THE RIGHT TO
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I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness ..."
With these words, spoken before a large audience in Arizona, the Dalai Lama cut to the heart of his message. But his claim that the purpose of life was happiness raised a question in my mind. Later, when we were alone, I asked, "Are you happy?"
"Yes," he said. He paused, then added, "Yes ... definitely." There was a quiet sincerity in his voice that left no doubta sincerity that was reflected in his expression and in his eyes.
"But is happiness a reasonable goal for most of us?" I asked. "Is it really possible?"
"Yes. I believe that happiness can be achieved through training the mind."
On a basic human level, I couldn't help but respond to the idea of happiness as an achievable goal. As a psychiatrist, however, I had been burdened by notions such as Freud's belief that "one feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation.'" This type of training had led many in my profession to the grim conclusion that the most one could hope for was "the transformation of hysteric misery into common unhappiness." From that standpoint, the claim that there was aclearly defined path to happiness seemed like quite a radical idea. As I looked back over my years of psychiatric training, I could rarely recall having heard the word "happiness" even mentioned as a therapeutic objective. Of course, there was plenty of talk about relieving the patient's symptoms of depression or anxiety, of resolving internal conflicts or relationship problems, but never with the expressly stated goal of becoming happy.
The concept of achieving true happiness has, in the West, always seemed ill defined, elusive, ungraspable. Even the word "happy" is derived from the Icelandic word happ, meaning luck or chance. Most of us, it seems, share this view of the mysterious nature of happiness. In those moments of joy that life brings, happiness feels like something that comes out of the blue. To my Western mind, it didn't seem the sort of thing that one could develop, and sustain, simply by "training the mind."
When I raised that objection, the Dalai Lama was quick to explain. "When I say 'training the mind,' in this context I'm not referring to 'mind' merely as one's cognitive ability or intellect. Rather, I'm using the term in the sense of the Tibetan word Sem, which has a much broader meaning, closer to 'psyche' or 'spirit'; it includes intellect and feeling, heart and mind. By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living.
"When we speak of this inner discipline, it can of course involve many things, many methods. But generally speaking, one begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness 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. That is the way."
The Dalai Lama claims to have found some measure of personal happiness. And throughout the week he spent in Arizona, I often witnessed how this personal happiness can manifest as a simple willingness to reach out to others, to create a feeling of affinity and goodwill, even in the briefest of encounters.
One morning after his public lecture the Dalai Lama was walking along an outside patio on the way back to his hotel room, surrounded by his usual retinue. Noticing one of the hotel housekeeping staff standing by the elevators, he paused to ask her, "Where are you from?" For a moment she appeared taken aback by this foreign-looking man in the maroon robes and seemed puzzled by the deference of the entourage. Then she smiled and answered shyly, "Mexico." He paused briefly to chat with her a few moments and then walked on, leaving her with a look of excitement and pleasure on her face. The next morning at the same time, she appeared at the same spot with another of the housekeeping staff, and the two of them greeted him warmly as he got into the elevator. The interaction was brief, but the two of them appeared flushed with happiness as they returned to work. Every day after that, they were joined by a few more of the housekeeping staff at the designated time and place, until by the end of the week there were dozens of maids in their crisp gray-and-white uniforms forming a receiving line that stretched along the length of the path that led to the elevators.
Our days are numbered. At this very moment, many thousands are born into the world, some destined to live only a few days or weeks, and then tragically succumb to illness or other misfortune. Others are destined to push through to the century mark, perhaps even a bit beyond, and savor every taste life has to offer: triumph, despair, joy, hatred, and love. We never know. But whether we live a day or a century, a central question always remains: What is the purpose of our life? What makes our lives meaningful?
The purpose of our existence is to seek happiness. It seems like common sense, and Western thinkers from Aristotle to William James have agreed with this idea. But isn't a life based on seeking personal happiness by nature self-centered, even self-indulgent? Not necessarily. In fact, survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are often socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life's daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.
Researchers have devised some interesting experiments demonstrating that happy people exhibit a certain quality of openness, a willingness to reach out and help others. They managed, for instance, to induce a happy mood in a test subject by arranging to have the person unexpectedly find money in a phone booth. Posing as a stranger, one of the experimenters then walked by and "accidentally" dropped a load of papers. The investigators wanted to see whether the subject would stop to help the stranger. In another scenario, the subjects' spirits were lifted by listening to a comedy album, and then they were approached by someone in need (also in cahoots with the experimenter) wanting to borrow money. The investigators discovered that the subjects who were feeling happy were more likely to help someone or to lend money than another "control group" of individuals who were presented with the same opportunity to help but whose mood had not been boosted ahead of time.
While these kinds of experiments contradict the notion that the pursuit and achievement of personal happiness somehow lead to selfishness and self-absorption, we can all conduct our own experiment in the laboratory of our own daily lives. Suppose, for instance, we're stuck in traffic. After twenty minutes it finally begins moving again, at around parade speed. We see someone in another car signaling that she wants to pull into our lane ahead of us. If we're in a good mood, we are more likely to slow down and wave them on ahead. If we're feeling miserable, our response may be simply to speed up and close the gap. "Well, I've been stuck here waiting all this time; why shouldn't they?"
We begin, then, with the basic premise that the purpose of our life is to seek happiness. It is a vision of happiness as a real objective, one that we can take positive steps toward achieving. And as we begin to identify the factors that lead to a happier life, we will learn how the search for happiness offers benefits not only for the individual but for the individual's family and for society at large as well.