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The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama XIV
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's review
Sep 17, 2009

really liked it
Read in September, 2009

This book is an interesting collaboration between the spiritual leader of the world’s Tibetan Buddhists and an American psychiatrist. Of the two, I found the psychiatrist’s thoughts the more insightful -- or at least the most useful. But then, I’m a Westerner. The Dalai Lama’s musings sound a little bit like a collection of uplifting sayings, like Tibetan versions of “count your blessings”, “accentuate the positive” and the like. He deals in moral exhortation at the level of abstraction. And since human beings are best taught about rules for right living by telling stories, the Dalai Lama tends to sound a bit tired and trite after a while. He would have made a lousy televangelist, but he seems to be very effective in person, where his presence, warmth and personal virtues touch the listener more directly. There has to be a pretty good reason that, of all the world’s major religious leaders, he seems the most effective in reaching out to members of other faiths.

For me, the most memorable part of the Dalai Lama’s teachings centered on personal discipline. Just as you can discipline yourself by training your body to be, for example, a great marathon running machine, so too you can discipline your mind to focus on the central purpose of human existence: happiness. To direct that search for happiness properly, says the Dalai Lama, “The first step in seeking happiness is learning.” You learn to be aware of and to combat negative emotions – greed, anger, envy – and cultivate positive states of mind based on compassion, kindness and calmness.

Cutler acts as the interviewer in the book, leading the Dalai Lama in conversation. But, in addition, he supplements the material with evidence from Western psychological research as well as his personal story-telling. For me, actual evidence combined with good narrative makes for much more interesting reading than hearing the Dalai Lama say that we need to reduce bad thoughts and increase good thoughts. Seems sensible enough, but hard to put into practice.

Yet the authors do not completely ignore the “practice” that must follow the mastery of the theory. For example, here’s one passage on that topic: “’Will it bring me happiness?’ That simple question can be a powerful tool in helping us skillfully conduct all areas of our lives, not just in the decisions whether to indulge in drugs or that third piece of cream pie… With that perspective, it’s easier to make the right decisions because we are acting to give ourselves, something, not denying or withholding something from ourselves – an attitude of moving toward rather than moving away, an attitude of embracing life rather than rejecting it.”

The hand of Cutler in the book is most obvious when he cites research to buttress his arguments. For example: “Survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are often socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more living and forgiving that unhappy people.”

Here’s a passage that summarizes well the core message of The Art of Happiness: “So, how can we achieve inner contentment? There are two methods. One method is to obtain everything that we want and desire – all the money, houses and cars; the perfect mate; and the perfect body… The second and more reliable method is not to have what we want but rather to want and appreciate what we have.”

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message 1: by Laura (new)

Laura I went to a speech by one of the English-translators to the Dalai Lama, back in undergrad, and found him very interesting and effective. I can only imagine that the Dalai Lama would be more so!

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