What brings us happiness?
According to psychologist Steven Pinker, people are most happy when they are: healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, loved.
Personally, if I use this checklist or just my daily feeling of apprecaition for life, I am a very happy person and can check off every attribute on this list (except for a brief hiatus in non-celibacy). I feel so lucky and privileged to have so many of these attributes and since I have so few sufferings, it has made me more attuned to the sufferings of others…
Somehow, being a farang with limited Thai, many of the Thai women I have become close with have opened up to me intimately. They have exposed their hearts, expressed their sufferings and I have listened, to the best of my understanding, with empathy.
I see the perceived sufferings of these women and feel pretty helpless to help them. The women seem to feel pretty hopeless themselves yet they keep smiling through their pain, continue working and giving and opening up to their token farang friend, jokingly dreaming of moving to America.
This reminds me that of all the flaws Americans see within their own society, the United States still remains a beacon of opportunity and hope for people who feel stuck in their home country’s predicaments. One aspect that astounds me is that in a Buddhist country these women do not seem to take advantage of, what now modern psychology is supporting to be, the benefits of meditation.
I am currently reading “The Book of Joy” an interview with two of the most influential spiritual leaders of our time: the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu. These two men are amazing in their capacity for compassion and dedication to help people in need. Both have been through great sufferings – as the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has lived in exile from his home for five decades and is continually lambasted by the Chinese government who are even trying to control his reincarnation. Archbishop Tutu was a leader of the apartheid resistance in South Africa, who put his life at constant risk to fight in a vicious racial war and continues to work to establish peace in his war-torn country.
In most spiritual practices, including Christianity and Buddhism, there is an acknowledgement that all is not right with the world as it is. Buddhism calls it a constant suffering; Christianity speaks to the evils that entice us daily. Henry James defined “the animating essence of religion [to be] the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order.”
Many people who are suffering have time and again sought out spirituality as means to find meaning and relieve some of the daily sufferings of life. With or without spiritual practice, it seems to be a common theme of humanity to at least seek happiness, to find a meaning and an order to the chaos of what life throws at us, most of it beyond our control.
What I’ve noticed is that the men I’ve dated, the friends and mentors who I’ve greatly respected, have all gone through some type of suffering and I believe have become better and stronger people because of that suffering. Surviving through tragedies is a test of our characters, our inner essences and can teach us valuable life lessons about what we are capable of controlling.
Which always begs the question for me: how does one become a better person when one does not have a lot of strife in their life? How does one raise children and allow them the suffering that will make them better human beings while still protecting them and giving them everything they need? In other words, how do we create a generation of strong, compassionate people who aren’t spoiled and have little meaning in their lives because they have never suffered?
The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop suggest 8 pillars to Joy (the first four of the mind and the second four of the heart). The attributes embody helping others as a means of bringing joy into our own lives. They believe that if we can embody these eight essences, than we can live a joyful life:
- Perspective – the ability to re-frame one’s mindset, to see the wider perspective beyond our limited self-interest
One profound example of this idea, is the Dalai Lama’s own perspective on his forced exile from his home in 1959: “There are different aspects to any event. For example, we lost our country and became refugees, but that same experience gave us new opportunities to see more things… So personally, I prefer the last five decades of refugee life. It’s been more useful, more opportunity to learn, to experience life… Therefore, if you look from one angle, you feel, oh how bad, so sad. But if you look from another angle at that same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities.”
- Humility – just one human being talking to other human beings, the same human being with the same potential for constructive emotions and destructive emotions
Even His Holiness just considers himself another person. As a young boy, nervous at some formal teachings, the Dalai Lama would forget this thinking, believing he was special and “that kind of thinking would make me feel isolated. It is this sense of separateness that isolates us from people. In fact, this arrogant way of thinking creates loneliness and then anxiety…if you remain humble, then there is the possibility to keep learning.”
- Humor – it’s about bringing people onto common ground, not to belittle but to uplift, allowing us to recognize and laugh about our shared humanity, about our shared vulnerabilities, out shared frailties
Archbishop Tutu was a speaker at many funerals that turned into political rallies during the anti-apartheid movement, an explosive situation after discriminatory massacres and genocides, yet the Archbishop was able to defuse very, very tense situations. He said his “weaponry, if you can call it that, was almost always to use humor, and especially self-denigrating humor, where you are laughing at yourself” telling jokes to flip the angry, frustrated and sorrowful morale.
- Acceptance – accept our life in all its pain, imperfection and beauty; when we accept what is happening now, we can be curious about what might happen next
Acceptance means not fighting reality. The Archbishop explains further: “We are meant to live in joy. This does not mean that life will be easy or painless. It means that we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm we must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.”
- Forgiveness – when we choose to forgive, we break the cycle and we can heal, renewing or releasing the relationship
The Dalai Lama makes the important distinction between forgiveness and simply allowing others’ wrongdoing; the power of forgiveness lies in “not losing sight of the humanity of the person (actor) while responding to the wrong (action) with clarity and firmness.” The Archbishop makes a point that “without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailer. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.”
- Gratitude – the recognition of all that holds us in the web of life and all that has made it possible to have the life that we have and the moment that we are experiencing right now
The book shares a strong story of a man, sentenced to death row for a crime he did not commit, spending 30 years in solitary confinement, only allowed to leave his cell for only 1 hour per day. Throughout serving the sentence, he was a source of strength for the other inmates as well as the prison guards who all came to him for emotional counseling. He remained joyful throughout his sentence and of course upon his release, maintaining a strong sense of appreciation for life: “when you are blessed to see another day that should automatically give you joy.”
- Compassion – a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved
Both spiritual leaders agreed that “we are most joyful when we focus on others, not on ourselves and when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced.” First, we need to work on showing self-compassion: “accept that there are parts of our personality that we may not be satisfied with, but we do not berate ourselves as we try to address them. When we go through a difficult time, we are caring and kind to ourselves, as we would be to a friend or relative. When we feel inadequate in some way, we remind ourselves that all people have these feelings or limitations. When things are hard, we recognize that all people go through similar challenges. And finally when we are feeling down, we try to understand this feeling this curiosity and acceptance rather than rejection and self-judgement.”
- Generosity – becoming an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that ripples out to all of those around us
“When we practice a generosity of spirit, we are in many ways practicing all the other pillars of joy. In generosity, there is a wider perspective, in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at another time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is a forgiveness of others and a release of what might otherwise have been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is “wise selfish,” a genserosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves.”
As the Dalai Lama puts it, ‘In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.’”