“The purpose of our lives is to be happy. Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
– Dalai Lama
We all want happiness, but many of us waste a lot of time and money before we figure out how to get it. We’re all seeking something better in life, but we often end up chasing the wrong things. Happiness is much like success in that it eludes us like a rainbow if we chase after it. Happiness is a mindset. As Thích Nhất Hạnh puts it, “There is no way to happiness—happiness is the way.”
In 2014, I was fortunate to be able to attend a full-day, “Eight Verses of Mind Training” session with the Dalai Lama in Boston. It was just me and the Dalai Lama … and I guess there were two or three thousand other attendees. There was a heavy contingent of Vietnamese and Tibetan monks, and the rest were a bunch of yahoos like me who were along for the ride in the nosebleed seats of the Wang Theatre. In preparation for the class, I read through several of the Dalai Lama’s books, including The Art of Happiness, to get a sense of where he stands on the topic. Here are a few tidbits that stood out from the Dalai Lama’s books and training course on the subject of happiness:
From a Buddhist perspective, there are four factors of fulfillment that people seek in their quest to achieve happiness: (1) wealth; (2) worldly satisfaction; (3) spirituality; and (4) enlightenment. This list correlates nicely with Western studies that offer the following components of happiness: peace of mind, good health, financial freedom, worthy goals and ideals, self-knowledge, and a sense of self-fulfillment or self-actualization.
The different approaches to inner contentment can be broken down into two paths. One path is to strive to obtain everything that we want and desire, such as money, houses, cars, the perfect mate, and the perfect body. The problem with this approach is that there’ll eventually be something that we want but can’t have. An alternate path is to want what we already have. Care to take a wild guess which path the Dalai Lama suggests we pursue?
Yes, the Dalai Lama shockingly chooses Answer B: Want what we already have. However, he takes this to a deeper level than you might initially consider. The Dalai Lama reminds us that we already have everything we need to experience happiness and joy, regardless of external influences. Just like any skill, happiness is something we can deliberately cultivate by training our mind. We train our mind to be calm and at peace, with the realization that how we choose to interpret, feel, and respond to external events is our choice. In other words, Event + Response = Outcome. We may not be able to control the event, but we can control our response to it, and therefore change the outcome.
The greater the calmness of your mind, the greater your ability to enjoy a happy and peaceful life. A calm, disciplined mind doesn’t mean that you zone out in a cave in some apathetic, insensitive trance. To the contrary. The Dalai Lama suggests that peace of mind is rooted in affection and kindness with a high level of engagement, compassion, and feeling. External things will not bring you happiness if you lack a calm, disciplined mind. When you possess calmness of mind, then you have everything you need to experience happiness and joy.
The Dalai Lama also writes that happiness is highly contagious and spreads like a virus, which in this case is a good thing. If you want to build a better world, then it’s your duty to be happy and keep the virus spreading. If it seems like nobody else around you is happy, then “be the change”. After all, happiness is an inside job and, as Gandhi put it, “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … we need not wait to see what others do”.
So how should you respond when you come across people who are rude, aggressive, and unkind? In these cases, the Dalai Lama suggests that we should feel deep gratitude. Huh? Come again? Yes, gratitude. There aren’t that many people like this in the world, he explains, so when we do meet these unpleasant people, we should be grateful for the rare opportunity to practice patience and tolerance. I like that approach, and I find that it really does help to keep it in mind when I meet people who are in the “not so pleasant” category.
On the topics of meaning and purpose, the Dalai Lama says that each of us is seeking something better for our life, and none of us was born to cause trouble or harm others. In order for us to consider our lives to be meaningful, we must develop the basic human qualities of warmth, compassion, and kindness. Our basic nature is to be gentle and compassionate. When we pursue these positive human qualities, our lives will become more peaceful and happier.
The Dalai Lama wrapped things up with a reminder that our present experience—positive or negative—is a consequence of our past actions. If we change our actions today, then we will change the experiences that we will encounter in the future. What happens in the future depends on the activities that we pursue today. “The secret to our own happiness is in our own hands right now. We must not miss this opportunity.”