Suffering: Inevitable but not Crippling. How to maintain happiness in a turbulent world.

I am currently reading The Book of Joy which is coauthored by the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, an American author and editor. I have found this book incredibly insightful and wanted to write about what I have learned from reading conversations and ideas from two of the worlds premier thought leaders. I had intended to write this post after completing the book but I am currently only about 1/3 finished and have already come up with a tremendous amount of thoughts I wanted to share. If I waited until I finished the entire book it might be entirely too long to fit into a single blog post. That, plus the fact that I am struggling with other ideas and I thought that turning back to this book would provide a wealth of content to spark meaningful discussion. So here we go.

Through this point in the book, I have made the following conclusions and observations: suffering is inevitable but how we react or respond to that suffering will determine our happiness; suffering comes from selfishness or unrealistic expectations; and that happiness is found through deep, meaningful connections with and concern or empathy for others.

I want to start with the first point, that suffering is a part of life. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism states this very fact. This may sound grim but when we consider it more closely, we realize it may not be as gloomy as it seems. Firstly, the recognition that suffering is part of life should make it less concerning when we face it. As the stoics say, that which is out of our control should not be a worry for us, and that which is within our control is something we have the power to fix. On the note of what we can fix, both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop agree that most suffering is created in our own minds. The Dalai Lama recalled the teachings of the Buddha, saying “He taught that when you experience some tragic situation, think about it. If there’s no way to overcome the tragedy, then there is no use worrying too much,” which echoes Seneca the Stoic, who several hundred years later and several thousand miles away said “we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

On the notion that suffering is an inevitability of life, both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu believe that the very existence of suffering enhances true happiness and depth of our relationships. Remember the Danish concept of hygge, where comfort cannot exist without discomfort. Without suffering, the highest form of happiness, what in this book is called “eudemonic happiness”, cannot exist. The primary author of the book, Douglas Abrams says this of eudemonic happiness “[it]is characterized by self-understanding, meaning, growth, and acceptance, including life’s inevitable suffering, sadness, and grief.” Without the bad, the truest and best form of happiness isn’t possible. Desmond Tutu said that “It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.”

Certain parts of suffering are inevitable, we can’t do anything about them. But if we use them and contemplate them correctly, we can use them to deepen our happiness and connection with others. As for the other forms of suffering, the self-imposed, we have the ability to change our thoughts that create such suffering.  The Dalai Lama says: “Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition, then when we don’t fulfill that expectation or achieve that ambition, we experience frustration.” I am sure without thinking too hard that we can all think of a situation or fifty where we have caused ourselves extreme anxiety or frustration out of our expectations. I can think of a few examples: having a job interview for a position you think you’re perfect for. You have the interview, you think it went great, you start to fantasize about how great your life will be once you get the job and then the email comes. It begins: “Dear Matt, thank you for your application, unfortunately…” Who hasn’t been there? I know in my case such a rejection could and often did send me into a depression where I would feel worthless, like a disappointment and a failure, and I would become hopeless. This was all because I had too much expectations, I told myself I couldn’t be happy now but that if I got that job, then I could be happy. Then I get rejected and my happiness was gone, because I had tied it into my expectations. 

Another example, just this past week. I have worked hard in my training, I am going to kick this competitions ass and win the strongman meet, I have worked harder and am better than everyone. I’m not happy now but when I win, which I will, then I can be happy. What happened? I didn’t win. Disappointment, sorrow. I ultimately recognized the silver lining and put things in perspective, but there was a moment where I was down because I had expected to win and convinced myself that if I won, then I could be happy. Not being able to meet our expectations makes us unhappy. This is a type of suffering that we can avoid by changing our expectations.

Much of what we have come to expect out of life, that ends up causing us pain, is the world we live on. There is too much focus on sensual gratification, hedonic pleasure, over compassion, understanding, and compassion, in other words: eudemonic happiness. “The problem is that our world and our education remain focused exclusively on external, materialistic values. We are not concerned enough with our inner values. Those who grow up with this kind of education live a materialistic life and eventually the whole society becomes materialistic,” says the Dalai Lama. The primary message that consumer culture sends us is that our self-worth comes from our job title and our salary, that happiness is about earning money and acquiring happiness through things that can be bought and sold. Instead, we need to focus on building relationships, on compassion, and connection with humanity.

By shifting our focus away from ourselves, and from hedonic pleasure, or the expectations of society, and instead focusing on others, we can find happiness. The Dalai Lama says in the book that “too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” Recall from my previous post on Brene Brown and the Dalai Lama, that in order to build relationships with others, we must be courageous, vulnerable, and develop trust with one another. Human beings developed as interdependent, social creatures. Individually we are weak, but together we are strong. And in order to be strong together we need to trust one-another, and we need to be concerned and compassionate towards one another.  The Dalai Lama says: “genuine friendship is entirely based on trust, if you really feel a sense of concern for the well-being of others, then trust will come. That’s the basis of friendship. We are social animals. We need friends. I think, from the time of our birth till our death, friends are very important.” Interestingly enough, the happiest people seem to be those who are less self-centered. The highest form of happiness, by many accounts, appears to be compassion and acts of kindness for others.

I recall The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, discussing the soul of the world. The soul of the world is the sum total of all of us encompassed into one entity. That soul is enriched through the happiness of each and every one of us. So in order to reach the highest form of happiness, it depends on each and every one of us. So long as others suffer, we are falling short. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, everyone wants to be happy, and our happiness depends on the happiness of humanity as a whole, so in order to attain happiness, we need to be concerned about each and every living being of the world.

I look forward to future posts summarizing the remainder of The Book of Joy, I can’t wait to read over it again and share these thoughts here. It is a great book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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