The Art of Happiness: A handbook for living

Summary of “The Art of Happiness”: Happiness is the purpose of all existence, so why not let ourselves be inspired by the reflections and practical advice of an unconditionally happy man, the Dalai Lama.

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, 1998, and 2009 (revised version) 296 pages

Note: This guest chronicle was written by Stef & Mag, from the blog Aventures de Notre Vie

Chronicle and Summary of “The Art of Happiness”:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama needs no introduction. A symbol of serenity, goodness, compassion, kindness, generosity, and love; a being endowed with an immeasurable openness of spirit, great intelligence, and also a great sense of humor.

For the majority of human beings, speaking in public represents their greatest fear, but the Dalai Lama can serenely drink a cup of tea before introducing himself and speaking calmly in front of 6000 people, with a smile on his face.

So what is his secret? Is it possible to compile some kind of handbook about his principles in life, his simple and clear solutions to solve our problems and live a life of happiness? This is what Howard Cutler (an American psychiatrist) was hoping when he interviewed the Dalai Lama and wrote this book.

Part 1: The Purpose of Life

Chapter 1: The Right to Happiness

The tone is set in the very first lines. For the Dalai Lama, “the real purpose of life is happiness; we are all looking for a better life”. He adds that this quest can succeed if we put our minds to it.

In the western world, happiness is still a fuzzy and elusive concept, a mysterious blessing that falls from the sky. Under these conditions, how is it possible to cultivate happiness through “exercising the mind”?

The Dalai Lama’s answer is somewhat confusing in its simplicity because for him everything begins with our ability to exercise our mind to isolate the factors that lead to happiness from those that lead to suffering. After which, little by little, we work to eliminate the factors of suffering and cultivate those that lead to happiness.

Hmm, western culture must be pretty deep-rooted in me, because I must admit that at this stage, I am perplexed by this method. After all, if it is that easy, why do so few people truly exude happiness?

Let’s dig a little deeper…

 Chapter 2: The Sources of Happiness

Our state of mind, more than external events, determines happiness; regardless of what happens to us (success or tragedy), sooner or later our psychological state will stabilize (in Psychology, it is known as a process of adaptation.) For example, the excitement and good mood that follow a salary increase fade after a certain amount of time).

Even if studies(1) postulate that happiness is determined by genetic makeup, psychologists generally agree in their estimation that we can work on the “mental factor” to increase our everyday happiness, but this depends largely on our attitude. The sensation of being happy or unhappy rarely depends on our condition in the absolute but on our perception of the situation, our ability to be satisfied with what we have.

  • The spirit of comparison

Our tendency to compare has a strong influence on us. Being satisfied with life often depends on the point of comparison we adopt.

The Dalai Lama explains that in Buddhism, fulfillment is based on four factors. These four constituent elements of the quest for individual happiness are wealth, material satisfaction, spirituality, and awakening.

He adds that from a materialistic point of view, good health, material comfort, financial ease, a circle of friends, and relationships of affection and trust are considered to be essential to enjoy life and to be happy.

But for him, the key to enjoying a happy and fulfilled life is the state of mind. As long as we lack the inner discipline which provides peace of mind regardless of material ease or the external situation, the rest will never bring you joy. On the other hand, if the material comfort that under normal circumstances you consider necessary for happiness is missing, but you have inner peace, a degree of stability, nothing will prevent you from living an entirely happy life.

  • Inner contentment

After a certain threshold, positive desires become unreasonable and a source of unrest. The positive or negative character of a desire or an act is not down to immediate satisfaction, but rather to its ultimate positive or negative consequences.

It is the image of the greedy person who, to satisfy his immediate desire, will delight in pastries and other sweets every day while ignoring the consequences to his cholesterol level and the weight gain… or the case of the thrifty person, who on the strength of saving a few pounds every week sees his bank account grow.

The excessive or negative character of a desire also sometimes depends on the society in which we live: peer pressure, jealousy, envy… The only antidote to this source of unrest is contentment; it becomes accessible either when we get everything that we desire or when we can appreciate what we have.

  • Happiness versus pleasure

Here the Dalai Lama shares his “tip” with us so that we do not confuse pleasure with happiness and to avoid succumbing to destructive pleasures (addiction to drugs or gambling, unbridled sexuality). It involves asking a question before each decision, asking THE question:

“Will this make me happy?”

In this way, the emphasis is no longer on what we deny ourselves, but on what we are looking for. We act to give something to ourselves, not to deprive or refuse ourselves.

Chapter 3: Training the Mind for Happiness

  • The path to happiness

The mind contains thousands of thoughts or different states of mind. There are very useful ones that must be used and maintained. Others are negative and we must try to absorb them. Learning how negative emotions and behavior are harmful to us and how positive emotions are beneficial is to take the first step on the road to happiness. Awareness of this process of learning and analysis strengthens our determination to change little by little.

  • Mental discipline

The approach to accessing happiness is therefore easy: positive mental states must be identified and cultivated and negative ones eliminated. Any questions? Yes. Once again, if the recipe is that simple, why are there so many unhappy people? Because change takes time and requires patience and perseverance; it is a genuine learning process.

Any activity, any practice is facilitated by constant and regular exercise that is liable to bring about change and transformation. By mobilizing our thoughts using new methods of reflection, we can change the way the brain works. The mind needs to be trained for happiness.
The more you know about education and knowledge about what leads to well-being and what causes suffering, the more you will be capable of achieving happiness.

Chapter 4: Reclaiming our innate state of happiness

  • Our fundamental nature

One of the Dalai Lama’s profound convictions is that everyone has the groundwork to be happy and to access the warmth and compassion that are sources of well-being. For some people (myself included sometimes even now), kindness and compassion remain buried and well-hidden…

  • Meditation on the purpose of life

In our decision making, let us remember that time passes quickly; we must check and ask ourselves whether we are making proper use of the time allotted to us. Every minute is precious; even if the future offers no guarantees our daily existence is filled with hope. It is on this basis of hope that we build our future. Let us think about what has genuine value, about what gives meaning to our lives, and rearrange our priorities accordingly.

Part 2: Human Warmth and Compassion

Chapter 5: A New Model for Intimacy

  • Expanding our definition of intimacy

The threat of being separated from others constitutes humanity’s deepest fear. Researchers have discovered(2) that individuals who have people around them, thereby receiving sympathy and affection, will be more likely to survive health problems and be less vulnerable to disease; intimacy promotes both physical and moral well-being. For the Dalai Lama, intimacy is one of the essential ingredients of happiness; it is based on a willingness to forge authentic links, to be open to others, to one’s family and friends, and strangers.

Chapter 6: Deepening Our Connection to Others

  • Establish a relationship of sympathy

There is no miracle recipe to effectively communicate with other people and reduce the risk of conflict; at most a guideline consists of approaching others with a genuine spirit of compassion.

For this, it is useful to put yourself in the other person’s place, temporarily setting aside your own point of view to adopt that of the other person.

Good ways to sympathize with people are to approach them by sharing the most basic common points, to understand and assess the environment in which the people we meet live, and to understand people’s pasts. An open mind and honesty are useful qualities.

  • Clarify the foundations of a relationship

When we try to understand relationship problems, the first step involves reflecting calmly on the fundamental nature of the relationship, on what it is based on. There are several types of relationships:

  • The relationship is based on power or success; the friendship lasts as long as the wealth or social position continues; otherwise, the friendship fades.
  • Authentic friendship which is based on a pillar of affection. It is based on genuine human emotion, a feeling of closeness that integrates the sense of sharing and communication.

If you are trying to build a truly rewarding relationship, the best way to achieve this is to work at discovering the profound nature of the other person and to establish a rapport with him or her at this level instead of only based on superficial traits.

Chapter 7: The Value and Benefits of Compassion

  • Defining compassion

Compassion (Tse-Wa in Tibetan) is defined by the Dalai Lama as a non-violent, non-offensive, non-aggressive state of mind. It is a mental position based on the desire to see others free themselves from their suffering, and it goes hand in hand with the meaning of commitment, responsibility, and respect for others.

  • The beneficial effects of  compassion

Researchers have been able to establish(3)(4) that regular participation in volunteer missions, acting for others with warmth and compassion significantly increases life expectancy and probably vitality in general. Helping others leads to a feeling of happiness, soothes the spirit, and lessens depression.

Part 3: Transforming Suffering

Chapter 8: Facing suffering

Nobody can escape pain – suffering is part of life. Furthermore, in daily life, the causes of pain, suffering, and dissatisfaction are common, while by comparison, the opportunities for joy or happiness are relatively rare.

As soon as you take the trouble to face up to your suffering, you put yourself in a position to assess the depth and nature of the problem. Confronting problems rather than ignoring them puts us in a position to address them. Knowing how to transform our attitude in the face of suffering to better withstand it can greatly help to neutralize sadness, dissatisfaction, or discontent. Trying to avoid suffering at all costs will significantly aggravate things. On the other hand, there is no doubt that accepting that suffering is part of existence allows us to better withstand adversity.

It is possible to free ourselves from suffering. Removing the causes releases us. According to Buddhist thinking, the roots of suffering (“three poisons of the mind”) are ignorance, craving, and hatred.

But in this thinking, how can one bear a great loss, such as the loss of a child for example? The best way to remember the loved one who has died, to preserve his or her memory, to remember the person, is to ensure that we carry out his or her wishes. If you are overcome with anxiety, think about other people who have lived through similar tragedies or even worse ones. You will feel less isolated and this will offer you some comfort.

Finally, the Dalai Lama sums up the propensity to poison our suffering in these terms: “Clearly, the desire to free oneself from suffering is the corollary of the desire to be happy. But as long as we view suffering as an unnatural state, we will never uproot the causes.”

Chapter 9: Self-created Suffering

  • “But it’s not fair!”

With regards to our behavior in the face of suffering, the author considers that “it is often by feeding our own negative emotions that we accentuate them and too often we accentuate our pain and suffering by taking things too much to heart.”
An honest, impartial, and careful review of a given situation will reveal our share of responsibility. Frequently, our natural reaction is to attribute the origin of our problems to external causes. What is more, we seek just one cause to then try to exonerate ourselves from any responsibility.

Before poisoning a situation, let’s shift our vision of things and try to consider the incident from another angle to get out of the mindset which is feeding our sense of injustice.

  • Guilt

Sincerely recognizing our wrongs can help to rectify our mistakes and correct ourselves.

  • Resisting change

Guilt occurs when we are convinced that we have committed an irreparable mistake and tortures us if we think that our problem will remain permanent. Life is change. The more we refuse to accept this fact, the more we resist the natural changes of our existence and the more we perpetuate our suffering. Admitting that change is inevitable will avoid a great deal of anxiety.

Chapter 10: Shifting Perspective

By practicing a shift in our vision of things, we will continue to put some experiences and some tragedies to good use to acquire greater serenity of spirit. Never forget that each event has several facets. Everything is relative. Often at the slightest obstacle, our vision narrows. All the attention becomes focused on the concerns.
Admit that our entirely negative vision of a being is due to our own perception based on our mental projection rather than his or her true nature.

  • See the enemy differently

Enemies play a crucial role. To fully attain love and compassion, it is essential to practice patience and tolerance. That is why we must strive to seize the hatred of an enemy as an opportunity to strengthen our patience and tolerance and treat our enemies with the greatest consideration because of the opportunities that they offer us to mature.

The same applies to actions that seem to us to be tedious and difficult: for example, performing a physical exercise that requires effort and strength. The interest lies not in the immediate pleasure it provides but in the benefits that it will bring later.

  • The flexible mind

The flexibility of mind is what nourishes the ability to change perspective, to broaden our vision of things, and to integrate new points of view. Always seek to keep an open mind; this ability to look at the magnitude of the universe and our little world allows us to distinguish between what is important in life and what is not.

  • The importance of the flexible mind

There is a reciprocal relationship between the flexibility of the mind and the ability to change one’s point of view. A flexible mind helps address problems from several angles and conversely to consider problems from several angles, which turns out to be a way of exercising the mind in its flexibility. On the scale of evolution, the species that are the most adaptable to changes in their environment have survived and prospered. Life today is characterized by unexpected changes that are as sudden as they are violent.

Tackling our existence with a demonstration of flexibility and suppleness allows us to keep a cool head in the most disturbing situations: each one of us must define our acceptable limits concerning our system of values and our own principles.

  • Finding balance

Balance, knowledge, and care to avoid extremes are capital skills for everyday life. Like planting the shoot of a young tree, we must look after them with skill and tact because excesses such as moisture or sun will destroy the plant.

Chapter 11: Finding Meaning in Pain and Suffering

Finding meaning in suffering is certainly a powerful method to deal with the darkest problems of existence, but it is not an easy task. When everything goes wrong, we say why me? That is why we should seek the hidden sense of suffering when everything is going well, to have the best possible chance of reaping the benefits. Suffering can strengthen and toughen us.

“What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.” Martin Luther King

  • In the face of physical pain

Pain is a remarkable, complex, and harmonious biological mechanism that exists to warn us about and protect us from damage to the body. Mental posture affects the ability to perceive and endure pain; it is mentally that we convert pain into suffering.

To reduce it, we must distinguish between the pain that is due to pain, and the pain that we create simply by thinking about it. Fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, and despair are emotional reactions that are likely to intensify it.

Part 4: Overcoming Obstacles

Chapter 12: Bringing about Change

  • The process of change

According to the Dalai Lama, the process of change goes through the following steps: learning, conviction, determination, action, and effort.

Learning and education help to convince us of the need for change and strengthen our commitment. Then, the conviction of the need for change is transformed into determination and the determination into action. Being firmly determined means that we can withstand the effort required to make real changes. The final element, effort, is crucial.

To reach important objectives, a sense of urgency is a key element and it can communicate incredible energy. Even though we realize that every moment is precious and that we must make the best use of time, why do we generate inertia when it comes to making positive changes in our life? Because we are all accustomed to doing things in a certain way, to only doing what pleases us and what we know, because we are pampered children.

To succeed, we must not slacken our effort, understanding that change does not happen overnight.

  • What to realistically expect

Determination, effort, and time are the real secrets of happiness.

If some suggest that negative emotions, such as hatred, anger, or envy are natural parts of the human spirit and therefore there is no way to alter our mental state, the Dalai Lama is unequivocal: they are wrong! The human being is born in a perfectly natural state of ignorance. Therefore, as we grow, thanks to education and learning, we can repel ignorance and acquire knowledge.

By analogy, appropriate exercise will gradually reduce negative emotions and strengthen positive states of mind: love, compassion, and indulgence. Combating negative emotions allows us to understand how the human mind works.

The human mind is as complex as it is gifted: it can develop any number of ways to find solutions to a diverse range of conditions and situations. It has the faculty to adopt its point of view depending on the problems encountered.

Chapter 13: Dealing with Anger and Hatred

All the negative mental views act as barriers to happiness; the most powerful obstacles to compassion and altruism are anger, rage, and hostility. They can cause illness (or even death according to studies(5)) and are destructive of all virtue and serenity.

There are 2 kinds of anger:

  • The one that is due to a particular and special motivation can be positive; by creating a form of energy, it can force us to act without delay and in a decisive manner. But it is blind energy and that makes the outcome uncertain (destructive or constructive?).
  • The one that in general leads to resentment and hatred. Nothing positive can ever come from this one; hate produces no benefits.

Erasing anger and hatred is not enough! We must actively cultivate the antidotes that are patience and tolerance; to do this requires enthusiasm and a strong desire to combat these negative emotions. Enthusiasm is the result of knowledge of the beneficial effects of tolerance and patience and the destructive and negative effects of anger and hatred.

Anger or hatred neutralizes the better parts of intellect, namely the faculty to judge between good and bad, and the consequences of your actions in the short and long-term; your capacity to make good judgments becomes inoperative.

Hate transforms an individual, making him or her repulsive, including physically as the face becomes deformed and ugly. It is accompanied by loss of sleep or appetite with increased tension. Hate targets no other objective than to destroy; understanding this should be enough for us to decide not to allow this enemy to take any hold of us.

To fight it requires preventive measures by cultivating inner contentment and serenity. When anger arrives, it must be actively challenged and then analyzed logically. Next, retracing the path of thoughts that triggered the anger contributes to dissipating it.

In the western world, reacting with patience and tolerance when we are actively wronged is taken for weakness or passivity. For the Dalai Lama, reacting in this way suggests restraint, which is the prerogative of a strong and disciplined mind.

Impatience is not necessarily bad; it can encourage action so that things happen. An excess of patience will slow you down.

Chapter 14: Dealing with Anxiety and Building Self-Esteem

The human brain is equipped with an elaborate system designed to register fear and worry. It mobilizes us so that we can react when faced with danger. But excessive worry and anxiety can have devastating effects, mentally and physically. Anxiety can impair judgment, increase irritability and hinder effectiveness; it can also generate physiological problems.

Faced with anxiety, the Dali Lama strives to cultivate the following thought:

“If this situation or these problems are such that I cannot fix them, then there is nothing to worry about. It is more reasonable to spend one’s energy finding a solution than worrying. If there is no way out, no solution, then there is no point in worrying, because in any case, there is nothing you can do about it”.

A motivation that is sincere and honest can allow fear or anxiety to be overcome and to build confidence; if I fail, then the situation is beyond my strength.

  • Honesty: the antidote to a bad opinion of oneself or excessive self-confidence

A lack of self-confidence inhibits our efforts to move forward, and excessive self-confidence is equally perilous.

But how can I draw the line between self-confidence and arrogance? It’s not easy. Perhaps by saying that in general self-satisfaction and arrogance have negative consequences, while self-confidence, when it is healthy, results in more positive consequences.

Think of all the many disciplines about which you do not have the slightest knowledge, consider all the areas of which you are ignorant and that you will make you a little less proud. The more honest you are, the more open you will be, and the less afraid you will be because you do not feel any more anxiety at the thought of being exposed or revealed in the eyes of others.
The consciousness of your own self-worth can be a powerful weapon against doubt and a lack of self-confidence. People who have an accurate and realistic picture of themselves tend to like themselves better and be more confident than those who have poor or false self-knowledge.

  • Reflecting on our potential as an antidote to self-loathing

The existence of self-hatred is unknown to the Dalai Lama. This reality should remind us how much this disturbing mental disposition, just like all other negative mental states, is not an inherent part of the human spirit; we are not born with it and it is not an indelible feature of our nature. We can get rid of it.

Part 5: Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life

Chapter 15: Basic Spiritual Values

This is how the Dalai Lama puts the final touches on his definition of a happy life: the spiritual dimension.

Recent studies(6) seem to confirm that faith contributes substantially to happiness and confirm that people who are enlightened by whatever faith it may generally feel happier than atheists.

According to the Dalai Lama, spirituality is based first and foremost on our religious convictions. This is where our greatest freedom lies:

“All religions can make an effective contribution for the benefit of humanity; they are designed to make the individual a happier person and the world a better place.”

The Dalai Lama considers there to be a second level of spirituality, more important than the first: elementary spirituality. These are the essential human qualities: goodness, kindness, compassion, and concern for others.

True spirituality is a mental attitude that we can practice at any time. For example, if we are tempted to insult someone then let us take our precautions and restrain ourselves. In the same way, if we are on the verge of losing our calm, let us be attentive to that and say: “No, this is not the right way to go.”

Internal discipline is the basis of the spiritual life and it is the basic method that can allow us to find happiness. Practicing internal discipline includes meditations that are intended to offer the spirit stability and to achieve a state of serenity.

Conclusion about “The Art of Happiness”:

The Art of Happiness presents the precepts of happiness in a clear, albeit sometimes repetitive way. The Dalai Lama offers us a simple recipe for happiness: maintain positive states of mind and remove negative emotions. By exercising our mind in goodness, kindness, compassion, and respect for others, we will find the foundations that are necessary for happiness!!

This book guided us through our decision to change and when setting up our new life. Happiness is an art that we cultivate every day, through the open-mindedness that the Dalai Lama teaches us through its page.

What can this book offer readers?

The wisdom that characterizes the Dalai Lama is very palpable in this book. For the reader, this wisdom is soothing and energizing, full of positive vibes. This book is a compendium of good intentions and small actions that can be put into practice every day.  It simply reminds the reader that we are solely responsible for our own happiness. So I recommend it. Like Personal Development for Smart People, this book is undoubtedly extremely interesting and extremely rich

Strengths of the book The Art of Happiness:

  • Fast and easy to read (the chapters are short)
  • The principles are simple and obvious
  • The gap between Buddhist and Western culture is regularly highlighted

Weaknesses of the book The Art of Happiness:

  • The same ideas are repeated several times in the book
  • Some ideas are lacking in illustration


(1) Studies performed on twins (author mention without reference)

(2) A study performed on over 1000 cardiac patients at Duke University Medical Center

(3) Studies into the beneficial effects of compassion by the psychologist David McClelland, and James House, Research center of the University of Michigan

(4) Study into the beneficial effects of compassion (over 30 years) by George Vaillant with a group of Harvard graduates.

(5) Work by the doctors Redford Williams and Robert Sapolsky (author mentioned without reference)

(6) Research into spiritual values by Ronna Casar Harris and Mary Amanda Dew from the Medical research center of the University of Pittsburgh

The score given by Stef & Mag of the blog: image image imageimageimageimageimageimageimage

Have you read this book? How do you rate it?

Mediocre - No interestReasonable - One or two interesting paragraphsIntermediate - Some goods ideasGood - Had changed my life on one practical aspectVery Good - Completely changed my life ! (2 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)


81 thoughts on “The Art of Happiness: A handbook for living

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *