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The Secret to Happiness: Two Spiritual Leaders Think They Found the Answer

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

In April 2015, two of the biggest spiritual leaders of our times, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama, tried to answer one of humanity's most burning questions: How can we find, and sustain, our inner joy?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama. Photo: YouTube

In April 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled to Dharamshala, India, to discuss the question with the Dali Lama during his 80th birthday. The two Nobel Prize winners – one, the leading human rights spokesperson of black South Africans during the apartheid, the other, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people – reflected on their personal experiences during a week of discussions and storytelling to find inner joy.

The secret is – there is no secret. After talking about everything from psychology to theology, these two leaders agreed on a set of eight pillars, divided by mind (perspective, humility, humor, acceptance) and heart (forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, generosity.) According to these two great spiritual leaders, these pillars can help people experience happiness as a sustainable and lasting part of their lives, rather than a spontaneous and fleeting feeling.

The eight pillars, or elements, of joy, set by the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, are believed by many to be the key to enduring happiness. According to these spiritual leaders, if we learn them and try to adhere to them, we are more likely to find joy in our everyday lives. This conversation was bound up into Douglas Abraham's "The Book of Joy." Let's dive into each pillar featured in the book and discuss how to apply them in our everyday lives.

"Joy is a byproduct of a life well lived. It's much bigger than happiness."

Pillar 1: Perspective

“For every event in life,” says the Dali Lama, “there are many different angles.” The first pillar of joy might be the most important one; taking a “God’s-eye perspective,” as Archbishop Tutu said, brings not only peace of mind but also develops empathy. Therefore, it does not only generate happiness in you, but it also spreads it to others.

Gaining perspective means changing the way we see the world. By changing the way we see the world, we can change how we act, which changes the world itself. Letting go of feelings such as anger, and transforming them to empathy by accepting the validity of different perspectives, creates togetherness.

In fact, say the Dali Lama and Archbishop Tutu, the willingness to experience life through the perspective of others and their sufferings, can actually lead to joy.

Pillar 1: Perspective
By changing the way we see the world, we can change how we act, which changes the world itself.

Pillar 2: Humility

Seeing yourself as better, more intelligent, or superior to others eventually rob you of your happiness. The Dali Lama quoted a Tibetan prayer that states, Whenever I see someone, may I never feel superior.” According to this approach, a lack of humility separates you from others. It generates social stress and anxiety in the effort of maintaining that superiority.

Fostering a genuine sense of humility is a natural continuation of the first pillar of joy, perspective. Humility helps us be more open to the opinion of others and understand our limitations.

Humility does not mean shyness. While shyness is rooted in fear, humility is rooted in strength and confidence. Being stable enough to support others and let them grow alongside you rather than compete with them.

Pillar 2: Humilty
Humility helps us be more open to the opinion of others and understand our limitations.

Pillar 3: Humor

There is no better medicine than laughter. Both the Dali Lama and Archbishop Tutu were widely known for their sense of humor and lightness of conversation, and so it is not a surprise that they marked humor as the third essential pillar of joy.

Similar to perspective and humility, humor has the power of creating togetherness. Cracking jokes can melt the coldest ice and turn any enemy into a friend. There is no more effective way to end arguments, find common ground and establish peace with your surrounding.

But even more simply, the ability to laugh, not only at life’s troubles but also at yourself, is one of the most effective tools to improve your perspective on life. This statement is vastly backed by science: many studies have found that laughter and humor boost the immune system, ease stress and anxiety, and lower blood pressure.

The bottom line is - laughter is a relief from pain.

Pillar 3: Humor
Humor has the power of creating togetherness

Pillar 4: Acceptance

According to the Dali Lama, “the ability to accept our life in all its pain, imperfection, and beauty.” As one of the most central principles of Buddhism, acceptance means seeing life accurately and aspiring to accept it. Relieving ourselves from our assumptions, expectations, and presuppositions, even when things don’t go our way.

Acceptance doesn’t mean defeat. The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop have both fought tirelessly for change in their lives. It is accepting that every suffering will pass, and we can always get through the other side of the storm.

Living a life of acceptance means engaging life on its terms rather than wishing that things were different. Acceptance allows us to be nimbler, adapt to changes, and deal with the crises that are bound to come.

Pillar 4: Acceptance
Living a life of acceptance means engaging life on its terms rather than wishing that things were different.

Pillar 5: Forgiveness

Once we accept the terms of life, we can release our desire to change others and embrace forgiveness as a way of life. We have the ability within ourselves to let go of anger, vengeance, grief, or hatred. Forgiveness is freedom – freedom of those who wronged us.

Forgiveness stems from the same state of mind as acceptance – it does not mean allowing injustices to happen and letting go of our moral compass. “Not reacting with negativity, or giving in to the negative emotions, does not mean that you do not respond to the acts or that you allow yourself to be harmed again,” says the Dali Lama.

Justice should always be a personal and collective human goal. However, justice can be served without anger, hatred, or vengeance.

Pillar 5: Forgiveness
Justice can be served without anger, hatred, or vengeance.

Pillar 6: Gratitude

Gratitude is essentially a self-generator of happiness. Gratitude is a recognition of all the things that make our life what it is—the roof on our head, the food on our plate, the loved ones surrounding us. Being grateful directly truly leads to more joy by allowing us to focus on what we have rather than what we lack.

If acceptance means not fighting reality, and forgiveness means relieving ourselves from those that hurt us, gratitude means embracing reality and the people who support us. As the saying goes, it literally means counting our blessings.

Our culture often shifts us to focus on our burdens, dangers, and hardships. There is an evolutionary reason for that; recognizing danger and pain is essential to survival. However, the human mind developed great consciousness, and with that consciousness, it can and should challenge these natural biases and impulses.

Pillar 6: Gratitude
Gratitude means embracing reality and the people who support us.

Pillar 7: Compassion

After gaining perspective and forgiveness, the following and more profound level is compassion. A saying often attributed to the Buddha explains compassion well: “What is that one thing, which when you possess, you have all other virtues? It is compassion.”

Compassion is an active action of concern and support. It is not merely being able to sympathize and empathize with others but also the will to see others’ pain relieved. Compassion is, in fact, the bridge between empathy and kindness. The Dali Lama adds that “when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced.” In many ways, this is the true secret to happiness.

When we talk about compassion, we also mean compassion to the self—replacing self-hatred with self-care—learning our own human limitations alongside others’, and being kind to ourselves just as we are towards others.

Pillar 7: Compassion
“when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced.”

Pillar 8: Generosity

The final pillar of happiness ties everything together. Charity is a value that was embraced by almost every religion, and for a reason. It combines perspective, humility, compassion and leads them to generosity. Charity is an act of supporting and building a community, our community. When we give to others, we ourselves thrive.

Studies show that spending money on others increases their happiness levels and their long-term life satisfaction. But generosity is not only measured in money and material value. Emotional generosity towards others is just as important and influential to our well-being.

Pillar 8: Generosity
When we give to others, we ourselves thrive.

It’s the Little Things That Matter

Reading about the eight pillars of happiness will not lead you to happiness. Putting them into practice in your everyday life is the way to invite and embrace joy in your life.

If these elements feel a little abstract or lofty, you’re not alone. It is not always easy or obvious to translate them to real life. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a difference—watching a movie that makes you laugh—texting a loved one. Reminding yourself of the good things in your life.

Start your journey towards happiness with the happy things app – and practice simple, science-backed exercises that will introduce the eight pillars of joy into your life.

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