The Book of Joy: A Lifetime Prescription for Jubilance?

So, a Buddist, a Christian and a Jew enter a bar…….the punchline results in “Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World“. This is a very important book that offers uncommon wisdom in an increasingly wisdom-challenged world, no joke.  The yawn-inducing title may be the only unwise part of the entire book.  Released in 2016, this is book is far more than a “Dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu”.  It is more of a lifetime reference book that will be speaking to you throughout your life, cheerleading you through life’s conundrums and praising you during those brief yet valuable moments of joy.   The closest you’ll come to a glib recap of this book is: “Two BFFs saying goodbye through celebration.”  And in the same year as Donald Trump’s administration began wreaking havoc with truth in the US, North Korea threatening global annihilation and the UK absurdly pushing a self-destructive Brexit upon the EU, this book couldn’t be more timely.

The Book of Joy is a document that shares wisdom of two Nobel Prize winning extraordinary men who have experienced tremendous suffering yet are incredibly joyous. Its main thesis is that we all experience suffering in their lives to varying degrees but our response that will have the greatest impact on our health and mental well being— Viktor Frankl once wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Like Frankl, who survived concentration camps, the two authors have experienced their own high-profile suffering.   The Dalai Lama has been living as a guest of the Indian government after being exiled from Tibet since 1959 by Chinese Communists.  Desmond Tutu’s life covers the arc from apartheid to the reconciliation of black and white South Africa and all of the turmoil in between.

In their book, the terminally-ill Tutu finds himself visiting his long-time friend for the last time.  They each knew that this was to be their final spiritual frolic together. The book is actually a memorialization of the week-long conversation held between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India, April 2015.  During the week, they discussed issues including: what is the true nature of joy, to how to find it in today’s world, to how can one be joyous in the midst of such world chaos as we have today, and everything else in-between. The result of this moderated discussion are some key prescriptions for a joyful life:  Stay humble, help others, practice gratitude and forgiveness. “The Book of Joy offers beautiful insight into the friendship the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu share and the incredible depth of experience they can impart about finding peace in the hardest circumstances life gives.

Prior to writing this book, The Dalai Lama heard from Western psychologists that many of their patients deal with self hatred. This was a surprise to him but is not a surprise to many of us living in the United States. Our modern culture often makes self compassion very difficult. This was one of the prompts for The Dalai Lama to write this book. He wanted to share that, “the ultimate source of happiness is within us. Not money, not power, not status. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside.”   He adds:  “The suffering from a natural disaster we cannot control, but the suffering from our daily disasters we can. We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people.” He also reminds us of the adage, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

For example. When the Dalai Lama is asked how he could be so joyful after being exiled from his home land of Tibet so long ago, which is still under Chinese occupation today, he answers “wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.” Or when the Archbishop describes his own struggles with the Apartheid, or his abusive alcoholic father, or his ongoing battle with prostate cancer—he manages to approach each day filled with joy, going so far as to say these struggles bind us together. He even calls the person who struggles a “masterpiece in the making.”

First things first. What the hell is joy?  You’d likely be surprised to find that it’s not happiness.  The latter is the exhilaration comes from puppies, surprise parties, a victory or a fawning compliment. In comparison, joy is steadfast inner calm that allows a person to maintain their equilibrium through anything. “Joy subsumes happiness,” the authors tell us. Joy, in its greatest sense, is the investigation and experience of those things that make life “satisfying.”

How can we live joyfully (and happily)? The two holy men offer a solid and thoughtful foundation upon which you can build a truly joyful life.  (spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol, although it doesn’t expressly prohibit it either).   In The Book of Joy the authors outline two main approaches. One that answers the mind and one that soothes the heart. The authors outline eight pillars of joy that will help the readers deal with different sources of discontent, from within. The misery lies in the external world. With these principles the authors give you the tools you need to build a world within that is not a slave to external triggers. They reference Eight Pillars Of Joy (four qualities of the mind and four qualities of the heart ): Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Compassion and Generosity.   Here are some summaries of their discussion about these essential Pillars:


“For every event in life,” says the Dalai Lama, “there are many different angles.” There is, perhaps, no greater route to joy than taking a “God’s-eye perspective,” as Archbishop Tutu says. It allows for the birth of empathy—the trait that creates joy not only in the one, but in the many. Empathy opens the door to togetherness, and keeps us from building walls around our individual selves—walls that keep out so many potential friends and allies. Realizing and accepting the validity of different perspectives turns “I” in to “we”. The anger and frustration that comes of living a life of “I,” makes sustained joy nearly impossible.  Opening up to the lives and perspectives of others, and being willing to experience their suffering and hardships, reminds us that we, too, are not alone in our own difficulties. By maintaining perspective and allowing ourselves to see the world in a larger way, we open up the door for joy to come into our lives.  In short, they counsel you to “get out of yourself” and “get into others’ shoes”.


The Dalai Lama speaks of a Tibetan prayer—“Whenever I see someone, may I never feel superior.”  There’s no problem with viewing yourself as special; both authors consider everyone as special.  BUT, considering yourself greater than your peers only serves to rob you of happiness. It separates you, makes you feel as if you must act a certain way, forces you to strive ever harder to maintain this air of superiority. Both the Dali Lama and Archbishop Tutu feel the same; they want to be able to truly appreciate the people around them as equals.

When we foster humility within ourselves, we find it easier to be open to the opinions of others, and to realize our own limitations. Without being open in this way, learning and growth stop—both of which are components of a happy life. Many people confuse humility with timidity, but these two qualities are very different. While timidity is rooted in fear, humility merely means remembering that others are as special, valuable and beautifully made as you are.


This was a surprisingly one.  According to Abrams, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu “seemed to be as much a comedy duo as two venerable spiritual leaders”. Their conversation is frequently punctuated by laughter and bad jokes.  Interestingly, it is their humility which paves the way for  humor. Both men have the special ability to laugh, not only at life’s troubles, but at themselves and their very human foibles. They don’t take themselves so seriously that they cannot do this.

Humor that does not mock or belittle brings us closer together, and can diffuse tense situations. Humor shows us our shared ridiculousness—according to Archbishop Tutu, “we then get to see our common humanity in many ways.” Like humility and perspective, humor helps us coexist peacefully with others. Not only this, but Abrams points out a number of studies on humor which show that laughter boosts the immune system, relaxes the body, and protects the heart by lowering stress hormones which cause destructive inflammation.


As the Dali Lama says, “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied?” Acceptance is “the ability to accept our life in all its pain, imperfection, and beauty,” according to Abrams.  It is not resignation or defeat. Instead, it is accepting that we must necessarily pass through the storm.  Sure, you’ll get wet, but then you’ll dry off and continue your journey.  It is facing suffering and asking the question, “How can we use this as something positive?”  Acceptance allows us to engage life on its own terms rather than wishing, in vain, that things were different. It enables us to change and adapt, rather than becoming mired in denial, despair, and anxiety.

One of the central practices of Buddhism is aimed at seeing life accurately, at cutting through our webs of presuppositions, expectations, and distortions. When we accept reality, it is believed that we are better able to see it accurately, and to respond to it in appropriate ways. And if things don’t go well for us? We accept that, too, and move on with our lives.


As important as it is to be in the present, the authors also urge us to change the past through forgiveness. Holding on to grievances is our way of wishing the past could be different. When he hang on to those negative emotions, that anger and grief and the desire for vengeance, we only hurt ourselves. And if we use those emotions to strike back and cause harm, we only invite a cycle of retribution.

Forgiveness does not mean that we forget. “Not reacting with negativity, or giving in to the negative emotions, does not mean that you do not respond to the acts or that you allow yourself to be harmed again,” says the Dalai Lama. Justice should still be sought, and the perpetrator, punished. Justice can be served without anger, without hatred, and once it is served, we must let go. Until we forgive a person that has wronged us, we allow that person to hold power over us—they effectively control our emotions. Forgiveness allows past hurts to recede into the distance, where they stop becoming an impediment to a joyful life.


Gratitude is fundamental to joy. It, quite literally, allows us to generate our own happiness. “Gratitude,” writes Abrams, “is 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.” It allows us to shift our focus from what we lack to what we have. If acceptance is not fighting reality, then gratitude means embracing it, counting blessings rather than burdens.

Many of us have a naturally negative bias—after all, being able to point out what is wrong or dangerous is advantageous to survival. But we need to be conscious of this and diligently work to preserve gratitude, even in the face of danger (or current Presidents). Our time on Earth is limited. Why waste it by miring ourselves in negativity? Gratitude also connects us to others. When we are truly grateful, we remember all of those who help make our happiness possible, who bring goodness into our lives. We, then, are able to recognize those people, and enjoy them and their differences, rather than finding those differences to be threatening.


A Buddhist expression succinctly addresses compassion: “What is that one thing, which when you possess, you have all other virtues? It is compassion.” Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we see others suffer, and wish to see that suffering relieved. It is the bridge between empathy and kindness. A large part of being compassionate is realizing our shared humanity. We are social beings, and depend upon one another. When we are compassionate toward others, and they, toward us, the world is a better place. The Dalai Lama nails it with this: “When we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness.”

Compassion should be extended to the self, as well. Contemporary culture measures us, evaluates and judges us based on our achievements. Self-loathing often results when we fail to live up to these expectations. But we must learn to be compassionate toward ourselves, and to recognize our own humanity and needs. In sum: be good to yourself and you’ll be able to be good to others.


Giving to others does not truly subtract from ourselves, but adds to us. Abrams points to research that confirms that “money can buy happiness, if we spend it on other people.” People who give experience greater long-term life satisfaction, whether that giving is large or small. There’s a reason why nearly every major religion embraces charity, and why our bodies respond positively to the virtue of generosity. We are complimentary beings in a competitive world. We’re not meant to be so constantly set in opposition to one another. And so when we give to one another and engage others in a spirit of generosity, we thrive. Who are the figures whose names ring out across history, the authors remind us?  Mostly, they’re the names of people who were the most generous, the most caring and compassionate.

The book also addresses some of the negative emotions which complicate our lives.  For example, Anger and Hate have been used to manipulate the hosts and harm the rest……even as recently as by our own President.  Even though our world is much better materially today than it was a hundred years ago, these negativists claim that moral and spiritual erosion has robbed us of joy and happiness.   So how do we deal with the attacks, name-calling, intimidation and other manifestations of the anger and hate being spewed by our (current) leadership and on the Internet?

Abrams presents research by by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky that shows only 50% of our happiness is determine by set factors like our genes or temperament. The other half is determined by our attitudes and actions, which we can control. According to Lyubomirsky,the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on our happiness are:

Our ability to reframe the situation more positively,
Our ability to experience gratitude, and
Our choice to be kind and generous.

According to The Dalai Lama, it’s important to keep a more holistic view. The news presents the aberrations in our society, not the things that are fantastic about the world. For example, there are millions of children who are loved by their parents everyday, school teachers who are kind and caring, people in hospitals who receive immense caring, and many other kind gestures that go unnoticed by our media. When we remember all the good things happening around the world, it helps keep us from getting discouraged.  “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassion concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness. By simply shifting my focus to another person, which is what compassion does, my own pain was much less intense. This is how compassion works even at the physical level,” he adds.

This excessive self-focus is also bad for your health. Too much fear and distrust, too much focus on yourself, leads to stress and high blood pressure. One study by Johannes Zimmerman found that people who more often use first-person singular words – I and me – are more likely to be depressed than people who more often use first-person plural – we and us. Self-Involvement has even been found to be a better predictor of death than smoking, high cholesterol levels, or high blood pressure

The authors conclude that the best way to deal with our current situation is openheartedness; it is the antidote to loneliness.  Joy comes from togetherness, from realizing that we are all a part of the human community. No one can be happy in isolation, much less find their joy. Joy comes from participating in the human story in a positive way, becoming aware of reality, having compassion for others, and acting on that compassion through generosity.

What is so beautiful about this particular text is that it really is for everyone. Think about it–the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu is Christian, and the narrator, Douglas Abrams, is a Jew.  These three characters of a common bar joke combine to create a universal book that blends science, tradition, and opinion.  And by putting all of this in a book, these two Nobel Peace Prize winners,whose lives were and are too short, will be able to share their wisdom with us for lifetimes.

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