In Western society, happiness is widely regarded in the lens of activities that bring us immediate, temporary pleasure, such as the desire to acquire material possessions or physical/sexual gratification. Although these things are not inherently negative, viewing long-term happiness in a pleasure-driven perspective is not only a mischaracterization of happiness, but also detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. The Dalai Lama states that true happiness is cultivated by having a calm state of mind that is rooted in affection, gentleness, and compassion, something that, according to the Dalai Lama, is fundamentally human nature (The Art of Happiness, pg. 22). In order for an individual to fully utilize themselves towards the goal of enjoying a happy and fulfilled life, your state of mind is key (AH, pg. 21). Following pleasure-driven impulses can often lead to an unstable, harmful, and regressive perspective on life; under a pleasure-oriented disposition, you will never be able to achieve true happiness because the desires you crave are unstable and waning by nature.
We can see how an affectionate, calm, and wholesome state of mind has beneficial effects not only for our health and physical well-being, but for society as a whole. Conversely, we can see how feelings of frustration, fear, agitation, and anger can be destructive to our health and society (AH, pg. 39). The greater your ability to understand the beneficial effects, the greater your peace of mind, and the greater your ability to enjoy a long-term, happy life (AH, pg. 22).
This is a virtuous pursuit that I believe is a worthwhile goal for a good life, as it promotes time to reflect on our own sentience from a global perspective, and opens our minds to patience, humility, and wholesomeness. However, it’s important to recognize that this goal can be wishful thinking for some people, especially in Western society. In the United States, happiness is sold to us on a television set and on billboards in the form of advertisements; society tells us what will make us happy, and how much it’ll cost us. The idea that happiness and profit margins are one in the same has been a staple of Western culture for decades, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. The ability to shift perspective can be one of the most powerful and effective tools we have to help us cope with life’s daily problems, but some people do not have the time nor energy to change their perspective (AH pg. 144).
Suffering is part of our human existence. As the Dalai Lama puts it, the body is the very basis of suffering (The Art of Happiness, pg. 94). Throughout history, life has been characterized by sudden, unexpected, and sometimes violent change; society is very much the same today as it was centuries ago in that regard (AH, pg. 125). It’s important for us to reflect on how we deal with suffering, as it often affects how we cope with it when it arises. Unfortunately, many people have unhealthy coping mechanisms when it comes to these events, and for expected reasons — suffering often occurs at random, and is seemingly senseless in nature (AH, pg. 131). In these moments, we are focused on getting away from it as soon as possible.
This reaction reinforces the idea that suffering is something intrinsically negative and inescapable, and our relationship with the world and, by extension, society becomes characterized by fear, unhappiness, and animosity. Reflection is of utmost importance. Accepting that suffering is a part of your human experience, and acknowledging that nothing in life exists in a permanent condition, will make you more tolerant to the adversities in life (AH, pg. 108). When you are aware of your pain and suffering, it encourages you to develop your capacity for empathy, which will allow you to relate to other people’s feelings and suffering at a personal level. This enhances your capacity for compassion towards others as well (AH, pg.135). Recognizing that suffering is part of your existence, but being aware that how much you suffer depends on how you respond to a given situation, will lead to a more perspicuous, fulfilling life.
Happiness is found through love, affection, closeness, and compassion. The first step of seeking happiness, according to the Dalai Lama, is learning how negative emotions and behaviors are damaging to us, and how positive emotions are helpful; it is important to recognize how negative emotions (anger, hatred, and jealousy) are not only bad to one personally, but also harmful to society and the future of society as well (The Art of Happiness, pg. 30). Cultivating positive mental states, such as kindness and compassion, often leads to better psychological health and happiness (AH, pg. 32). Achieving genuine happiness requires bringing about an alteration in your outlook on life and satisfaction, which is not always an easy matter.
Not only do humans have the capability of being happy, but the Dalai Lama also believes that each human naturally has an altruistic quality within them (AH, pg. 36). Having a flexible approach to life and learning how to develop patience and tolerance toward these situations makes it much easier to maintain your composure in the most restless and tempestuous conditions, as it requires the ability to process problems from various levels: the individual level, the community level, and the international level (AH, pg. 117).
Emphasizing and relating the common ground we share with others, realizing that every phenomenon has a different aspect, results in a feeling of comradery with our fellow man and leads us to the ability to look at events from different perspectives. Using this framework, we can use certain experiences and tragedies to develop tranquility within the mind. By broadening our perspectives to other people’s pain and suffering, we open ourselves to discovering new and equally satisfying ways of connecting with others through the cultivation of intimacy, love, and compassion.
An examined life is a life when one opens themselves to examination of the world, society, and (especially) themself. Thinking critically about the world around you, whether that be through questioning authority or questioning life’s meaning itself, involves being highly cognizant of not only other people’s actions and reasonings, but of yours as well. This can be an extremely difficult task to accomplish, as this kind of examination can sometimes be extremely uncomfortable. Living an examined life is a call to constant self-evaluation and awareness of your immediate environment, challenges in life, society, and all aspects of life that affects an individual both positively or negatively.
The Dalai Lama has made it his goal to personally connect with each and every individual he encounters (The Art of Happiness, pg. 7). He not only encourages us to think critically about our actions and emotions, but he actively evaluates his own reasoning as well. It’s important to note, however, that the Dalai Lama never states that he knows the answer to true happiness, or that his methods are one hundred percent failsafe; he only offers the lessons and advice that has helped him personally achieve true happiness. He is not only able to recognize when certain dilemmas are extremely complicated, but even admits when he doesn’t have a definitive answer for these instances (AH, pg. 92).
That isn’t to say that I don’t have any quarrel with the Dalai Lama’s methods. Throughout the book, Cutler asks a wide variety of questions about Western culture and philosophy, ranging from our ideas of materialism and intimacy, to our sense of human nature (AH pg. 22, pg. 41, pg. 57). The Dalai Lama offers his viewpoints on these topics and his reasoning for his beliefs, but he doesn’t seem to question or assess why Western culture has these beliefs in the first place. This leads me to believe that, although the Dalai Lama encourages us to examine the underlying basis of our ideas, he doesn’t seem to critically analyze our reasonings for these ideas.
In conclusion, although I do find the investigation and evaluation of other people’s beliefs to be lackluster on the Dalai Lama’s part, I do believe that he fairly judges his own moral character and values. His ability to sympathize with a multitude of different situations shows that he is willing to listen and understand the disposition of others, despite his own beliefs and practices. I do believe that the Dalai Lama is leading an examined life, one focused on personal growth and the understanding of people as a whole.