Depression and stress have unfortunately become more common in the modern age. While there are more and more among us who are sad, depressed and stressed, there is a larger number amongst these people, who simply are unable to flip the switch from unhappiness to happiness.
The Book of Joy (2016) by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, perhaps the most famous spiritual teachers of our time, is a guide to seeking happiness and living a stress-free, depression-free life. Their teachings are inspirational and show the way to overcoming obstacles and cultivating happiness for oneself and for those around.
The Core Aspect of Life
Suffering and happiness are two sides of the same coin. Suffering is actually constructive and fruitful – a vital core aspect of life – to seek and enjoy happiness.
Giving birth is an extremely painful process. Yet, for the mother, the joy of holding her baby in her arms makes the suffering and pain worth it. Hence, one cannot find joy without some amount of pain and suffering.
Nelson Mandela suffered greatly in the 27 years he spent in prison. Living through the hardships of inmate life, these hardships were vital in helping him develop compassion and empathy in his later years. This compassion was the reason why he was able to strive hard to fight for the rights of these people, making him the first president of free South Africa.
Suffering, which makes one shift their perspective from self to others, and that is only experienced in a particular way, can lead to the path of happiness.
Once, the Dalai Lama was on his way to Bodh Gaya to deliver his teachings. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach. He needed medical attention, but the nearest hospital was two hours away. On his way, he saw an old man, very sick and nearing his death. Forgetting his own pain, he shifted his attention to the sick man.
According to the Buddhist mind-training practice, lojong, obsessing over oneself invariably leads to sadness and suffering.
Mental Immunity And The Choice Of Response
Mental immunity is quite similar to how the immunity of the body works. For example, a person with a healthy body has lower risks of catching the flu in the flu season, whereas, a person with poor health can fall sick with the slightest exposure. Resilience is crucial to building immunity and thus a healthy body.
Similarly, mental immunity, which is built over the years, is more resilient against emotional disturbances. While one is bound to feel the pain, one is better equipped to manage it and the chance to recover from such setbacks is far better.
How can one, then, build mental immunity?
Fear and frustration are facets of one’s mind. They are not part of reality. Understanding this fact, and choosing to not respond or let them take control is the first step to building mental immunity.
Once, when the Dalai Lama and actress Peggy Callahan had to take a 6-hour-long journey by road to the nearest airport because their flight got cancelled. Despite the frustrating circumstances, both of them didn’t let frustration get them. Instead, they chose to make their forced road-trip pleasant by sharing funny stories.
Often, circumstances get beyond one’s control. Desmond Tutu once found himself in the thick of a traffic jam as he was travelling to an important meeting. While in his earlier days, he would have gotten frustrated and probably succumbed to the frustration, his realization that traffic jams are simply out of one’s control, led to him accepting them. He understood that letting frustration take control, by yelling or even grinding his teeth in anger would only infuriate him more. He then began to view traffic jams as opportunities for praying.
One has to accept that certain situations are beyond one’s control. Mental immunity becomes stronger in such situations, where one practices patience.
Compassion Helps Overcome Frustration And Stress
Exercising patience in frustrating situations can be tough, and stress can overtake the mind.
In today’s times, expectations are sky-high, and at times, one tends to succumb to the pressures of unrealistic expectations and desires. When one inevitably fails to meet these high expectations, one experiences fear. Fear leads to anger and anger adds to the stress.
This cycle of fear, anger and stress of not meeting expectations (one’s own and other people’s) in life is painful and damaging as well. However, one can break the cycle with compassion and love.
Scientist Paul Ekman was a ‘rage-aholic’. His father’s aggression and his mother’s suicide led to him having random bouts of rage. All this changed after he met the Dalai Lama at a conference. The love that the Dalai Lama showed him through his teachings made his frustrations vanish.
Compassion connects people. Similarly, sadness connects people too. A study conducted by Joseph Forgas, the psychological researcher, showed that low levels of sadness could also have positive outcomes.
The sad participants in Forgas’ study had greater sensitivity to social norms and were more generous with better judgement than the happier ones. As part of the experiment, Forgas asked people how much money would they keep to themselves and how much would they give to others. The study revealed that the sad participants were willing to give more to others than the happy ones.
When the Dalai Lama’s foremost teacher passed away, he was wrought with grief and sadness. Instead of letting these feelings overtake him, he converted them into inspiration to fulfil the teacher’s wishes. He shares this experience with others, teaching them that the sadness one feels due to the loss of a loved one is inevitable. However, one can use these emotions to fulfil an ambition.
Envy And Loneliness Wreck Havoc
Considering the seriously low number of people we interact with on a daily basis, loneliness affects more people than we assume. Loneliness has been linked to a number of health issues.
One study, conducted at Columbia University found that people who used the 1st person pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ more were prone to more heart attacks. It is not as strange as it seems, considering that those who focus more on themselves tend to be more isolated from others. Such people are more prone to stress and increased blood pressure.
It is thus vital to be able to share life with others, trust them more, and find ways to be more openhearted. Similar to loneliness, envy can be damaging too. Humans are evolved to desire the things that others have.
In a famous experiment conducted by primatologist Franz de Waal on monkeys, he rewarded a monkey with a slice of grape for accepting a rock. The neighbour monkey was given a tasty grape for performing the same task. The second time around, the first monkey performed his task enthusiastically, with hopes that he too would receive a tasty grape. However, when the monkey was given another cucumber slice, the monkey protested the unfairness with rage by shaking the bars of its cage.
While speaking up against unfairness is reasonable, even a well-intentioned desire for fairness can cause unhappiness.
Valuing Life And Happiness
It is often seen that people with near-death experiences start understanding the value of life and appreciating life more. Making it through extremely tough and traumatic situations inevitable leads to happiness.
This is evident in the democratic elections held in the US in 1994, and the first one for South Africa held in the same year. Having just attained freedom, the South African people lined up to exercise their voting rights, whereas, in America, the turnout was below forty per cent. This was because, by 1994, most of the voting citizens hadn’t fought for their voting rights and thus couldn’t appreciate the right.
When the Dalai Lama fled as a refugee to India from Tibet, he was extremely saddened due to the Chinese destroying Tibetan monasteries, statues, and books in an attempt to wipe out the Tibetan language and culture.
However, the Dalai Lama channelled his sadness to save and ensure the preservation of whatever was left of the Tibetan culture.
One appreciates and has value for what one has only when they come very close to losing it all. Furthermore, accepting the inevitability of death and the reality of it also enables one to experience joy.
As a child Desmond Tutu was prone to illnesses, almost nearing death due to them. As a teenager, he contracted tuberculosis and saw other TB patients dying from it. Never expecting to survive, he was able to embrace the concept of mortality as he underwent numerous trials and tribulations with his health. Facing the most challenging, life-changing experiences, he grew as a person.
The 8 Pillars Of Joy
Understanding and managing ones mental immunity is one aspect of seeking happiness. The other aspect is learning to cultivate it. There are 8 pillars of joy help in looking at the positive side of things. Let us see how these work.
- Perspective: Having a positive perspective, and observing situations through a wider lens, can bring about the realization that nothing lasts forever. Even a moment of pain and tribulations will pass. Perspective involves focussing on the present and living in the moment.
While Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist was in the Auschwitz concentration camp; he noticed many people were able to survive by adopting a different perspective. One of the prisoners, sick and on the verge of death, clung to her belief that the camp would be liberated by Christmas. This perspective kept her alive. However, as Christmas came and went, with no liberation insight, she lost hope and passed away.
- Humility: In his early days, the Dalai Lama saw himself as being superior to others. This view would make him anxious every time he was asked to deliver spiritual teachings to an audience. His failure at practising humility led to isolation and loneliness, not joy. Over time, he learned to accept and view himself as any other person. His experiences became more relatable and his anxiety would dissipate.
The belief in the notion that one is better than others never brings true joy.
- Humour: Humour, especially in the face of adversity helps in relieving stress. After the Rwandan genocide, Desmond Tutu was invited to address two warring tribes. Addressing the crowd in a tense situation, he chose to tell them a fictional story of how big-nosed people in a village discriminated against small-nosed people.
While the silly story made the audience laugh, it also allowed them to see the futility and absurdity of prejudice.
- Acceptance: Life has is difficult moments. Accepting this simple fact allows one to experience joy, by understanding that one has no control in certain situations.
For example, if a person has strained relations with their neighbour, they can choose to fret and stress over the difficult ensuing interaction, or even choose to ignore them completely. However, neither of the options is a solution.
If the person accepts the situation, he will be able to see the situation more clearly and make efforts to improve it. Furthermore, this will also help him understand that he cannot do anything about how his neighbour feels about him. Such acceptance helps in breaking free from the stress and despair of the situation.
- Gratitude: Having gratitude not only involves being thankful for what one has but also understanding that one should not take things for granted. Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and handed a death-row sentence for a crime he did not commit. To make things worse, because he was black, he was placed in solitary confinement. Decades later, the court released him following a unanimous decision. However, instead of feeling rage at the discrimination, he chose to forgive those who discriminated against him.
Free from prison, he would run out whenever it rained and feel the drops of water falling on his face – an experience he was denied in prison. Without forgiveness, he would never have been able to experience the joy of life, or feel thankful for being able to live another day.
- Forgiveness: Hinton’s experience also focuses on the virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness helps one put behind feelings of anger and rage, helping one to reduce stress and feel joy.
During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the case where apartheid supporters tricked young adolescents was brought to light. One of the mother’s, who had seen her son’s body being dragged on public television, chose to forgive those responsible. She believed that imprisoning them wouldn’t bring her son back. Her ability to forgive, and not seek revenge against the people responsible, abled her to put her past behind and find peace.
- Compassionate Concern: According to evolutionary biologists, compassion is a core aspect of human self-interest. Reciprocal altruism or the feeling of joy one experiences by helping others releases endorphins in the body, creating a sense of euphoria, or a helper’s high. Thus, showing compassion physically fills the heart with joy.
This feeling is what one experiences even when they give gifts to others. Being compassionate to others results in an intense feeling of joy.
- Spending time on other’s happiness: The pillar of compassion leads to the next pillar. The founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, James Doty, donated $30 million of the fortune he earned as a medical technology entrepreneur, to charity. Soon after, he lost all his wealth due to a stock market crash.
When his advisors told him to withdraw his charitable donations, he refused. He saw that taking the money back wouldn’t bring him the happiness he felt by helping others and making others happy.
Seeking joy and happiness in a life full of suffering and stress is not easy. However, one has to accept that joy and suffering are two sides of the same coin. One cannot experience the joy in life without accepting pain and making efforts to move past it.
Compassion and acceptance lead to a positive change in perspective, and exercising patience in the face of stress is the way to cultivating happiness
People are reluctant, and get scared of the vulnerability that results in feelings such as humility, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion. However, these feelings are actually some of the most uplifting and healing feelings that one can experience.