The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

How do we foster joy in our everyday lives?


Joy is a topic that I’ve been curious about for many years, especially how to cultivate a joyful life amidst suffering and hardship. I picked up this book after a friend recommended it to me as we were reflecting on how to address root causes of mental health concerns. Though the book was published in 2016, it was especially poignant as I read it in the middle of year 3 of a global pandemic alongside ongoing political divisiveness, racial discrimination, climate change, and heightened violence and war.


The book’s creation was the result of a week of dialogues between two Nobel Peace Prize laureates: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They were convened to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and give the world a gift of this book which reflected on how to find joy in the face of suffering. The two were longtime friends, and their collaborator and chronicler, Douglas Abrams, captured their timeless wisdom and insights alongside shared stories and endless teasing of one another. Abrams also wove in the science demonstrating how the eight spiritual practices and mindsets foster enduring joy.


The book opens with a discussion about the nature of joy, the role of suffering, and how joy differs from happiness. The authors suggest happiness is a temporal state influenced by circumstances while joy is a more enduring trait that is less influenced by changing life events. Ample space is devoted to discussing common obstacles to joy, including the emotions of fear, stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, despair, loneliness, envy, illness, and fear of death.


This quote sums up this section on the interaction between joy and suffering:

“Many of the things that undermine our joy and happiness we create ourselves… As we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without becoming broken.”


The rest of the book introduces eight pillars of joy, four of which are heart-focused and four of which are mind-focused. The mind-focused pillars include perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance. The heart-focused pillars include forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.


There are two things that make this book special and helpful. First, is the opportunity to have a vicarious front-row seat in the audience as these two amazing spiritual leaders share stories, jokes, laughter, and tears with one another. Though they represent different belief systems and cultural backgrounds, they role-model deep respect, love, and care for one another. It’s a fitting example for today’s divisive times.


As much fun as it is to read the dialogues, it is the final chapter devoted to joy practices that transforms the book from a nice set of ideas into something feasible and practical. There are some practices devoted to overcoming obstacles to joy and others devoted to cultivating the eight pillars of joy. I especially appreciate the guidance to adapt the practices in whatever way works for your life since not all practices will work for all people. All are well-grounded in research and additional resources are offered for those who want to dig deeper into some of them.


Readers will benefit most from this book by approaching it with an open mind. The views of these two spiritual leaders may conflict with some world views. There is value to be gained even if your personal beliefs do not align with those shared by the authors. As His Holiness says at one point, “I consider faith very important, but at the same time the reality is that out of seven billion people, over one billion people on the planet are nonbelievers. So, we cannot exclude them… One need not depend on religious faith to educate our inner values.” Co-author, Douglas Abrams, does a nice job of weaving in questions or arguments that might be raised by spiritual skeptics.


All of the practices shared at the end of the book require moments of intentional contemplation. This could take the form of being still, moving, or journaling. But all require the space and time to practice them, even if for just ten minutes. The challenge is to identify a set of practices that resonate most strongly and then get creative about weaving them into daily life, so they are practiced regularly. According to the authors, this is what “transforms joy from a fleeting feeling to a lasting way of being.”


I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the difference between happiness and joy; how to make meaning out of the inevitable suffering and adversity that is a part of life; and to identify ways to experience a more joyful life.