Friday, August 14, 2009

The Buddhist Approach to Happiness

by Marelisa

happinessThe message of the Buddha is traditionally known as the Four Noble Truths. The last of these four truths sets out eight steps to happiness, which are: skillful understanding, skillful thinking, skillful speech, skillful action, skillful livelihood, skillful effort, skillful mindfulness, and skillful concentration.

Although skillful mindfulness is one of the eight steps, it also underlies each of the other steps; in other words, bringing mindful awareness to every aspect of your daily life is a key component of happiness.

Below you will find tips and techniques offered by three different Buddhist monks to help you lead a more mindful, and ultimately a happier, life.

Happiness Tips From the Dalai Lama

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“I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.” — The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. The book “The Art of Happiness – A Handbook for Life” was written by psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler based on a series of interviews held with the Dalai Lama during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arizona and in his home in India, augmented by some of the Dalai Lama’s public talks. As is illustrated by the quote above, the Dalai Lama believes that the very purpose of our existence is to seek happiness. Here are three of the ways recommended by the Dalai Lama to cultivate happiness:

Happiness Can Be Achieved Through Training the Mind

The Dalai Lama’s approach to happiness relies heavily on learning, reasoning and training the mind. He explains that through inner discipline we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our outlook and our approach to living.

In Buddhism causality is accepted as natural law. Therefore, if there are certain types of events that you do not desire, then the best way of safeguarding against those events taking place is to make sure that the causal conditions that normally give rise to those events don’t arise. Similarly, if there’s an event that you would like to take place, then you should seek the causes and conditions that give rise to that event.

This same principle of causality can be applied to your mental states. If you desire happiness, you should identify those factors which lead to happiness and those factors which lead to suffering. Having done this, you can gradually eliminate those factors which lead to suffering from your life and cultivate those which lead to happiness. That is, one achieves happiness through learning which mental states to cultivate and which to eliminate, and then making a sustained effort to implement this knowledge.

The Dalai Lama explains that education—focused specifically on understanding and implementing the factors that lead to lasting happiness–is crucial because the more sophisticated your knowledge is about what truly leads to happiness and what doesn’t, the more effective you will be in achieving happiness. In addition, deliberately selecting and focusing on positive mental states which lead to happiness—such as love, compassion, patience, and generosity– and challenging negative mental states which lead to suffering—such as hatred, greed, and envy—requires a systematic training of the mind.

As Cutler explains in “The Art of Happiness”, the most distinguishing feature of the Dalai Lama´s method of training the mind involves the idea that positive states of mind can act as direct antidotes to negative states of mind.

Working on our mental outlook is a more effective means of achieving happiness than seeking it through external sources, such as wealth or position. There are countless examples of people whose level of happiness rose significantly immediately after winning the lottery or experiencing some other financial windfall. However, these examples show that after the initial elation the positive feelings taper off and the person goes right back to the same level of happiness they experienced before the sudden rise in wealth. This is evidence that happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.

The approach of focusing on your mental outlook also places the secret to happiness within your own hands, instead of leaving it at the mercy of external factors, most of which are not within your control.

The Dalai Lama summarizes his point as follows: “As long as there is a lack of the inner discipline that brings calmness of mind, no matter what external facilities or conditions you have, they will never give you the feeling of joy and happiness that you are seeking. On the other hand, if you possess this inner quality, a calmness of mind, a degree of stability within, then even if you lack various external facilities that you would normally consider necessary for happiness, it is still possible to live a happy and joyful life.”

Happiness Can Be Achieved By Shifting Perspective

The Dalai Lama goes on to explain that the ability to shift perspective is one of the most powerful and effective tools we have to help us cope with life’s problems. He adds that when problems arise our outlook often becomes very narrow: we focus all of our attention on worrying about the problem and we often feel that we’re the only ones facing this difficulty. When this happens, shifting perspective—whether by looking for opportunities which could arise from the situation, taking a wider perspective, or thinking of how things could be worse—can make the problem seem smaller and more manageable.

Difficult situations are often opportunities for growth. Cutler—the psychiatrist interviewing the Dalai Lama–interjects that he worked at a facility in which he had a number of run-ins with the facility’s administrator. They were constantly arguing over the fact that Cutler felt that the administrator was compromising patient care in favor of financial considerations. These run-ins were instrumental in Cutler’s decision to quit working at that facility. Although at first this appeared to be a negative situation, it ultimately led to Cutler finding more satisfying work.

The Dalai Lama uses the approach of taking a wider perspective when dealing with the situation in Tibet. He explains that if he looked at the situation in Tibet from a narrow perspective, and focused only on that, then the situation looks almost hopeless. However, if he looks at it from a wider worldwide perspective, then he sees an international situation in which communist and totalitarian regimes are collapsing and even in China there’s a move toward democracy. So he doesn’t give up.

In addition, researchers have conducted a number of experiments demonstrating that one’s level of life satisfaction can be enhanced simply by shifting one’s perspective and contemplating how things could be worse. How we feel at any given moment has little to do with the conditions themselves, but is rather a function of how we perceive the situation and how satisfied we are with what we have.

When a situation is causing negative emotions spend some time seriously searching for a different perspective on the situation. A key component to happiness is adopting a flexible, malleable approach to life.

Compassion and Altruism Lead to Happiness

Compassion, the Dalai Lama explains, is a mental attitude based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and to overcome suffering, coupled with a desire for others to achieve this. It’s associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect toward the other. In fact, in developing compassion one should begin with the wish that oneself be happy and free of suffering, and then take that natural feeling toward oneself and extend it out to include and embrace others.

In generating compassion the Dalai Lama suggests that you think of someone who is actually suffering and allow your natural response to arise: a natural feeling of compassion toward that person. Now think of how strongly you wish for that person to be free from that suffering, and resolve that you will help that person to be relieved from their suffering.

The altruism that arises from compassion is a key component of happiness. Several studies have shown that helping others can induce a calmer mind and a feeling of happiness. In a survey by Allan Luks conducted with several thousand people who were regularly involved in volunteer activities that helped others, over 90 percent of those volunteers reported a kind of “high” associated with the activity, characterized by a feeling of warmth, more energy, and a kind of euphoria. Following the volunteer activity they also had a distinct feeling of calmness and enhanced self-worth.


Despite all the loss he has experienced, nearly every time you see the Dalai Lama he’s either laughing or smiling. If you ask him whether he’s happy he answers “Yes” without hesitation. He emphasizes that happiness is built on the foundation of a calm, stable mind. The tips explained above are three of the ways he recommends to achieve ultimate happiness.

Matthieu Ricard: Well-Being Is a Deep Sense of Serenity and Fulfillment

Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard was born in Paris. He’s the son of a renowned French philosopher and grew up surrounded by the great thinkers and personalities of the time. Author of the book “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill”, Ricard has devoted his life to trying to answer these two questions: “What is happiness?”, and “How can we all get some?” He’s concluded that we can train our minds in habits of happiness.

In his talk at, Ricard explains that instead of trying to define “happiness”, we should call it well-being. In addition, well-being is not just a mere pleasurable sensation; it’s a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment. It’s a state that pervades and underlies all other emotional states, that is, all the joys and sorrows that can come one’s way. Well-being is a state of being; it’s not just a fleeting emotion.

Ricard adds that very often in our quest for happiness we look outside. We think that if we could gather this and that–if we could have everything that we need to be happy–then we would be happy. However, our control over the outer world is limited, temporary, and often illusory. So what if one of the things we think we need in order to be happy is missing? Then it all collapses.

If we look inside instead of looking outside of ourselves, we realize that it’s the mind that translates the outer conditions into happiness or suffering. There are people who even under very difficult outer circumstances manage to keep their inner serenity, inner strength and inner freedom. So it all comes down to training the mind, and the best way to train the mind is through meditation.

Henepola Gunaratana: Our Happiness Is a Result of Our Actions

Henepola Gunaratana–a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk–explains in his book “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness” that the Buddha’s path is grounded in common sense and in careful observation of reality. The Buddha understood that if we looked carefully at our lives we would realize that the choices we make lead to either happiness or unhappiness. And once we understand this principle thoroughly, we will be able to make good choices, because we want to happy.

Gunaratana adds the following: “The basis of Buddhist morality is that acting in unskillful ways leads to unhappy results, and acting in skillful ways leads to happy results. This simple principle of cause and effect is an aspect of what Buddhists call kamma (or karma).”

Once we understand that everything we think, say, or do is a cause, which will inevitably lead to some effect, we will naturally want to think, say, and do things which will lead to positive results. At the same time, we will avoid having thoughts, saying things, and doing things that will lead to negative results. Taking this approach will allow us to focus our attention on making choices that will lead to a happier life.

The Buddha pointed to ten actions which are always unskillful because they inevitably lead to suffering for both the doer and the recipient:

  • Killing
  • Stealing
  • Sexual misconduct
  • Lying
  • Malicious words
  • Harsh language
  • Useless talk
  • Covetousness
  • Ill will
  • Wrong view of the nature of reality

In addition, any action that comes from a mind that is filled with greed, hatred, or delusion leads to suffering and is therefore unskillful or wrong.

In order to act wrongfully, you have to be lying to yourself about cause and effect. That is, you’re acting against the basic truth that actions have consequences. If you train yourself to be mindful of what you do, and ask yourself whether it’s likely to lead to positive or negative results, you’ll be heading in the right direction. You’ll be heading toward happiness.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Happiness is Being at Peace In the Present Moment

Vietnamese Thich Nhat Hanh is the first Buddhist monk I ever read and he still remains my favorite (yes, I have a favorite Buddhist monk). In his book, “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life” he explains that we can breathe, eat, walk and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available. He offers a variety of simple, very accessible techniques in his book in order to help us remember this.

He advices to hang up a reminder in your room so that the first thing you do as soon as you wake up each morning is smile. This can be a painting, a flower, a leaf, some inspiring words, or anything else. Smiling will help you to approach the day with gentleness and understanding. He adds that a friend once wrote the following short poem:

“I have lost my smile,

but don’t worry,

the dandelion has it.”

Even if you’ve momentarily lost your smile, as long as you realize that a dandelion is keeping it for you, the situation is not so bad.

Of course,there’s also the breathing exercise that Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for: breathe in while reciting: “Breathing in I calm my body”, then breathe out while saying “Breathing out I smile.” Do this three times. And that’s it, the secret to peace and happiness: breathing and smiling. After all, both peace and happiness already reside inside of you.

“Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment

I know this is a wonderful moment.”

–Thich Nhat Hanh