The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World

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Blending common sense and modern psychiatry, this inspirational book applies Buddhist tradition to 21st-century struggles and offers wise counsel that is both optimistic and realistic.

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May 13, 2018

Finding Happiness In Oneself And Others

In 1998, H.H. the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler, an American psychiatrist, wrote a book, "The Art of Happiness" which became a surprise best-seller. The book taught the importance of looking within and of controlling destructive emotions in finding happiness. Then, in 2003, the Dalai Lama and Dr. Cutler again collaborated in a book "The Art of Happiness at Work" which explores the reasons why many people suffer from job dissatisfaction and offers suggestions about improving one's life in the workplace.

The Dalai Lama and Dr. Cutler have again collaborated on this third book, "The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World" (2009) which is substantially more ambitious in scope than its predecessors. The book is based upon a series of conversations between the two men held over the course of several years. Dr. Cutler wrote and formatted the book which was then read and approved by the Dalai Lama's interpreter. The book is roughly structured in the form of conversation and follow-up. Dr. Cutler and the Dalai Lama meet for, roughly, one hour per day during which Cutler questions the Dalai Lama on various matters pertaining to finding happiness. The Dalai Lama responds, frequently by reformulating Cutler's questions, and the two attempt to elaborate their ideas. Cutler usually takes the role of questioner. Following Cutler's descriptions of the meetings, he elaborates and expounds upon the Dalai Lama's ideas in his own voice. Sometimes Cutler offers a commentary upon what he has heard. But more often he uses his experience as a psychiatrist and his familiarity with recent psychological and neurological literature to put the Dalai Lama's ideas in a scientific context. The Dalai Lama's teachings, of course, are ultimately drawn from Buddhism; but this is not a religious book. Instead, the Dalai Lama presents what he calls "secular ethics" which he believes will be of value to people regardless of their religious commitments. Cutler writes from the perspective of Western science with the aim of showing the wisdom to be found in the Dalai Lama's teachings.

The book examines a common dichotomy in thinking about happiness. Some people believe happiness is an individual matter and must be pursued by each person for him or herself independently of social issues. Other people think, roughly, that happiness is social and that it is necessary to look at political and related conditions, such as poverty, war, and prejudice, and alleviate them if people are to be happy. In a variety of ways, the Dalai Lama and Cutler attempt to break down this dichotomy. They try to show that happiness is not an either-or situation but that the individual and the social depend upon each other. Thus, in the first part of the book, titled "I, Us, and Them" they reject both the dichotomy between "I or we" and the further dichotomy between "Us or Them." in favor of an understanding "Me and We" and "Us and Them." Their view is predicated on an understanding of the common humanity everyone shares in which the differences among people, while important and to be treasured and respected, pale in comparison to the qualities shared by all human beings.

In the second part of the book, "Violence versus Dialogue", the Dalai Lama expounds his teaching by focusing on the essential goodness and universality of human nature. He tries to explain the roots of violence in human destructive emotions and in the failure to understand reality. Realizing the difficulty and apparent intractability of some situations, the Dalai Lama and Cutler discuss the importance of seeing questions from many sides and from trying to understand the views of other persons. The authors believe these teachings have relevance to matters such as marriages, friendships, and the workplace, as well as to dealings between nations. Here again, there is a recognition on the Dalai Lama's part of the realistic, situational nature of this approach. It is not offered as a metaphysical or religious teaching.

The final part of the book "Happiness in a Troubled World" draws on the teaching of Buddhism that suffering is endemic to life. Perfection is not to be expected. The Dalai Lama and Cutler describe the importance of positive emotions, including hope, optimism and resilience in finding the way to happiness. Great emphasis is thinking about three things, 1. the social character of human life; 2. the interconnection and interdependence of people in the modern world; and 3. the common nature and character of all persons, in finding a way to individual and societal peace. The ultimate source of the teaching is empathy and compassion for both oneself and for others. In a brief summary in the Introduction to the book, Cutler describes its "key argument" that "positive emotions in general - and the supreme `positive emotions' of compassion and empathy in particular - lie at the intersecting point between inner and outer happiness, with the capacity to simultaneously bring about personal happiness and provide a potential solution to many of the problems plaguing society today (at least as the first step in overcoming these societal problems)" (Introduction at xvi).

Of the three Dalai Lama - Cutler collaborations, this one is the most challenging. The book is difficult to read. It is written for the lay reader, certainly, but both the Dalai Lama and Cutler conduct their discussions at a learned, serious level. Regardless of one's religious commitments, there is much to be learned about redirecting one's thinking from reading this book. I found it auspicious to read this work at the beginning of a new year.

Robin Friedman

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