>I recently finished reading The Art of Happiness, a Handbook for Living by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler, M.D.  The book is one of a series that made the New York Times and other bestseller lists.  In it, Howard Cutler relates a series of conversations he had with the Dalai Lama and his own musings, as a psychiatrist, about them.

While my own highlights and notes tended to be quotes from the Dalai Lama, Cutler’s comments and stories give the book a more practical and human feel than books written by His Holiness alone. (For psychology wonks like me, it’s fun to read parallels between Buddhist philosophy and psychological theories.)

The ideas that stayed with me are simple but powerful:

  • The purpose of our life is to seek happiness.
  • Happiness can be achieved through training the mind.
  • Happiness gives us long term satisfaction and should not be confused with pleasure which is short-term.
  • Developing compassion is important to our mental and physical health and our relationships with others.
  • Cultivating basic spiritual values – goodness, kindness, compassion, caring – is critical to our own happiness and creates a less troubled society.

American culture is excited by the idea of happiness, but we don’t think of it as something we can learn or choose. Rather, it is something that comes and goes in our lives as outward circumstances change. Buddhist philosophy is that positive states of mind can act as direct antidotes to negative states of mind.

“One begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness,” says His Holiness, “and those factors which lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those which lead to happiness.”

“Easier said than done,” snarls my monster mind. Then I read about the meditation exercises practiced by Tibetan Buddhists.I remember the comments of a friend who visited Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama settled after fleeing Tibet in 1959. She resisted comments of others who characterized Tibetans as “a happy people,” but found herself thinking the same thing: “these people are so happy.”

Being diagnosed with a progressive incurable illness seemed like an invitation to unhappiness. I suppose that I have been, ever since, trying to find a way to say “will not attend.” Western psychology has given me some tools (such as cognitive therapy, visualization and creative expression) with which to make a different choice. This book reminded me of – or introduced me to – another set of tools, varieties of Buddhist meditations, that can redirect the motion of my life toward happiness.