Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Art of Happiness - Book review

The Art of Happiness, written by psychiatrist Howard Cutler, is based on a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama on the factors that lead to happiness. This book isn't simple; it's not green; and it's not frugal - but I made a lot of fundamental changes in my life because of it. This was my first, albeit baby, step to becoming mindful. And with all the recent talk around the blogosphere about stress, I thought I might pass this reading recommendation along. Here are a few of the things I learned...
  1. The Purpose of Life - Simply put, the purpose of life is happiness - that's not the same thing as pleasure. Both pleasure and pain are physical experiences and very much outside of our control in that they can't be permanently sustained. But happiness (and in fact, suffering, as well) is a state of mind, is entirely independent of the physical experience, and can be sustained. We alone have the power over our happiness and suffering (it has nothing to do with how others have treated us, how much money we have, or a day of gloomy weather). Increasing our happiness and decreasing our suffering requires nothing but to identify and cultivate positive mental states; and identify and eliminate negative mental states.
  2. Achieving Happiness Through Positive States of Mind - We all know the positive states of mind - generosity, kindness, tolerance, compassion, etc. But who can practice it all the time right? Especially when that car almost ran over me on my bike. But rather than viewing others as obstacles, annoyances, burdens (the lady who cuts you off in the grocery line, the rude sales clerk, etc), view seemingly negative circumstances as opportunities to practice kindness. In having positive interactions with others (even if their reactions are not positive with you), you become happier. These opportunities are everywhere if you look for them - I call it active compassion. Another method is to focus on the similarities between you and others. Remind yourself, we (even that person at work that lives just to make you miserable) are all just people; we all want food, shelter, healthy kids and a good job; and we're all bumbling along in life the best we know how. Has someone hurt or offended you?  Think of what might have happened in that person's life that has brought them to a point that they are SO unhappy that they have to make others unhappy. Let that thought make you more compassionate, more patient (and in the end, happier).
  3. Reducing Suffering by Eliminating Negative States of Mind - To reiterate, suffering and pain are not the same. Pain is a physical experience. Suffering is a state of mind, or what we put ourselves through whether by guilt, anxiety, fear, anger, hatred, ignorance, greed, etc. Others are responsible for what they do (she hit me), but we are responsible for how we suffer (I'm going to be angry about it for the next 10 minutes). Identify ways in which you react automatically. For instance, when some one gets angry with you, you might immediately say something hurtful back. Start catching yourself in these moments. Perhaps the person isn't aware that their behavior was hurtful (someone cut you off in the grocery line not realizing you were waiting); perhaps they are being hurtful because they themselves are hurting. Is there something you can do to help? By stopping those learned reactions (he hurt me so I'm going to hurt him back) and pausing a moment to think, we give ourselves the opportunity to exhibit compassion, patience and understanding with others, making our lives less prone to anger, fear, and hurt.
I have to admit that I own VERY few books. I'm in the library so frequently, owning books is unnecessary. This, however, was one I wanted on my personal shelf. Although I've only read it once in it's entirety, I've enjoyed reading excerpts here and there before I go to bed. It calms my spirit, prepares me for rest, and reminds me of the big picture -happiness. But don't take my word for it. Experience The Art of Happiness it for yourself...


Burbanmom said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Heather. I'll check it out. I could definitely use more happiness at times.

You'd think living in the most affluent country in the world with a loving husband and two great kids would automatically make me the happiest person on the earth. But sometimes we forget that most things worth having need to be cultivated. And that includes a happy state of mind.

Will put it on my library list :-)

Simply Authentic said...

Sounds great! It can definitely be challenging to get to that point, but in the moments when I remember the things that you have written, life is so much more peaceful. What a great reminder!

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Great review Heather, and I'm with you, I actually don't own very many books at all, that's what the library is for.

This book has a lot of great advice. Altering expectations and perceptions can do wonders for one's happiness or experience during a time of stress.

And positive visualization has applications far beyond everyday stress. Psychologists (can you tell yet what my degree is in?) used positive visualization therapy with terminal cancer patients, and those who successfully completed the therapy all lived beyond the estimated time of survival for their cancers. The mind is a very powerful thing, as is stress, being able to stay positive and keep a healthy handle of stress level is key in living a long, healthy, and most importantly HAPPY life.

I would agree with the Dalai Lama, happiness IS why we are here, it means something different to everyone, but happiness - it's as simple as that. And to think of those people working 80 hours a week to be able to afford a McMansion full of stuff. It really is sad, it's just sad. People like you, I, and others who read this blog might live a much humbler life, but I think I could safely say we are likely happier.

Sorry for the long comment!

Glenda said...

Hubby and I are both reading thru this book, a bit at a time. We went thru a very rough patch in our marriage earlier this year and this book has been one of the tools we've found useful in helping us work thru that patch. I, too, had checked it out from the library -- after the first chapter, I bought a copy to keep at home.

Heather @ SGF said...

burbanmom - You're right. We seem to have it all, but it doesn't make us happy. We hear about people in third world countries who love life, enjoy lots of family time and are always smiling. What do they have that we don't have? The right perspective. Hope you enjoy the book!

simply authentic - definitely worth checking out. And it was an easy read. Hope you like it!

jennifer - write as much as you like. I love comments and am happy to hear a psychologist reiterate how powerful this can be. Glad you enjoyed the book! I tried to read some others from the Dalai Lama, but this, I felt, was the most powerful one (for me anyway).

Glenda - How wonderful that you are reading it together! That's great! I have so many "duh" moments when I'm reading it. Everything just seems so clear. "Well, of course, that's what we need to do to be happy." It's amazing how easily we get off course. Best wishes in your pursuit of happiness!

CindyW said...

Is the pursuit of happiness our reason to be here? I have very messy thoughts around that.

On the one hand, it does seem like life isn't much worth living if one isn't happy at least some of the time.

On the other hand, is that it? Attaining happiness is the end goal of our life? Sometimes it doesn't seem enough.

But if a person isn't happy, he/she doesn't have the capacity of helping other people.

If a person is happy and he/she reaches out to help alleviate of the suffering of people, land, river, animals, etc., in the process his/her happy balance may be not easily maintained.

I agree with the central thesis of the art of happiness - it's a state of mind. It's especially relevant in our society where single-minded pursuit of material wealth has somehow replaced happiness. I just worry that we reach inward so much that personal happiness becomes the sole objective in life.

I see that in my sister. I have a hard time talking to her about any positive social changes, because to her all the social changes don't amount to much. The only thing matters is the pursuit of personal happiness (not the material happiness I'll give her that).

Anyway enough confusing rant from me. Maybe I should read the book first before opening my big mouth.

Heather @ SGF said...

CindyW - The book makes a distinction between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is what gives us those short-term fuzzy feelings; because pleasure isn't sustainable, we get caught in an endless pursuit that is never completely fulfilled.

Happiness, on the other hand, is a state of mind. It's seeing the world for the way it is; that we are all the same. The idea is that when we acknowledge that, at the core, we humans are all the same (we all want to increase happiness and reduce suffering), we become more compassionate, we become more giving. Rather than the pursuit of happiness being a selfish thing, it is actually a very selfless thing - when achieved it seeks the happiness of all.

Does that make sense? Would you still say your sister is pursuing happiness or pleasure?

I'm sure I'm not explaining this well...

Glenda said...

Something that stuck out for me re: pleasure vs. happiness is that things that bring pleasure don't always bring happiness.

What I immediately thought of is how addicts get momentary pleasure from drugs / alcoholics get momentary pleasure from booze / smokers get momentary pleasure from nicotine / I get momentary pleasure from certain foods . . . yet once that immediate pleasure is gone, there is not necessarily a feeling of happiness. This was a big "a-ha" moment for DH and I, and understanding the difference between the two feelings was important.

Theresa said...

Thanks for this review! I get a lot out of books written by and/or about the Dalai Lama. I think if we could all practice the 'active compassion' you mention, we would all be much happier. The distinction between pain and suffering is a good one to keep in mind as well - I fall into this trap a lot, thinking that because something has happened that I don't like, I am hard done by or something. If I can catch myself and just accept that something has happened and will pass eventually, I don't suffer nearly as much (or make others suffer along with me!)

You might like Thich Nhat Hanh's 'Peace is Every Step' as well - but maybe you've already read that one?

Theresa said...

After reading the other comments I want to add just a little bit more. As I understand it, Buddhists believe that all things are interconnected and that each thing actually co-creates each other thing - this is referred to as 'interbeing'. Because of this, attaining personal happiness becomes a way to help increase happiness in the world for all sentient beings. This takes the pursuit of happiness out of the realm of narcissism and into the realm of an actively compassionate act.

Heather @ SGF said...

Glenda - great point. My favorite Buddhist speaker (Robina Courtin) speaks often about how we are all junkies waiting for our next fix. I really like that analogy. If anyone is interested to listening to some of her lectures. You can find her on iTunes under "Buddhist teachings" podcast.

Theresa - You're right, I think it's made a real difference in my life too. Although I find I have to stick with it. It's not something I can read once and practice forever. I have to study and reinforce this day after day. Good recommendation. I l really enjoyed "Peace is every step." I don't own that one, but I have his book called "Anger." Another good one!

Oh, and you very eloquently put what I was trying to explain above. Thanks for adding that!

CindyW said...

Hey thanks for the comments back Heather and Theresa. I think it makes a whole lot of sense.

Heather @ SGF said...

CindyW - glad it helped. It's just a difference between physical pleasure vs. psychological happiness. It's the psychological we have control over (thank heavens). :)