Periodically, I will highlight the main points of books and articles that I have read and strongly endorse related to spirituality, self-growth, and recovery. The first of these is The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, co-authored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler, a psychiatrist. This book, initially written in 1998, is now in its tenth anniversary printing and on many lists as one of the best books about spirituality ever written.
For those unfamiliar with the Dalai Lama, he was born Tenzin Gyotso in 1935, and is thought to be reincarnated from the 13th Dalai Lama. He is considered the head of state and spiritual leader of Tibet. In 1959, he was forced to escape Tibet by a brutal Chinese invasion, and has been in exile ever since, living in India. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. He has authored more than 72 books.
This book is structured as a comparison of the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist understanding of mental health issues and human well-being with our current scientific understanding of the same issues in Western culture. What struck me was how deeply the Dalai Lama focuses on training our minds to find happiness and how closely associated that view is with cognitive therapy as we presently understand it.
The Dalai Lama believes that we can train ourselves to be happy, much as we can train for any other skills. He believes that “the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness.” He also believes that, with inner discipline, even profoundly unhappy people can undergo a transformation of attitude, outlook on life, and approach to life. He writes that happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.
The factors involved in this transformation of attitude begin with education. We must learn how negative emotions and behaviors are harmful to us, and how positive emotions are helpful to achieving happiness. “If you seek happiness, you should seek the causes that give rise to it, and if you don’t desire suffering, then ensure that the causes and conditions that give rise to it no longer arise.” After learning about positive and negative emotional states, our next task is to clearly identify different mental states and make a distinction, classifying them according to whether they lead to happiness or not. For example, hatred, jealousy, and anger are harmful. Kindness and compassion are definitely very positive. A genuine inner transformation occurs by systematically training our minds to deliberately select and focus on positive mental states and challenge negative ones. Developing self-discipline within one’s mind is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. This same training occurs in cognitive therapy, in which we challenge the negative thoughts that lead to negative emotional states and develop skills to transform our thinking from negative thoughts to positive ones.
“When our life becomes too complicated and we feel overwhelmed, it’s often useful just to stand back and remind ourselves of our overall purpose, our overall goal. When faced with a feeling of stagnation and confusion, it may be helpful to take an hour, an afternoon, or even several days to simply reflect on what it is that will truly bring us happiness, and then reset our priorities on the basis of that. This can put our life back in proper context, allow fresh perspective, and enable us to see which direction to take.”
The Dalai Lama spends a considerable amount of time discussing the strong association between happiness and the practice of compassion. Dr. Cutler goes on to report that researchers on human happiness identify compassionate service to others as one of the key characteristics shared by many of the world’s happiest people. “When we help others, the focus of our minds assumes a broader horizon within which we are able to see our own petty problems in a more realistic proportion. What previously appeared to be daunting and unbearable, which is what often makes our problems so overwhelming, tends to lose its intensity.” He goes on to claim that love, affection, closeness, and compassion bring happiness.
This is a book that I strongly recommend for those who suffer with unhappiness, depression, and anxiety. However, reading is only a first step towards transforming one’s life. One must ask oneself the following questions: How important is it for me to change? Am I ready to commit to a new way of thinking and behaving? Am I ready to take the actions necessary for change to occur? If you can answer these questions fully in the affirmative, you are clearly on the way to transforming your life and achieving happiness.
Nicholas Lessa is the Clinical Director of Chat2Recovery, an online substance abuse treatment program, and Inter-Care, a leading substance abuse treatment program in New York City. He has been in the field of substance abuse treatment for over 30 years. He is the lead author of two books, Wiley’s Concise Guide to Mental Health: Substance Use Disorders and Living with Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.