The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams 

To celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent five days in Dharamsala, India discussing the theme of joy with his friend. “Together they explored how we can transform joy from an ephemeral state into an enduring trait, from a fleeting feeling into a lasting way of being.”

What really comes through in this book is that these two have a fun and authentic rapport. The discussion was facilitated by their co-author Douglas Abrams and Thupten Jinpa, who translates for the Dalai Lama when needed.

A recurring theme is the idea of interdependence, also referred to by the Zulu word Ubuntu. “The Dalai Lama had often emphasized that we are born and die totally dependent on others, and that the independence that we think we experience in between is a myth.” The book also introduces the Buddhist concept of “mudita, which is often translated as ‘sympathetic joy’ and described as the antidote to envy… Mudita recognizes that life is not a zero-sum game, that there is not just one slice of cake in which someone else’s taking more means we get less. Mudita sees joy as limitless… Mudita is based on the recognition of our interdependence, or Ubuntu… If we have a strong sense of I and they, it is hard to practice mudita. We must develop the sense of we.”

“As our dialogue progressed, we converged on eight pillars of joy. Four were qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance. Four were qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.”

Perspective. “A healthy perspective really is the foundation of joy and happiness, because the way we see the world is the way we experience the world. Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself. Or, as the Buddha says in the Dhammapada, ‘With our mind we create our own world.’”

“For every event in life,’ the Dalai Lama said, there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.’ The Dalai Lama had discussed the importance of a wider perspective when he was telling us about how he was able to see the calamity of his losing his country as an opportunity. It was jaw-dropping to hear him ‘reframe more positively’ the last half century of exile. He had been able to see not only what he had lost but also what he had gained: wider contact and new relationships, less formality and more freedom to discover the world and learn from others. He had concluded, ‘So therefore, if you look from one angle, you feel, Oh, how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at the same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities.’”

Humility. “‘As I mentioned earlier I used to get nervous,’ the Dalai Lama continued. ‘When I was young and had to give some formal teachings, because I was not thinking that we are all the same, I would experience anxiety. I would forget that I’m just talking as a human being to fellow human beings. I would think of myself as something special, and that kind of thinking would make me feel isolated. It is this sense of separateness that isolates us from other people. In fact, this kind of arrogant way of thinking creates a sense of loneliness, and then anxiety.”

“The Dalai Lama was reminding us throughout the week not to get caught up in roles, and indeed arrogance is the confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity.”

“‘There is a Tibetan saying that wisdom is like rainwater—both gather in the low places. There is another saying that when the spring bloom comes , where does it start? Does it start on the hilltops or down in the valleys first? Growth begins in the low places. So similarly if you remain humble, then there is the possibility to keep learning. So I often tell people that although I’m eighty years old, I still consider myself a student.’”

Humor. “One of the most stunning aspects of the week was how much of it was spent laughing.”

Abrams asked Archbishop Tutu to explain how humor can bring people together. “‘Well, yes, if you are longing to bring people together, you’re not going to do so by being acerbic. You know, it’s so good to see the ridiculous in us all, really. I think we then get to see our common humanity in many ways. Ultimately, I think it’s about being able to laugh at yourself and being able not to take yourself so seriously. It’s not about the belittling humor that puts others down and yourself up. It’s about bringing people onto common ground.’”

Acceptance. “‘We are meant to live in joy,’ the Archbishop explained. ‘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. That acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.’”

“One of the key paradoxes in Buddhism is that we need goals to be inspired, to grow, and to develop, even to become enlightened, but at the same time we must not get overly fixated or attached to these aspirations. If the goal is noble, your commitment to the goal should not be contingent on your ability to attain it, and in pursuit of our goal, we must release our rigid assumptions about how we must achieve it. Peace and equanimity come from letting go of our attachment to the goal and the method. That is the essence of acceptance.”

“Sometimes, actually quite often, our efforts lead to an unexpected outcome that might even be better than what we originally had in mind.”

Forgiveness. “In The Book of Forgiving, the Archbishop and Mpho outline two cycles: the cycle of revenge and the cycle of forgiveness. When a hurt or harm happens, we can choose to hurt back or to heal. If we choose to retaliate, or pay back, the cycle of revenge and harm continues endlessly, but if we choose to forgive, we break the cycle and we can heal, renewing or releasing the relationship.”

“‘I would like to add,’ the Dalai Lama said, that there is an important distinction between forgiveness and simply allowing others’ wrongdoing… No, this is not the case. We must make an important distinction… The actor and action, or the person and what he has done. Where the wrong action is concerned, it may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop it. Toward the actor, or the person, however, you can choose not to develop anger and hatred. This is where the power of forgiveness lies—not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness.”

Gratitude. “The Dalai Lama’s ability to be grateful for the opportunities that exist even in exile was a profound shift in perspective, allowing him not only to accept the reality of his circumstances but also to see the opportunity in every experience. Acceptance means not fighting reality. Gratitude means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings, as the Archbishop has recommended, both as an antidote to envy and a recipe for appreciating our own lives.”

Compassion. “One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person. As the Dali Lama has described it, if we see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.”

“People tend to feel anxious and depressed because they expect themselves to have more, be more, achieve more. Even when people are successful and grab all the brass rings, they often feel like failures or frauds, just waiting to fall off the merry-go-round. Jinpa explains, ‘Lack of self-compassion manifests in a harsh and judgmental relationship with ourselves. Many people believe that unless they are critical and demanding, they will be failures, unworthy of recognition and undeserving of love.’”

Generosity. “When we practice 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 a desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is ‘wise selfish’, a generosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves. As the Dalai Lama put it, ‘In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.’”

“The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, ‘to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.’ … Joy is in fact quite contagious.

Dalai Lama XIV, Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. New York: Avery, 2016. Buy from

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Related Reading:

The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler (2009)

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu  (2015)

A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives by Thupten Jinpa (2016)