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The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by Dalai Lama

Good book on the human psyche that looks into our emotions and how we think and behave towards other humans. Made me examine myself a little bit on how I was acting as a human and what I could do better. Emphasizing with other humans is important.


The Dalai Lama starts off all of his speeches with the words, “We [humans] are all the same.”

Wonderful studies, controlling for your blood chemistry and how old you are and your gender and whether you jog and whether you smoke and so on, show that your chances of dying over the next year are cut in half by joining one group. Cut in a quarter by joining two groups,” reported Putnam

The ultimate purpose of my discussion with the Dalai Lama was to discover an approach to finding happiness within the wider context of living in modern society.

“Research shows that when people are made to feel too similar to others, their moods quickly sour and they try to distance and distinguish themselves in a variety of ways.”

We cherish our differences, our specialness. It is this feature of human psychology that Gilbert laments in the closing passages of his book, as our greatest untapped and unused strategy to lead us to greater happiness. Throughout our lives we continuously make choices and decisions, based on what we believe will make us happy. The problem is that, for a variety of solid reasons, our underlying assumptions and beliefs about what will make us happy are often simply incorrect.

Pg 45-47 Genocide in Rwanda

The brain really likes to categorize everything it can into groups – categorizing objects, concepts, and people. Why? We live in a very complex world, and the brain’s ability to process information is limited. Categorization is one of the brain’s favorite strategies to help simplify the torrential flood of sensory information that we’re inundated with every moment.

The most important type of categorization in our daily life is the way that we categorize people: social categorization. This involves identifying that person as belonging to a particular racial, ethnic, gender, or other type of group, and then classifying the individual as belonging to Us or Them.​

Stereotypes are beliefs we have about the traits or attributes that are typical of particular groups. Once the brain assigns a person to a particular social category, stereotypes about that category are evoked. So, instead of trying to assess the unique characteristics and attributes of every individual we meet, we quickly determine to which category this person belongs, then rely on stereotypes to tell us something about him or her. Stereotypes are an example of heuristics, mental shortcuts that can quickly give us information about how to behave.

As the brain evolved, the human being’s natural and innate responses, shaped by evolutionary forces, were hardwired into neural circuits.

There has been a growing body of scientific evidence identifying the amygdala as the primary biological culprit responsible for prejudice and hatred, which ultimately lead to so many of the conflicts going on in the world today. Amygdala activity represents perception of a potential threat and is involved in the biased or prejudiced response in the context of social evaluation, reacting as if one is prepared for fear in particular, or hostility against what it perceives to be out-groups. This may have been appropriate or helpful for our prehistoric ancestors, but it is slow to unlearn, and today the amygdala can produce false alarms.

Not only are these biased reactions automatic and spontaneous, but they can also be totally unconscious. We may harbor innate biases against another group yet at the same time believe that we are completely bias-free and unprejudiced. We like to think of ourselves as fair and unbiased, and yet we have been conditioned by the society around, sometimes without even being aware of it.

Pg 101 The Bosnian War

The Dalai Lama doesn’t isolate blame toward one individual or one group for atrocities like September 11. He adopts a wider view and looks for other causes. To him, modern technology combined with human intelligence and guided by negative emotions are why such unthinkable disasters happen.

Although the Dalai Lama’s view of human nature was profoundly optimistic, it was not a blind optimism, and so like always, tempering his views with common sense and reason, he concluded, “Of course, the basic goodness of human beings doesn’t rule out that there will be these destructive acts like we saw on 9/11. We can’t expect that every human being will live in accordance with principles reflecting basic human nature. After all, all our spiritual teachers failed to turn the entirety of humanity into something good. The Buddha failed. Jesus Christ failed. But then to go on to say that since all these great masters in the past failed, we will fail too, so well then, why bother? That approach is also foolish. We should do what we can.”

According to researchers, during the age of hunter-gatherer societies, 30 percent of the male population died by violent means, at the hands of others. What was the percentage during the bloody twentieth century, even with the wars, the genocides, the constant warfare? Less than 1 percent!

An extensive study of more than eleven thousand Americans conducted by professor of sociology Abbot Ferris at Emory University confirmed what we might intuitively guess: The perception of our world, and by extension human nature, as either good or evil can directly affect our levels of happiness. Ferris found that those who tended to perceive more evil in the world were significantly less happy than those who saw the world, and human beings, as essentially good.

From a practical point of view, it is still in our best interest to embrace a more positive view of human nature. After all, we humans have a tendency to make real what we choose to believe, somewhat in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, since we are talking about human problems, these conflicts and violence are created by human beings. So, the root of these problems is in human emotions and ways of thinking, the afflictive emotions – anger, hatred, greed, and ignorance. And there are distortions of thinking that go along with these afflictive emotions. So, that is one level, the inner factors. This relates to one’s inner motivation, and in this case the motivation of these terrorists may be hatred. Gut then on another level there may be wider cultural factors, such as the values that are promoted in a particular society. In this case, for example, I think religious belief is also involved. So that is another level…”

Researchers have recently discovered how hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), which are released when we feel fear can cause stored memories to become much more vivid, much stronger, and more tenacious memories than nonemotional memories. Of course, this makes sense because fear functions to alert us to threats or dangers, and it is adaptive to store away strong memories of things that are a threat to one’s existence. But when the widespread fears engendered by war, terrorism, atrocities, and even genocide become stored in the collective memory of entire populations, they also become stronger and more tenacious – which is why it is so easy for leaders to manipulate the public by evoking these historical memories, why Osama bin Laden constantly refers to “crusaders,” why Slobnodan Milosevic went to the site of the Battle of Kosovo Polje to stir up ethnic fears and hatred.

To [the Dalai Lama], what happened on September 11 was to a large extent a consequence of a particular individual and his group’s actions and their motivation, their resentment and hatred. So it does not represent a clash of civilizations!”

Aside from hatred and violence, I think fear is perhaps the greatest destroyer of human happiness.

Wars are based more on fear than anger

Humans have a tremendous capacity to adapt, a process called habituation, the same process in the brain that is responsible for the fact that you do not “hear” the ticking of the clock that seemed so loud when you first got it, or the noise of traffic outside your window that seemed so loud when you first moved to your apartment. In the same way, our level of fear and anxiety will naturally tend to diminish as we get used to new conditions – even conditions where there may be some threat.

Dalai Lama, “So, if you reflect you’ll see that much of our suffering in life is caused not by external causes but by internal events such as the arising of disturbing emotions. And the best antidote to this inner disruption is enhancing our ability to handle these emotions, and learning how to cope with our environment, the negative situations and so on.”

Howard Cutler, “Just to clarify, when you refer to handling these emotions, are you referring to learning how to regulate our emotions, or more specifically, working on overcoming negative emotions such as anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, discouragement, and so on? In other words, are you referring to the process of training the mind?”

Dalai Lama, “Yes!”

As the Dalai Lama suggests, the more one’s goal is “linked to their sense of meaning or higher purpose,” the easier it will be to draw strength from one’s goal, and increase one’s determination to overcome any obstacle in life.

Finding positive meaning may be the most powerful leverage point for cultivation positive emotions during times of crisis.

There is no question that having purpose and meaning is one of the surest sources of human happiness in general, in addition to its role in helping us maintain hope, sustaining a person through adversity, suffering, tragedy, and the darkest periods of life. As we have seen, religious faith can certainly provide a sense of meaning, but purpose and meaning can also be found in many ways besides religious faith. The Dalai Lama advises that when one is facing adversity or obstacles in the pursuit of one’s goals, one way of increasing hope and strength to carry on is to remind oneself of the value or greater benefit of your objective, reflecting on its worthiness, such as how it may contribute to the welfare or well-being of others.

With or without the infusion of religion, people can find positive meaning in daily life by re-framing adverse events in a positive light, infusing ordinary events with positive value, and pursuing and attaining realistic goals.

The Dalai Lama views hope as an essential factor in helping us sustain our efforts when we encounter obstacles and setbacks in our lives, helping us persist in finding solutions to life’s challenges, a view supported by many scientific studies.

The Dalai Lama added another ingredient to his recipe for coping with life’s adversities and finding happiness in our troubled world: Optimism. As he suggests, there is a close link between optimism and hope – the more optimistic one is, the more likely one will be able to maintain hope during troubled times.

But there is considerable evidence that the cultivation of positive emotions is one strategy that can contribute directly to personal happiness while at the same time create ways of thinking and acting that would tend to reduce many of the problems in today’s society.

Ultimately, when investigating the serious problems facing the world today, we can trace the source of all these social problems to the human heart and mind.

Howard Cutler, “So to review, yesterday we concluded that most of our societal problems in one way or another seem to be related to this inability to connect to others on a deep level, a basic human level that perceives others to be just a human being like oneself.

“So, in my personal dealings with people, for instance, whether the other person is a president or a big business person, or an ordinary householder, or even a beggar, or someone suffering from AIDS, the immediate connection with the individual is our fundamental humanity, our common humanity. This is the level on which I try to relate to the other person. That’s what enables me to feel deeply connected with the other person. This is the key.” - Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama has said that the key to overcoming many societal problems is to relate to others based more on your similarities than on what differentiates you.

Studies have shown that when we empathize, the [fundamental attribution error] disappears, and we interpret their behavior in the same way as we explain our own – attributing the causes of their behavior to conditions or circumstances, rather than their basic disposition or “the way they are” – once again, seeing them more like you see yourself.

It is a well-known psychological principle that people tend to like those similar to themselves.

We have made the case that compassion is the intersecting point between personal and societal happiness, contributing to both.

Western culture may still not automatically link the concept of compassion with personal happiness, but the findings of science are starting to change that.

Dalai Lama’s fundamental belief: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Compassion – A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

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