Notes after reading the book “The Art of Happiness“.
The Art of Happiness” is a book by Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist who writes about his conversations with the Dalai Lama over several years, exploring the question of how to be happy. Here are my main lessons:
1: Baseline of Happiness and Adaptability
The book mentions the concept of a personal baseline level of happiness, which is influenced by a combination of genetic factors and life circumstances. While external conditions may temporarily affect one’s happiness, the long-term level of happiness is more deeply rooted in one’s inner attitude.
That means that even if a higher salary or other materialistic things make us happy in the beginning, after a while we will always come back to our baselines. This is even mentioned in relation to one’s health, so even if someone might be devastated after having a life-changing accident, one will come back to his baseline of happiness after some period.
If one understands this, it might help him to make his time of suffering shorter to come back to his baseline faster after hard times. Also, this baseline is not fixed. People have a remarkable ability to adapt to various life conditions, and by cultivating positive mental states, one can raise this baseline.
2: Accepting and Transforming Suffering
Suffering is a part of life. Accepting and understanding this, can reduce its impact. If we can do this, we can transform suffering into appreciation by focusing less on the negative parts of it, but rather on the growth and learning opportunities of suffering.
It’s always about perspective. While for some people a situation might seem devastating or at least is enough to bring them into an angry or sad state, for some others the same situation might be no problem at all. Someone who lost his job might be devastated, for example, but someone else who is at the same time in the hospital being sick will be in a way more difficult situation.
By looking at situations from different angles, one can see that problems are often not as overwhelming as they seem.
4: Character Can Be Adjusted Through Training
This is a really interesting point that is also supported by studies. While individuals may have inner tendencies, character is not static and can be adjusted through conscious and consistent training. For example, when you remind yourself to stay calm in situations where you usually wouldn’t, you don’t just learn to manage yourself better, but actually adjust your character to stay more calm (over a long period of time).
5: Balance Is Important (Also a Personal Learning)
The Dalai Lama mentions the importance of balance multiple times through the book. While it isn’t good to be arrogant and think too much of oneself, it also isn’t good to not be confident. This rule applies to basically everything in life.
I recently had a similar realization. While I was always chasing more, as we human typically do, I came to the realization that I reached what I wanted to reach. For me, this was a solid income and savings, having a base, and having travelled to my dream destinations. I reached a point of happiness, which sounds good. However, on the other hand, this destroyed some of my inner fire, the motivation to work hard to build such an income and to go on trips. So just being fine with what you have is also not the right approach because this can destroy your motivation. Also here, balance is key.
6: Training the Mind
The main lesson the book wants to teach is that happiness can be achieved through mental discipline and training the mind (obviously not in cases of mental health problems, which the book also has some interesting approaches on). The Dalai Lama emphasizes the importance of identifying negative patterns of thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, seeing the positive in all situations, and having a wider perspective on life situations.