The Book of Joy Summary and Review

by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
  Has The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Simply existing in the modern world can be a stressful process. This means, living a spiritual lifestyle has never been more important than it is today. In order to make room for this more spiritual, and therefore joyful life, it’s important to start with teachings from the two most famous spiritual teachers: the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The teachings of both of these people will lead you on your way to finding true love, acceptance, and joy. In this summary The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, you’ll learn
  • how suffering can help you to find joy in life;
  • how pursuing joy and acceptance can lead to a peaceful life; and
  • why forgiveness is important in ultimately loving yourself.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #1: While unenjoyable, suffering is a big part of both life and happiness.

Suffering is a constant in human life, manifesting in morning traffic and bills that never seem to stop piling up. Despite the awful feeling that comes with suffering, experiencing it is essential to enjoying the better moments, and is even itself an essential part of life. Pain and suffering can actually be fruitful and constructive. For example, take the pain that comes with childbirth. Regardless of this pain and suffering, mothers accept the pain as necessary because the pain will lead to the joy they’ll get from raising their new child. If all women wanted to avoid the pain of childbirth, the human race would be done for! Another great example of this is Nelson Mandela, someone who suffered tremendously during his 27 years in prison. He was forced to sleep on the floor and his waking moments were full of hard labor, such as breaking rocks. Many people would assume that after everything he went though, Mandela would be as broken as the rocks he was forced to smash, the suffering he went through lead to him cultivating kindness and empathy for his political adversaries. This compassion later lead to Mandela becoming the first president of a free South Africa. Suffering is essential to happiness, but only suffering that shifts your perspective away from you and onto other people. The Buddhist mind-training practice lojong teaches that if you’re obsessed with yourself, this conceit will eventually lead to sadness. One example of this is an experience that the Dalai Lama had when he was asked to share his Buddhist teachings at Bodh Gaya, the holiest Buddhist site in the world. Prior to his arrival, he experienced a sharp pain in his stomach that appeared so serious that he had to be taken to the hospital immediately. The problem was that the nearest one was two hours away. On his journey to the hospital, he came across a sick and  elderly man, sitting alone on the street, clearly near death. The Dalai Lama then shifted his attention to this other person and felt the man’s agony, leading to him, at least for a moment, being able to forget his own pain.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #2: While we can’t always control our suffering, we can control how we react to it.

Think about your body. If you’re healthy, the chances of you getting sick during flu season are fairly low. However, if your health is poor, even the slightest exposure to illness can affect your whole life. Immunity and resilience lead to good physical health, and the same principle can be applied to your mind. While building up a sort of mental immunitywon’t completely take away the pain of suffering, you’ll be much better poised to recover from tough situations. Conversely, if your mental state is weak, what might normally be a small moment of suffering might now be drawn out over weeks or months. So, how can you build up this mental immunity? To start, it’s important to understand that fear and frustration come from the mind, not from reality. It’s not necessary for these things to control your life, and if you wish to, you’ll be able to find joy in any situation. For example, once, the Dalai Lama had a flight canceled, which made it so that he and filmmaker Peggy Callahan had to make a six-hour journey to the next airport. This situation is certainly frustrating, but the pair didn’t let this frustration ruin their trip, and instead they made their impromptu road trip more enjoyable by sharing funny travel stories along the way. This is why it’s important not to criticize yourself when faced with circumstances that are out of your control. Another example comes from Desmond Tutu, who had to deal with the frustrating situation of trying to make a meeting, but being stuck in horrible traffic. Previously, he would’ve grown so angry and frustrated, he would’ve felt the need to express this rage physically through grinding his teeth, but over time, he’d come to realize that traffic jams are actually wonderful opportunities for silence and prayer. Coming to this realization allowed him to stop the destructive behavior of teeth grinding (an action that had only infuriated him further in the past). It’s possible for you to do the same when you end up in uncontrollable situations. Learn to accept the situation, using it as an opportunity to practice patience. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and it’s certainly easy to let stress take over. In the next book summary, you’ll learn how to get rid of this stress through some useful tools and strategies.
We read dozens of other great books like The Book of Joy, and summarised their ideas in this article called Happiness
Check it out here!

The Book of Joy Key Idea #3: Being frustrated with our expectations is where anger stems from, but learning compassion can help.

In Western society, we often have unrealistic expectations and desires due to the pressures of our everyday lives; we’re always trying to get a bigger apartment or a better career. These desires make it easy to believe that more is always better. However, what happens when you fail to meet these expectations is actually more important than the expectations themselves. Our automatic reaction is usually fear, which eventually turns into anger. This fear is really common and manifests in different forms: the fear of not getting what you want, the fear that others don’t love you, or the fear of being disrespected. When anger stems from these fears, it can be painful, and sometimes damaging. Luckily, though, it’s possible to overcome it through compassion and love for others. For example, scientist Paul Ekman had become a “rage-aholic” due to his father’s aggressive behavior and his mother’s suicide. This anger he’d express was so powerful that he’d have random bouts of it throughout the week – that is, until he met the Dalai Lama at a conference hosted by the Mind and Life Institute. The Dalai Lama held Paul’s hand and gazed into his eyes with pure love, causing Paul’s anger to disappear completely. While compassion is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to connecting with people, sadness is too, surprisingly. In fact, studies conducted by psychological researcher, Joseph Forgas, found that having low levels of sadness can actually have positive outcomes. In the study, the sad participants were more sensitive to social norms, and had improved judgment and generosity compared to participants who were happy. Forgas identified this last trait by asking the participants how much, out of a given amount of money, they would keep for themselves, and how much to share with others. In the end, the sad participants were much more willing to share than the happy ones. Or, take another example from the Dalai Lama. When his former teacher passed away, he was overwhelmed by sadness and agony. Instead of drowning in his sadness, he turned his grief into motivation to fulfill the wishes that teacher left him with. Now, he teaches people who have lost loved ones that the sadness they’re feeling, while inevitable, can also be used to achieve ambitious dreams.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #4: The length of your life and health can suffer from loneliness and envy.

How many people do you interact with each day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed? Most people would report a shockingly low number, which can be the cause of some real problems, especially since loneliness can lead to a multitude of health problems. But don’t worry, it’s easy to avoid loneliness through being openhearted and trusting. In research from Columbia University, it was found that participants who used the first person pronouns “I,” “me,” and “mine” the most were much more prone to heart attacks. This is because isolation is often the result of being too focused on yourself, which can lead to increased stress and high blood pressure. To prevent this, it’s important to be openly trusting of others, allowing yourself to open up and look for ways to share your life. Loneliness isn’t the only thing that can cause this; envy is another feeling that should be avoided. Dealing with envy is harder, since people are evolutionarily bound to desire what others already have. Primatologist, Frans de Waal discovered the evidence for this. In de Waal’s experiment, a monkey was given a rock and then rewarded with a cucumber slice for accepting it. The monkey was then shown that his neighbor received a much tastier grape for the same task. Hoping for a grape of his own, the monkey would more enthusiastically perform the task next time. When he was given another cucumber slice instead, the monkey displayed anger, shaking the bars of his cage to demonstrate how unfair he saw the situation. The monkey’s response seems fairly reasonable; after all, fairness is a good thing, right? In reality, although your desires might be well-intentioned, striving for fairness could still lead to unhappiness for those who feel left out. For instance, in the 1990s, a group of Tibetans living in India received green cards, which would allow them to immigrate to the United States. However, when these people began sending money home in an effort to fairly distribute the wealth they’d acquired in the US to their families, their families’ neighbors became jealous, as the extra cash flow from the American residents enabled people back in India to remodel their homes and buy motorcycles.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #5: Near death experiences can transform your life, bringing you one step closer to joy.

Anyone who has ever had a near-death experience would tell you that coming close to the end will give you a greater appreciation for life. Overcoming great difficulty will, almost inevitably, lead to happiness. For example, in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, where people lined up for miles to vote. South Africans felt a profound gratitude for their new freedom. By contrast, less than 40% of voters took part in the US election of the same year. After all, most US citizens at the time hadn’t fought for their right to vote, so it was harder for them to appreciate this right in the same way. Another good example is the Chinese cultural revolution, during which officials decided that the Tibetan language would be wiped out within 15 years. This lead to the burning of thousands of books by Tibetan authors and the destruction of countless Tibetan statues and monasteries. Naturally, this profoundly saddened the Dalai Lama, but when he arrived in India in 1959 as a refugee, he used this sadness to work for the preservation of what remained of the Tibetan culture. The reality is, nothing gives you a greater appreciation for what you’ve got like coming close to losing it. It’s also important to note that accepting the reality and inevitability of death is actually central to experiencing joy. For instance, in his youth, Desmond Tutu was prone to a variety of illnesses, which nearly lead to his death multiple times. The doctors’ prognoses were so bad that the author’s father actually bought wood to build his son’s coffin. Later on, as a teenager, Tutu caught tuberculosis. While in treatment, a lot of the patients around him were hemorrhaging and coughing up blood. Tutu himself wasn’t expected to live through his teenage years, but he is still alive today. Through these incredibly hard times, he grew tremendously as a person. He cites confronting and embracing his own human mortality as his most life-changing experiences.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #6: Developing a wider perspective and personal humility can bring you closer to true joy.

You’ve now learned how to manage your mental state so that you can rid yourself of fear and anger. Now, it’s time to start looking on the positive side of things, to learn how to cultivate happiness. A great place to start with this is with the eight pillars of joy. Let’s take a look at these in turn. The first of the eight pillars is perspective. If you’re able to see the world through a wider lens, you’ll be able to realize that any given moment in life won’t last forever. This will make it easier to focus on the present, which will bring your life joy and hope. For example, Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and author of the powerful book Man’s Search for Meaningrecalled how, during his time as an inmate in Auschwitz, many of the other prisoners were able to survive through adopting a different perspective. There was once a very sick inmate on the verge of death. She clung to rumors that the camp would be liberated at Christmas. Simply believing that her situation would soon improve was what helped her hold on. Sadly, when liberation didn’t come at Christmas, her hope vanished and she soon passed away. Perspective is powerful, but the second pillar, humility,is just as important. The point here is that you’ll have a harder time finding joy if you always feel like you’re better than others. For example, when the Dalai Lama was a young man used to get nervous every time he was asked to provide a spiritual teaching. The reason for this is because he felt that he was above his audience, which caused a huge amount of anxiety. In viewing himself as superior, he was failing to practice humility, and so he was breeding isolation and loneliness. However, today, he sees himself as just another person, which has helped get rid of his anxiety and therefore, makes his experiences more relatable.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #7: Coming at tense situations with humor and acceptance can ease your mind.

It’s clear to most people that nothing helps in a stressful situation than a good sense of humor, so it should come as no surprise that humor is the third pillar of joy. After the Rwandan genocide, Desmond Tutu was invited to speak to the Hutus and Tutsis, who were the two warring ethnic groups in the Rwandan conflict. While the situation was tense, Tutu was able to speak on such a sensitive subject matter by using humor as a tool. He spoke to these two groups through creating a fictional story about a group of big-nosed people discriminating against small-nosed people. While the audience did laugh at the silly story, they also were able to understand the absurdity of the prejudice. Tutu used humor to relieve hard feelings and put people at ease. The idea of humor leads us to the fourth pillar: acceptance. It’s incredibly hard to feel joy if you’re not able to accept the harder moments in life, especially those that you don’t have control over. For example, someone who has a poor relationship with their neighbor could criticize her, feel anxious about their strained interactions, or even pretend that no tension exists at all. However, none of these ideas are actually a solution to the problem. On the other hand, it’s definitely possible to make progress with this person if both people accept the relationship and affirm a goal to improve it. From there, they’ll be able to further accept that relationships with other people aren’t things that are in our control. Being able to realize this will help each person break free from the taxing feeling the relationship causes, allowing the people involved to move toward a feeling of joy.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #8: Being able to display forgiveness and gratitude will help you move forward on your road to joy.

How often do you think about how much you value the roof over your head or the water that runs out of your tap? Well, if you live in the West, these luxuries are probably something you don’t think about all too often; these things are expected and are usually taken for granted. However, in other areas of the world, these luxuries are harder to come by. In the end, being grateful for what we have is something almost everyone can benefit from. This brings us to why gratitudeconstitutes an essential pillar of joy. The point of gratitude is to learn to take nothing for granted and to be thankful for everything you have and all you have experienced. For example, Anthony Ray Hinton served a 30-year sentence on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. On top of this severe sentence, on the day he was arrested in Alabama, police told him that he was being put in solitary confinement simply because he was black. However, decades later, a unanimous Supreme Court decision released him from prison. Rather than feeling rage, he was able to forgive the people who locked him up. Without being able to feel this forgiveness, he wouldn’t have been able to move on from his past to enjoy the present. Now, when it rains, he runs outside to feel the raindrops on his face, a simple experience he was denied while in prison. Instead of his incarceration leading to a life confined to unhappiness, he gets up every morning and feels thankful for another day to experience peace and joy. Hinton’s experience brings us to the next pillar of joy, forgiveness. We see forgiveness being put into practice when we look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. This process involved a case that considered mothers of adolescents who had been tricked by apartheid supporters into entering deadly booby traps. When the people who had tricked these adolescents came forward asking for forgiveness, one of the mothers, who had seen her son’s body dragged through the streets on public television, forgave the people responsible. Her reasoning was that imprisoning them for their crime wouldn’t bring her son back, and she understood that revenge wouldn’t bring her joy.

The Book of Joy Key Idea #9: Learning compassion and keeping others in your mind will help your own happiness grow.

Do you get a special kind of satisfaction from giving gifts to others? Many people do, and it’s a natural response. Offering someone a gift that they’ll truly enjoy can produce an intense feeling of happiness. That’s why the seventh pillar of joy is compassionate concern. Evolutionary biologists have concluded that compassion is a core aspect of human self-interest. This comes from a concept called reciprocal altruism, which is the joy you get from helping others. It is shown in children as young as six months old. We know this due to scientists observing children and noticing that they tend to gravitate toward toys that are associated with helping others. In so doing, they are experiencing a helper’s high, which causes endorphins to create a sense of euphoria, similar to the feeling we get from eating chocolate. In other words, being compassionate fills the heart with joy. And finally, the last pillar of joy that can take this sensation one step further: spending time on others’ happiness.  While James Doty, founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University earned his fortune as a medical technology entrepreneur,  he didn’t keep it all to himself. $30 million of his earnings was donated to a charity, and he eventually lost all his wealth in the subsequent stock market crash. Although his lawyers told him to withdraw from his donations, James refused. It was through this that he realized that money wouldn’t bring him power, love, or happiness. On the contrary, giving people the money that would make them happy was what made him happy. This is supported by the work of researcher Elizabeth Dunn. She discovered that people actually experience more happiness when their money is spent on others, rather than themselves. While many people fear the feelings of forgiveness and compassion, due to the fear that comes from this type of vulnerability, these simple things are actually some of the most healing and uplifting emotions in the human experience.

In Review: The Book of Joy Book Summary

The key message in this book: In a world full of suffering, there is a path to true happiness and joy – but it isn’t easy to discover and stick to it. To experience true joy, it’s important to decrease your dependence on material objects and increase your attentiveness to others’ wellbeing. This is all possible through through practicing compassion and generosity.  Actionable advice: When you meditate, try thinking about your own mortality. The next time you sit down to meditate, think about your own mortality to come to terms with the fact that all things must end. By ruminating on, and even visualizing, the process of death, you will become more prepared to face it. In attaining this state, you’ll eventually be able to approach death with joy, free of any fear or regret.    
Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Happiness