Anew publication, The Book of Joy, written by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has sparked debate over their theory that joy can be achieved by embracing eight ‘pillars’ including compassion, gratitude, and humour.
Here, four writers discuss their own rules for happiness.
‘I found happiness when… I learnt to be unhappy’
Bryony Gordon, 36
A friend of mine in recovery once said to me that to be truly happy you had to hit rock bottom. I didn’t really understand what she meant.
Perhaps that’s because I was drunk or high at the time – it was many years ago, when I would self-medicate my obsessive compulsive disorder through alcohol and cocaine, and everyone wanted to be my friend ‘because you’re so fun!’.
I thought fun equated to being happy. I was wrong. It’s only after five or six breakdowns (I lose count) that I have realised that the real key to happiness is to embrace unhappiness – to allow yourself to go to that rock bottom my friend mentioned without trying to shoo it away.
You don’t take your unhappiness and try to water it down with five pints of strong continental lager. You don’t run away from your unhappiness towards the nearest drug dealer.
You sit with your unhappiness, no matter how much of an arsehole you think it is. You talk to your unhappiness, however creepy it makes you feel. Maybe only for an hour each week, with a therapist there, but you talk to it all the same.
Try to at least make an acquaintance of it. Get to know it. Attempt to work it out, so it doesn’t keep getting the better of you. I did this last year when I wrote a book about my mental health, Mad Girl.
It made me very unhappy. Depressed even. Sitting with your unhappiness day in, day out is difficult, like scratching away at a scab.
Even when the book came out at the beginning of the summer, I had not learnt properly how to deal with it. How to cope with it. But being able to cope with unhappiness is, I realise, all that happiness really is. It is nothing more complicated than that.
To find yourself in a real bind, wondering how you might get out of it, and to realise that you do not have to. You can just ‘be’ and not beat yourself up for just being.
And one day you catch yourself, maybe when you are having lunch with your family or watching someone you love run free across a park, and you get a pang of a memory of the misery you once used to feel all the time. You don’t freeze. You don’t panic. You say, ‘Hello unhappiness, my old friend. How are you?’
Then you smile, and you get on with your day.
‘I found happiness when… I stopped micro-managing my future’
Elizabeth Day, 37
I’ve always had a plan. At four, I knew what I wanted as a career. By seven, I pretty much had my GCSE choices sorted. At 18, I had predetermined the age at which I would marry (26), the number of children I would have (two) and where I would live (London, preferably in a red-brick mansion flat).
In my early 20s, I managed to tick every life box. I had a job on a national newspaper, a long-term boyfriend, my own flat (not in a mansion block, as it turned out, but still…).
Everyone told me I was very young to be doing what I was doing, and so I felt I was achieving. And achieving was happiness, wasn’t it? But then things started to go awry.
Unexpected events shook my confidence. A beloved ex-boyfriend was killed. I didn’t get married at 26. My job changed when an editor was sacked and I was forced to take a backward step.
My relationship broke down. I was mugged outside the front door of my flat and sold it shortly afterwards.
Life continued to surprise me. I got married, then divorced. I didn’t have children because it turned out that for some reason, at that particular time, my body couldn’t conceive or hold on to a baby. I hadn’t prepared for any of this. I was at sea.
For a while, I tried to ignore the uncertainty by replacing it with an illusion of focus. I needed to set new goals, I told myself. I needed to buy a flat and get a new relationship and impregnate myself (preferably with twins) before my ovaries shrivelled into submission. But of course that was impossible.
All it did was make me anxious that I wasn’t achieving. By inventing unobtainable goals, I had set myself up to be a perpetual failure in my own mind.
So I learnt to stay present. I realised that not knowing what would happen in six months, let alone six years, could be liberating rather than constricting.
By letting go, I found my happiness. Will I still feel the same this time next year? I haven’t a clue. And I’m fine with that.
‘I found happiness when… I started to love my body’
By Kerry Potter, 41
On a work trip to Los Angeles a decade ago, I stayed in a hotel famous for its sun-dappled turquoise pool, lined with tropical foliage, luxurious cabanas and smiley staff bearing glasses of ice-cold rosé.
After checking in, I practically skipped up to my room to grab my bikini, eager to get stuck in – until I stepped on to my balcony and saw the poolside scene below.
The water and daybeds were teeming with genetically blessed, toned, tanned bodies. A Hollywood actress was prancing in the shallow end and there was a fashion shoot in full swing.
Panicked, I peered down at my white, flabby, resolutely British thighs, deflated, and decided my time would be better spent in my room catching up on emails.
I spent five days in residence and didn’t once dip a toe into that gorgeous water. Ten years on, the memory makes me sad. I’ve spent much of this summer in a bikini, content and carefree: on French beaches, at the local lido, in the paddling pool in my garden.
I used to skulk with my head down but these days I move unselfconsciously from the sun lounger to the water.
Nothing much has changed – I haven’t lost vast amounts of weight or had liposuction – but I’ve switched off that internal voice that once convinced me that my body, work and parenting skills weren’t good enough.
The first step is perspective: I’ve reached an age where people I love are falling seriously ill, their bodies failing them, so it seems churlish to complain about my own.
It makes me realise my body is pretty amazing: it’s proven strong and healthy enough to bear two children. It can carry 10 shopping bags at once or sleepy small people upstairs to bed. It is powerful enough to run half marathons and hold a yoga headstand.
The second step is acceptance: I’ve learned how to dress my short frame and curves (defined waists, cropped trousers and sleeves, nothing voluminous). Finally, there’s being kind to myself: I wouldn’t dream of criticising anybody else’s body, so now I don’t criticise my own.
I eat well, I exercise, I’m the right weight for my height and I look OK – good, even. It’s not normal for women – especially a mother-of-two with stretch marks – to say that out loud without sounding delusional. But maybe we all should. We’d be happier for it.
‘I found happiness when… I wrote a to-do list’
Laura Powell, 30
One Saturday afternoon, several years ago, I found myself lying on the floor of Reading station car park, sobbing. Months earlier I’d started feeling strange. My legs and arms were unbearably heavy, and sitting upright at my desk became exhausting.
It reached the stage where I didn’t even have the energy to reply to a text message, only lie in my parents’ tiny spare bedroom.
That Saturday I’d been determined to pull myself together for my boyfriend’s birthday – he agreed to collect me from the station – but he was late and the benches were full, so I wandered to the car park and crumpled. Doctors told me I had depression and anxiety but I didn’t believe them.
I assumed I was just lazy and convinced myself every moment I lay in that tiny room that I was failing at work, losing friends and neglecting my boyfriend. I tried to cling on to normality but the fug of exhaustion lingered.
It took three years of therapy to see that, whatever the medical cause, the trigger was my mindset.
I worried incessantly about letting people down and tried my damnedest to please everyone. Two friends’ birthdays in one night? I’d be at both. A last-minute work assignment in Glasgow? Sure, I’ll get there and back in a day, and still make dinner.
My diary was booked months in advance and I rushed around madly to meet commitments, then scolded myself for being perpetually late.
It was making me ill and unhappy. Recovery began slowly: proper meals, exercise, nights in. But advice from a friend, El, changed everything.
Successful and popular, I assumed El was naturally happy, but she admitted it took effort and showed me a page in her diary with six subheadings: Career. Friends/family. Relationships. Hobbies. Health. Future.
If she neglected one for too long, it upset her balance; her key to happiness was devoting time to all six. That night I wrote my own subheadings, and filled them with the things I wanted to enjoy more and achieve. From the biggies (save for a flat), to the day-to-day (yoga, edit my book, phone my grandparents regularly).
That sheet of paper – now tatty and scribbled on – has stayed close. If I have a low spell, I read it, add to it, recalibrate. I’ve stuck it on the side of my fridge, to remind me what’s important – and make sure I never get stuck in that spiral again.
By Kirsten Salyer, The Deputy Editor of TIME Ideas
Focus on others
How do we find joy in a world filled with suffering? That timeless question drives The Book of Joy, a weeklong conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu woven into a narrative by Douglas Abrams. As the two men reflect on their personal experiences, they impart advice for finding inner joy. The secret? Not thinking too much about yourself.
Over the week in Dharamsala, India, they go deep on feelings and philosophy, to the point that Abrams suggests speeding things up. The Dalai Lama remarks that they have time aplenty, and the Archbishop jokes, “You must shorten your answers. I am brief.” Together, they celebrate the Lama’s 80th birthday at the Tibetan Children’s Village with cake and trick candles. And they outline eight pillars of joy, divided by
And they outline eight pillars of joy, divided by mind (perspective, humility, humor, acceptance) and heart (forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, generosity). The question may be timeless, but their answer has urgent significance.
This appears in the October 03, 2016 issue of TIME.
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