Happiness in our Grasp

The Dalai Lama is a great model on how to be happy from mastering his own major obstacles
How to be happy is one of life's great enduring mysteries. Nicola Silva takes heed and heart from a master on the subject. I have a penchant for reading obituaries in the daily paper. Some might consider it a touch weird but I find a compelling symmetry in the lives of teachers, painters, doctors and diplomats neatly laid out on the page, from birth to death. None of their lives was free from hardship; all made a significant contribution to their community. Were they happy, I wonder?

Happiness is so important in our lives it is practically our birthright. It is truly delightful to see how happiness bubbles up spontaneously in babies, when their basic needs are met. For us adults, it is rather more elusive. As we look out on the world with its myriad problems and conflicts and then consider our personal worries, it is easy to feel less and less of the positive emotions such as happiness.

It was timely, therefore, to receive The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, the latest collaboration between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist with a special interest in the science of human happiness. From tranquil Dharamsala, India, to the vivid desert landscape of Arizona, Tenzin Gyatso and Dr Cutler have engaged in a series of discussions on happiness, which form the basis of this book.

What makes happiness so fleeting? Is it because human nature is basically violent, as the mass scale murders in Rwanda, the atrocities of Auschwitz or the terrors of 9/11 appear to bear out? The Dalai Lama is convinced of the goodness of humanity. He says, "It is my firm conviction that human nature is essentially compassionate, gentle. That is the predominant feature of human nature."

Those who have met the Dalai Lama will agree that he is unfailingly good humoured and deeply compassionate. Yet the Dalai Lama's life, particularly the last 50 years have been extremely difficult. Following a failed uprising by the Tibetan people against invading Chinese forces in 1959, he was forced to flee across the Himalayas into neighbouring India. At the time he was 24 years old. He established the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala and has spent the last five decades seeking a peaceful solution for his people. For his inspirational efforts, he has received the Nobel Peace Prize and other awards.

The sufferings of the Dalai Lama's nation have intensified since March 2008 when Tibetan monks living in Tibet held a peaceful demonstration against China's repressive rule. It quickly turned into riots and violence that were brutally repressed by the government. At a meeting with Chinese officials after these riots, it became all too evident that any future talks to discuss greater freedom and autonomy for the Tibetan people would be futile, and the Dalai Lama himself is routinely vilified by Chinese officials.

Thus when Dr Cutler asks him, "Are you happy?" it is a fairly loaded question. Unsurprisingly, the Dalai Lama answers with an emphatic yes!

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World explains that once our survival needs are met, happiness is more a state of mind; it does not depend on our bank balance or the number of our friends. According to the Dalai Lama, happiness is within the reach of all. It's an art and also a practice.

To begin with it is unrealistic to expect only positive experiences in life. Inevitably there are rainy days, illnesses that flare up suddenly, unexpected expenses, even death and loss. These are the "get real" moments of our lives. Having a realistic attitude that problems and suffering are a part of life, he says, helps people to cope better. If we expect to encounter our share of hardships, then instead of going into negative emotions like blame, regret or anger, we will look for solutions. Ultimately, we become more resilient.

The Dalai Lama says, "One thing is sure: How we view the world around us, how we view others, and how you interpret your circumstances and the events going on around you can definitely affect how we might respond to our environment, our world and its problems. This is our fundamental outlook. And I think this is directly related to our ability to cope with problems and maintain happiness."

We all know people who remain cheerful in the midst of cancer or others who are dignified after losing everything they owned in a bushfire. Perhaps their secret lies in what the Dalai Lama calls "cultivating positive emotions". Hope is one such quality, a shining beacon that has sustained people across the whole of human history.

When hope is the underlying factor, it inspires us to take a broader perspective of even the most difficult situation, as long as our final objective is noble.

Taking Tibet as an example, the Dalai Lama confided to Dr Cutler that he had experienced a sense of helplessness after the March 2008 crisis, "I felt really very, very sad. Very sad."

When Dr Cutler inquired if he had lost hope, the Dalai Lama's answer was a definite no. Assured of the nobleness of his objective, the Dalai Lama is prepared to keep going for the rest of his days. Eventually, he believes, the Chinese people, if not the government, will bring about a positive solution to the Tibetan nation.

Dr Cutler was much struck by the total change in the Dalai Lama's demeanour once he considered the wider perspective, "... I could see his spirits lift right in front of me, so that by the end of the meeting, although still very concerned, there was no trace of hopelessness or fear."

For the practitioner of happiness, one quality that is essential to develop is compassion. The Dalai Lama, who to my mind symbolises compassion says, "Compassion is a true source of happiness." Westerners generally link compassion with altruism and self sacrifice. We resist it not quite understanding its value.

The Dalai Lama says compassion brings a sense of rich reward and benefits us directly; he encourages us to be compassionate towards ourselves.

He says, "I believe that at every level of society - family, community, national and global - the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion. So, you see, compassion is something really worthwhile. It is not just a religious or spiritual subject, not a matter of ideology. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity."

There is a spiritual principle in the Tibetan tradition called lojong, or mind training. This enables one to both endure, and creatively transform adversity into something positive. It is the moment when, for example, faced with a serious illness or loss of your job, you evaluate what is truly important to you. This practice is also a way to deepen our sense of compassion.

While visiting Bodhgaya in India, the Dalai Lama decided to make a pilgrimage to Rajgir and Nalanda. On the way back, however, he began to suffer severe abdominal pains that would lead to hospitalisation and treatment for an intestinal infection. At the time, he was travelling through the state of Bihar, one of the poorest regions in India. Looking out, the Dalai Lama noticed numerous poor people, barefooted schoolchildren and others collecting cow pats to burn for fuel. A particular little boy caught his eye; the youngster had braces on both legs from polio and crutches to help him walk. Next, he saw an unkempt old man, sleeping in a hut by the roadside. There was clearly no one to care for him.

Reflecting that they, too, were human beings just like him, the Dalai Lama's concern was evoked. He began to feel grateful for those who were caring for him, in his illness. These reflections took his mind off his own illness and pain. "You see, although it was these others who I was concerned about," he explains, "I was the one who benefited - because I experienced reduced pain."

Dr Cutler is quite fascinated with the neurological aspects of happiness and takes the reader on an evolutionary journey of the brain. He advocates the scientific theory that our brains were designed for the Pleistocene era. Think early hunter-gatherers roaming the undulating savannahs in small groups. They were ever alert for catastrophes, but did not necessarily pause to smell the flowers or admire a beautiful sunset.

Inevitably, this survivalist mindset bred favouritism among the in-group, and an instinctive negative bias towards other groups. This primitive pattern of "us versus them" no longer serves our modern world and is the basis of numerous social problems.

What the world needs now, according to the Dalai Lama, is for people to connect with each other on the basis of their shared humanity, rather than superficial differences. Over the many years of their acquaintance, Dr Cutler has observed the Tibetan spiritual leader interacting gracefully with busboys and business leaders, treating all with dignity, humour and goodwill. So how may we, too, cultivate a deeper connection to other people?

The Dalai Lama suggests three steps: reflecting on our social nature; reflecting on our interdependence and lastly, reflecting on our common humanity. By nature we're social beings with a range of networks like family, friends, hobby groups or sports clubs, political or conservation interests, all of which enrich our lives.

Those of us who live in cities, particularly, depend on others for our basic needs. There are very few self sufficient nomads around! Thirdly, as human beings we all want to avoid suffering and be happy. One of the side effects of happiness is that it's contagious. The happier you are, the happier your family becomes and even your neighbours. So if you're hoping to build a better world, do what you can to become happier - it's advice I'm taking to heart.