the following sense: If you gradually change what you think of an event, object, or person - then your emotional reaction will also change. This takes time.
As a simple example, let’s say that you wanted to buy a certain computer (the latest Apple computer for example) by the end of the year. You find at the end of the year, though, that you don’t have the money to buy it - and so you feel mildly sad and disappointed. Later you read some reviews about that type of computer which lead you to believe that it actually isn’t very good and that it doesn’t have a certain capability that you desired. Now you may actually feel happy at not having bought the computer. You still have the originally saved money and you can now make a better choice.
So let’s see how little you controlled in this example. You did not control the facts that led to your alternative conclusion about the value of the computer and you did not control your subsequent emotional reaction to not having the computer (which has become more positive after the new information). The only things you controlled were whether or not you expressed the emotion and whether or not you admitted to or identified the emotion to yourself.
Now let’s look at this computer example as I believe is advocated in The Art of Happiness. You were initially experiencing a negative emotion, a mild sadness, at not being able to afford the computer you wanted. In an effort to avoid this negative emotion, the Dalai Lama might ask: “Do you really need that computer?” It is only a material thing - much less important, he would argue, than the spiritual aspects of life which you should be paying more attention to. And if you don’t get the computer, think of the money you have which you might be able to spend on other things. Also, imagine how much you in fact do have in life - there are plenty of people who do not have computers - try to appreciate what you do have.
The Dalai Lama essentially promotes a type of suppression or undercutting of the validity of certain emotions. Because he does not want ugliness (hatred, jealousy, anger, sadness) he asks you to deconstruct your perspective on the world. This is really advocating rationalism on principle. (Rationalism is the process by which you begin with a conclusion and then force yourself to think of reasons to support it. It might be a good technique if you are on a debate team - but it isn’t the right way to think about your actual values and choices.) I would say that in the long term you are much better off following the facts wherever they may lead and experiencing the logically-related emotions - even if that results in a negative emotion in the short term.
Ultimately The Art of Happiness wants to have its emotional cake and to eat it too. The Dalai Lama wants the positive emotions, but none of the negative ones. I think this is misguided. If you love one thing, then you necessarily don’t like, or even hate, its opposite. If the Dalai Lama, for example, enjoys interacting with intelligent, honest, and hard-working students in his classes - then he will clearly have neutral to negative emotions toward students who are not intelligent, who are dishonest, or who are lazy. If the Dalai Lama is working hard towards universal understanding and peace - then he will not like (and likely even feel anger towards) those who are attempting to obfuscate or to play on local stereotypes and biases, in an attempt to engender war. In other words, to be committed to certain goals and values is to take a stand in life. With that stand comes the possibility of great rewards - but also the possibility of disappointments and negative emotions if things do not go your way. An attempt to eliminate the possibility in life of negative emotions is an attempt to dilute your goals and ambitions. It will necessarily lead to a whitewashed life, a person who stands for not much of anything.
Now taking a step back from all this, there is a more limited way in which the Dalai Lama’s perspective makes sense. I certainly don’t think that exposing yourself needlessly to aspects of the world which will anger you is a good thing. Let’s suppose a person is very involved in politics (in that he reads or listens to the news regarding it, but he isn’t running for office or promoting some one candidate). Such a person can easily become frustrating while reading and hearing about a process that he can affect only minimally. You could certainly argue that such a person is needlessly exposing himself to stimuli which mainly serve to anger or frustrate him. Perhaps he shouldn’t spend so much time doing this. There are many such situations in which exposure to aspects of the world which would likely lead to negative emotions is reasonably optional - and so you can opt out of this exposure!
The Art of Happiness is interesting to read, since it presents the thoughts of a preeminent leader of Tibetan Buddhists (The Dalai Lama) as presented by a western writer (Dr. Howard Cutler). I cannot recommend many of the ideas presented for the reasons mentioned in my review. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to be introduced to the Buddhist perspective on happiness. It also contains positive information regarding the value of introspection and at the very least promotes personal happiness as an appropriate goal.