The science behind the Buddhist wisdoms

“The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.

This book is written by psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler, and not by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is an important distinction to make early on as it sets the tone of the book more into the clinical investigative side of happiness, since Dr. Cutler is a leading expert on the science of human happiness.

However, it is also important to distinguish that the big picture of the book is generated from the many interviews and conversations that Dr. Cutler had with the Dalai Lama, which makes them a perfect combination: the many wonderful Buddhist teachings provided by the Dalai Lama, elaborated by Dr. Cutler with the scientific explanations behind them. Now that’s a match made in Nirvana.

The result is this magnificent book, the almost anatomical break down of the determinants that create (or prevent) the multiple journeys to our end goal: happiness.

Right from the start Dr. Cutler remarks that, “If there is a fundamental principle in The Art of Happiness with the greatest potential to make a significant contribution to the new science of human happiness, it is this: There is an inextricable link between one’s personal happiness and kindness, compassion, and caring for others. And this is a two-way street: increased happiness leads to greater compassion, and increased compassion leads to greater happiness.”

Indeed, while unhappy people have the tendency to be self-focused, often socially-withdrawn, and even antagonistic in nature, by contrast happy people are generally more sociable, creative, flexible, can endure and tolerate daily frustrations more easily, and perhaps most importantly they are more loving and compassionate.

Compassion towards others, of course, includes developing tolerance and understanding even towards our enemies. As the Dalai Lama commented, “In Buddhism in general, a lot of attention is paid to our attitudes towards our rivals or enemies. This is because hatred can be the greatest stumbling block to the development of compassion and happiness. If you can learn to develop patience and tolerance towards your enemies, then everything else becomes much easier—your compassion towards all others begins to flow naturally.”

Because what if we go through life never encountering an enemy or any obstacle? If from birth to death everyone we meet pampered us, helped us, never challenge us, or in short, everyone continued to treat us like a baby? Sure, it might feel nice at first, but if persisted it could turn us into a some kind of gelatinous mass with the mental and emotional development of veal. As Dr. Cutler emphasize, “It’s the very struggle of life that makes us who we are. And it is our enemies that test us, provide us with the resistance necessary for growth.”

This last point is a form of reframing perception, one of the many Buddhist tools taught in the book to convert frictions or stumble blocks in our lives into something more positive from simply just looking at things from a different perspective. Because, if we can make even our enemies – that have bad intentions towards us – into some positive force in our lives, there is quite literally nothing that can make us upset and unhappy. You see, it’s not about what happens, but our interpretation of what happens that matter.

The Dalai Lama also teaches us about eliminating other negative forces in our minds that can rob us the joy of happiness, by seeing things from a larger perspective, by dealing with grief properly, by healing the sense of remorse, by reframing anger, and many more.

As Dr. Cutler explains, “By mobilizing our thoughts and practicing new ways of thinking, we can reshape our nerve cells and change the way our brains work. It is also the basis for the idea that inner transformation begins with learning (new input) and involves the discipline of gradually replacing our “negative conditioning” (corresponding with our present characteristic nerve cell activation patterns) with “positive conditioning” (forming new neural circuits). Thus, the idea of training the mind for happiness becomes a very real possibility.”

Indeed, happiness is actually trainable. And throughout the book the Dalai Lama has repeatedly emphasized the importance of inner discipline as the fundamental method of achieving this. It involves combating negative states of mind such as greed, anger, and hatred, and cultivating positive states of minds such as kindness, tolerance, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, contentment. And all of these are built on a foundation of a calm and stable state of mind (aka the state of mindfulness).

As Dr. Cutler concludes, “The art of happiness has many components. As we’ve seen, it begins with developing an understanding of the truest sources of happiness and setting our priorities in life based on the cultivation of those sources. It involves an inner discipline, a gradual process of rooting out destructive mental states and replacing them with positive, constructive states of mind, such as kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness.”

And the book is filled with so many examples and real-life stories about the struggle and eventual triumph to implement this.

Moreover, while the wisdoms are priceless, perhaps the best feature of the book is a glimpse of the Dalai Lama’s demeanor, which we can learn a lot from. His relaxed approach, with open mind, humility, compassion, sincerity, brutal honesty, and a heavy doze of humor and laughter all created a kind and approachable aura. He always thinks before he speaks, never attacks, listens intently with sympathetic understanding, and able to frame and reframe his interpretations and responses in an impressive speed, even when he makes a mistake.

Simply put, he is the living embodiment of every single lesson that come out from this book. And that’s why his picture is respectfully put as the cover of the book.