Gil Barbezat goes in search of happiness.

Acquiring happiness has long been an elusive human goal. Current world events depicted by the media, including a ODT editorial (29.10.22), are not a source of joy and happiness for the community as a whole.

As a result, many resort to browsing the Internet to find information that satisfies their curiosity without disturbing their sense of well-being. This too often leads people to dead-end echo chambers, many of which provide misinformation or disinformation. We all know about distractions that bring temporary relief to our quest, but remain frustrated when their transient effect wears off.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World is an international bestseller offering an interesting and stimulating alternative. The book records the debates of a week spent with two Nobel Peace Prize winners, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, debating the subject; it is narrated by Douglas Abrams (an American describing himself as a Jewish atheist). They reach the commonly accepted conclusion that frustration is the result of individuals’ futile quest to seek joy for themselves, and not primarily for others. Caring for others, including the biodiversity and climate of our precious planet, is what leads to more lasting joy.

They describe eight basic pillars of joy.

Four are qualities of the mind:

Perspective: see the big picture, including the views of others that go beyond self-interest.

Humility: reminding us that we are just one of billions of people on Earth who depend on our environment to survive.

Humor: ability to laugh, including at ourselves.

Acceptance: accepting the reality of life as what is best for humanity, and not necessarily what we would like it to be.

Four are qualities of the heart:

Forgiveness: truth, forgiveness and reconciliation often need to be accepted as a triad, allowing us to forgive others and ourselves.

Gratitude: realization that most good fortune and pleasure comes from outside of ourselves, others, or nature itself.

Compassion: a genuine concern for the health and happiness of others, and how we could contribute to sharing a happier world.

Generosity: sharing our joy with others by giving of our time and material gains to advance human freedom and fight hunger and fear.

These are not presented as abstract qualities, but as qualities that have become an integral part of their thinking and characterize their interactions with others. These qualities of life helped enable them to achieve remarkable success in overcoming severe adversity (the Dalai Lama in particular in his long exile from Tibet, and Tutu for his heroic stand against the inequalities of apartheid) and in being such radiant examples of their fellow humans.

Their concept of working to create a joyful environment significantly overlaps with the Christian principle of treating others as you would like them to treat you; the Maori “te whare tapa wha”, where a vital feature of life relates to relationships with others; the African concept of “ubuntu”, which literally means “I am because we are”; the view of the 16th century English poet John Donne that no man is an island; and also the ODT editorial conclusion that we have an interest in caring for others before ourselves. We must each consider our existence as part of a whole, and therefore have a share of responsibility towards human integrity, biodiversity and the planet.

The personal qualities of these two men stand out so much from so many other current world leaders. It almost creates a watershed of personalities separating those who strive to promote peace and make others happy, from those who pursue their own political or personal agendas, regardless of the consequences. The fruits of these divergent contributions are obvious to all.

It is tragic that asking world leaders to consider and embrace these pillars of joy seems so far removed from today’s reality. More and more comments are evident regarding general interpersonal intolerance in modern society, characterized by aggression, hate speech, riots and road rage. A positive alternative has been suggested in The book of joy revolutionize interpersonal attitudes and reverse this negative trend. Some countries consider the well-being of their populations as a guarantee of successful governance.

What do we need to persuade humanity that there are better ways than selfishness and greed? Humanity is invited to adopt a new approach towards peaceful relations between individuals and eventually between nations. Applying the Pillars of Joy in everyday life is surprisingly helpful. Other similar and helpful approaches to seeking joy are available, such as the Thankfulness Project (www.BeGreat.co.nz), designed to promote positive responses to mental health issues.

Human destiny faces many challenges; these require teamwork and understanding to achieve peaceful coexistence. We certainly owe it to our descendants to shape a better quality of life for their future. Finding happiness by creating supportive attitudes toward one another while caring for our precious environment are life choices with clearly demonstrable practical benefits.

— Gil Barbezat is Emeritus Professor of Medicine.