His Holiness the Dalai Lama was received by the welcoming committee of the Association of British Scholars (ABS), as he arrived at the Siri Fort Auditorium this morning and escorted to the stage. The ABS is a national forum to facilitate the networking of Indians who have studied or trained in the UK. It aims to strengthen Indo-UK relations by sharing information and hosting social, cultural and intellectual activities.
The event was introduced with authority and aplomb by Rini Khanna, a well-known news anchor, whose voice also provides reassurance to travellers on the Delhi Metro. She described several aspects of His Holiness’s life, stating that a spirit of kindness and compassion emanates from him, although he persists in describing himself as a simple Buddhist monk. The welcoming committee offered an outsize garland of flowers that encircled all of them and His Holiness. Quoting His Holiness as asserting that achieving happiness is the purpose of life, ABS President Vipin Chopra formally introduced him to the capacity audience of 2000 and invited him to address them.
His Holiness began by explaining that while he generally prefers to stand when speaking to a crowd, he is beginning to acknowledge that at the age of 82 he finds it increasingly tiring. Consequently, he sought permission to speak sitting down.
“Brothers and sisters—this is how I always like to begin—I’d like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. As human beings all 7 billion of us are born the same way and die the same way. Physically, mentally and emotionally we are the same. We all want to live a happy life and wish to avoid problems. We grow up in the shelter of our mother’s love and affection. Some scientists even say that at a certain stage a mother’s physical touch is crucial for the proper formation of the brain.
“On the one hand, scientists have concluded that basic human nature is compassionate—which I regard as a sign of hope. On the other, they point out that constant fear, anger and stress undermine our immune system. The reality is we are social animals for whom love and affection are key factors contributing to our happiness. We need to remember this because we live in a materialistic culture that doesn’t pay much attention to inner values.
“A lot of problems we face, from violence to the gap between rich and poor and routine bullying and exploitation, are of our own making. They arise due to a lack of real concern for others and a lack of respect for their rights. Self-centredness, which is the basis for competitiveness and jealousy, provokes fear, irritation and anger, which in turn can give rise to violence. If we carry on the way we’re going, there’s a risk that the 21st century will end up like the 20th century before it—an era of violence and bloodshed. During that time, historians estimate, 200 million died violently. So what can we do? Say more prayers and perform more rituals? We Tibetans did that from the early ‘50s onwards to little effect. We need to take action on the basis of vision and sincere motivation.
“Our existing education system, oriented towards material goals with little time for inner values, is inadequate when it comes to bringing about a happier more peaceful world. We used to rely on religion for inner values, but today 1 billion people show no interest in religion anymore and even among the remaining 6 billion the faith of many is shallow.
“Having examined what actually destroys our peace of mind, we need a new approach to education, from kindergarten right through to university, which can guide us in tackling our disturbing emotions. Just as we protect our health by observing physical hygiene, we must take steps to adopt emotional hygiene. By employing our intelligence and common sense, we can tackle our destructive emotions. It’s not difficult to see how irritation leads to anger. Common sense also tells us that anger is bad for our health.
“Women like to make up their faces to look more attractive, but if your face is contorted in anger, no one will want to look at it. Common sense again tells us that inner beauty, warm-heartedness and compassion, is what brings about peace of mind. Love and affection are the basis of trust which underlies genuine friendship.”
His Holiness explained how the 8th century Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen invited the preeminent Nalanda master Shantarakshita to Tibet. He established the Nalanda Tradition of Buddhism which involved philosophy, psychology and logic rather than prayers and rituals. This tradition has been preserved for more than a thousand years as succeeding generations have engaged in rigorous study. His Holiness made clear that ancient Indian knowledge of the workings of the mind and emotions, assessment of reality and use of logic are of utmost relevance today. He stressed his view that India is the one country with the potential to pursue modern education and economic development, while combining it with knowledge from ancient India.
Answering questions from the audience His Holiness clarified that far-sightedness and warm-heartedness are crucial to being able to forgive. He recommended that when it comes to raising children, parents should not stint on the love and affection they show their offspring, or on the time they spend with them. Asked how to acquire wisdom he replied, “Study.” He agreed with a suggestion that some people regard compassion and kindness as signs of weakness. He suggested that people who think like that also think you only have to be tough to make money. They also tend to think that anger brings energy to whatever it is they are trying to do without realising that the energy is blind.
He spoke about becoming a refugee and the freedom it brought. In particular, he was freed of the hypocritical pretence he had had to maintain when dealing with Chinese officials in Tibet over several years.
Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.
In addition to making us feel good, happiness actually improves other aspects of our lives. Here is an overview of some of the good stuff linked to happiness.
Happiness is good for our health: Happy people are less likely to get sick, and they live longer.
Happiness is good for our relationships: Happy people are more likely to get married and have fulfilling marriages, and they have more friends.
Happy people make more money and are more productive at work.
Happy people are more generous.
Happy people cope better with stress and trauma.
Happy people are more creative and are better able to see the big picture.
Happiness is something that we tend to think is always good. There’s a positive psychology field that says we should be positive, upbeat, we should strive for happiness. The pursuit of happiness is deeply embedded in our national thinking. Yet sometimes people who are very happy are exactly the kinds of people who are exploited. If they seem more happy than baseline happiness — people who are very happy, always chipper, always upbeat — they strike us as naive. People see very happy individuals as naive, and people are more likely to exploit those individuals.
Most of us get happiness wrong. Happiness is not a new idea, nor does the average person struggle with explaining what it means. Even in the research, a standard measure of happiness presumes that people have an intuitive sense of it and can accurately and reliably place themselves on a scale from “Not a very happy person” to “A very happy person.” Knowing what happiness is, however, does not make the average person good at pursuing it.
The first mistake that people make is equating happiness, the overarching quality of life, with the temporary enjoyment we feel in response to something pleasurable. Why is this a problem? Well, if happiness is equivalent to momentary enjoyment, then the logical conclusion is that happiness will emerge from stringing together a perpetual sequence of enjoyable moments. As one of my long-ago college classmates counseled a friend, “All that matters in life is sex and money.” Wrong. Happiness will not arise from striving to accumulate increasingly pleasurable and luxurious things, or striving to constantly feel and convey bubbly cheer and enthusiasm (to “be positive”).
University of North Carolina professor Barbara Fredrickson’s research does suggest that positive emotional experiences contribute importantly to overall happiness. But people who put all their effort and resources into maximizing pleasure often do so at the expense of socializing or helping others, and end up less happy. Similarly, trying to feel good all the time, according to work by Professors Iris Mauss and June Gruber, actually gets in the way of happiness.
When it comes to feelings and happiness, the trick, it seems, is: 1) to readily experience pleasure at the right times—e.g., to laugh when the joke is funny, savor the delicious food, bask in the warmth of affection, and capitalize on those feelings so they last; 2) to acknowledge and express feelings that arise under more difficult circumstances, like anger, sadness, and fear, as they signal important information about what to do next; and then 3) to practice resilience so we can recover from these states gracefully and learn from them.
Mindfulness is key. Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen rapidly expanding scientific inquiry into mindfulness, defined both as a deliberate exercise (meditation) or a more general manner that involves attending to the present moment with kindness, gentleness, and compassion. Basically, wherever researchers look, mindfulness (if not taken to extremes or applied to extreme circumstances) is beneficial.
From a happiness standpoint, mindfulness can be considered both a launching pad and a catalyst. As a launching pad, mindfulness offers people a technique for noticing their existing habits of thinking and feeling, and exploring whether any of their beliefs, biases, or habits might be getting in the way of happiness. For example, do you reflexively, though perhaps inexplicably, hate apologizing? Given evidence that apologies reduce chronic stress and increase happiness and productivity in apologizers and recipients, could mindfulness enable you to explore that aversion, and perhaps tinker with it?
Some of the most compelling evidence that suggests mindfulness might be a catalyst to happiness comes from the Track Your Happiness iPhone app, which pings thousands of people all over the world to share their activities and feelings throughout the day. As founder and scientist Matt Killingsworth reported in Science, their findings suggest that people enjoy what they are doing more if they are focused on what they are doing, right when they are doing it. From waiting in line to watching movies, if we’re paying attention to this instead of thinking about something else, we tend to be enjoying it more. In a similar vein, other studies report that mindfulness increases enjoyment of chocolate and sex.
Cultivating happiness takes work. Like learning to play the ukulele, boosting our overall happiness level is not something we can do in one sitting. Throughout the Science of Happiness course, we emphasize the recurring finding that, all things considered, the most promising way to ratchet up happiness is to invest in social relationships—strengthen our connections, hone habits of kindness, and do work that contributes to something greater than ourselves.
Regrettably, particularly in the United States, social norms don’t favor these objectives. Human capacities that drive caretaking, goodwill, and serving the greater good are less valued and thus have less and less influence on our day-to-day experiences. Instead, the environments that we spend most of our time in, like schools and workplaces, focus more on independence, self-determination, and peer competition. Cultural norms like these hone our expertise in self-focus; we get really good at maximizing self-interest and being suspicious of anything that threatens our wealth or reputation.
Like physical therapy after an injury, it takes commitment to strengthen and reclaim the function of our core “pro-social” demeanor—to learn skills around trust, reconciliation, and teamwork. To do this, most of us need to unravel some of our existing habits and be vulnerable. Holding grudges, for example, can feel righteous and core to who we are and where we stand. Forgiveness, on the other hand, lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health, and fuels social ease and connection. But it’s hard to let go. Like stripping out the crumbling foundation of a building and rebuilding it to last, the pursuit of happiness is a deliberate and sometimes-fragile process that requires continued effort.
Whenever I teach the science of happiness, I try to leave people with something they can do right after they walk out of the room. Often the simplest, most accessible message is gratitude. Feeling grateful fosters a more accurate understanding of happiness, strengthening our social connections and motivating us to engage and give back to others. Gratitude is often a theme of mindfulness practices, and is squarely focused on the role that others play in our own life’s goodness. Reflecting upon and expressing gratitude is an exercise in capitalizing on enjoyment, building trust, and softening self-focus; we acknowledge what is good and attribute the source of that goodness to others, and this can help anyone avoid the common pitfalls of pursuing happiness.
How can we get better at expressing gratitude? Try this: when thanking someone, 1) say what they did that you are thankful for, 2) acknowledge the effort it took for them to do this, and 3) describe how it was good for you. Thank you, reader, for taking the time to read this article; I know you could be doing many other interesting things with your time, and, for me, knowing that people are engaging with the ideas I aim to share brings purpose and meaning to my work.
You know that to learn something new, you have to set yourself up for success—and this is also true for learning happiness. We can make it easier for ourselves to build happiness when we choose the right habits to work on first. Here’s how to get started.
Get a quick win with something easy and fun
Researchers believe that some happiness habits are easier to build than others. So rather than starting with whatever happiness habit is currently the most popular—meditation! self-care!—you’ll likely be better off starting with habits that are easier or more fun.
The broaden-and-build theory suggests that experiencing positive emotions broadens our mindset and builds our psychological, intellectual, and social resources, allowing us to benefit more from our experiences. By starting with easy or fun practices, you may be able to get a jumpstart in happiness, subsequently boosting your sense of self-efficacy and propelling you forward in the happiness-building process.
Illustrating this theory, one study showed that people who felt more positive emotion in the beginning of a happiness program reported greater improvements at the end. By going after the low-hanging fruit of happiness, you can build up reserves of confidence and good feelings that may help you tackle the trickier skills later.
Which habits are easy to start with? Well, one habit that researchers believe is relatively easy to build is savoring good things in your life (like a special trip or awe-inspiring concert) by continuing to reflect on them and share them with others. On the flip side, surveys suggest that learning mindfulness can be relatively difficult, as beginners may struggle and become cognitively depleted.
A way to tune into the positive events in your life.
Another good way to get started is with something fun. Our free Science of Happiness online course invites students to try out 10 different happiness practices, and (at the end of the course) reflect on their experience. Our surveys showed that among those 10, students most enjoyed mindful breathing, awe exercises, gratitude journaling, and listing three good things. They found these practices to be a better fit—aligned more with their internal values and natural inclinations—than practices like forgiveness or self-compassion.
In a 2012 study, people chose which activities to practice. They selected exercises related to setting goals, savoring the present moment, and recording gratitude more frequently than thinking optimistically, savoring the past, expressing gratitude to others, and recording acts of kindness. This evidence gives us some idea about which habits are the most enjoyable (or, at least, which ones we think will be most enjoyable).
So when getting started with happiness habits, try to begin with easy, fun ones—but don’t stop there. More difficult habits are valuable, too.
Get more bang for your buck with high-impact habits
It stands to reason that some habits have a bigger impact on happiness than others.
In a recent survey, for example, I aimed to find out which happiness habits likely contribute the most to happiness. What I discovered is that some, like developing positive feelings about the self, appear to be more closely linked to happiness than the rest.
Other research supports this idea. For example, researchers found that one group of habits that highly impact happiness in the long run are those that shape what you pay attention to. This includes practices like anticipating good things in the future, paying attention to the positives rather than the negatives of a situation, and reflecting on good things that happened in the past.
Perhaps more compelling is the research suggesting that healthy behaviors—like exercise—improve well-being, even among people who have a difficult time building other types of happiness habits. In fact, one study showed that a health enhancement program alleviated depression and increased life satisfaction faster than a mindfulness program among those diagnosed with depression. Although both programs were effective in the long term, the authors argue that positive health habits may more quickly increase well-being, while mindfulness may lead to more gradual but sustained improvements.
Using a greater variety of practices, regardless of what the practices are, may also be beneficial. For example, one study found that compared to a program including fewer types of happiness practices, a happiness program including more practices led to greater increases in well-being. Other research suggests that the people in happiness programs who choose to engage in more different practices show greater increases in happiness than those who choose to engage in fewer practices. And people who engage in a diverse range of practices and engage in them in more situations seem to show the most benefit of all.
In sum, trying to create any new habit can be tough, so it’s worth thinking about which happiness habits to cultivate first. Once you’ve built a few of these habits, you’ll get the hang of it, and building other habits will feel easier. Use these tips to start off on the right foot.
A final questioner wanted advice on how to encourage others. His Holiness told her,
“I was separated from my family at the age of 5. At 16 I lost my freedom, then at 24 I lost my country. Since then, 58 years have passed. Our country has seen great suffering. More than 5000 monasteries and temples have been destroyed; a million people have lost their lives. And yet for all these problems, becoming a refugee has brought opportunities—I’ve met many people and had many occasions to learn. I’ve found that when you look at things from a wider perspective, problems take on a different character.”
He recited the prayer that guides his life:
For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
Before the event was concluded with a vote of thanks, His Holiness announced that he would like to speak to the many Tibetans in the hall, mostly young students, in their own language. He told them that Tibet’s is an ancient civilization. He encouraged them to keep up their study of Tibetan, the language of the Kangyur and Tengyur, the literature of the Nalanda Tradition and the language that binds Tibetans together. He urged them to be proud of being Tibetan, and proud of their language and culture. They responded with warm and enthusiastic applause.
Anjali Kwatra formally thanked His Holiness for accepting the invitation and for being an example of peace and compassion for the world. She also expressed gratitude and appreciation to everyone who had contributed to the success of the event.
Tibetans respectfully lined the road as His Holiness left for his hotel. Tomorrow, he will travel to Mumbai.