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Are the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu Positive Psychologists?

"The Book of Joy" contains scientifically supported ideas to live the good life.

In my last blog post, I introduced my goal to use science to help everyone to thrive and I included a simple gratitude activity. In this post, I'll review an enjoyable read, The Book of Joy, that shares a similar purpose and is loaded with wisdom and science about finding enduring happiness—even those who have experienced unimaginable hardships.

When people hear about positive psychology, they can be quick to dismiss it because they assume we are unrealistically promoting a Pollyannaish view or advice to just “be happy” that ignores adversity and focuses on hedonism. However, these authors, like positive psychologists, are not thinking about, nor encouraging, joy or happiness in a hedonistic pleasure-seeking way but as an enduring path to happiness. Further, the authors and positive psychologists know that adversity and trauma are part of this path for every human but so is our ability to overcome them.

Photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash
The authors use storytelling and humor to provide scientifically supported examples of how to find lasting happiness.
Source: Photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash

This book is a weeklong conversation between the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams about finding enduring happiness. The conversation quickly moves past spiritual differences and welcomes people of any (or no) spiritual practice as they highlight how we all need to appreciate our common humanity to find a lasting sense of joy. Abrams, encouraged by the other two authors, periodically links the conversation to scientific findings about happiness. They use storytelling and humor to provide scientifically supported examples of how to find lasting happiness. In other words, the book turns out to be an informal and accessible approach that includes much of what science has revealed about living the good life.

Although I can’t cover everything in the book, I can tell you that if you read the book you’ll get nuggets of wisdom throughout that transcend any spiritual perspective. Here are a few of the bigger ones:

Enduring happiness is something that we can control. Small or subtle changes can make a big difference.

Happiness starts with our connections to others. Throughout the book, the authors share stories about how relationships are key to well-being. They highlight the importance of common humanity and how we generally have much more in common with others. To see it, they provide examples of how to step back and take a broader perspective and be grateful for the kindness of others.

Despite experiencing great trauma and sufferings, the authors have found joy. The Dalai Lama has lived a lifetime in exile and Desmond Tutu overcame South Africa’s apartheid. In sharing their wisdom, they offer vivid examples about how they and people they have known handle suffering and focus on what you can control. Both give examples about how a focus on others by seeking to take of or help them is the ultimate path towards joy. As such, they see challenges and suffering as a chance to grow. They provide many other examples about how even when we cannot prevent suffering, we can control how we respond.

There are far too many other valuable ideas to cover here. They also address the value of and effective ways to deal with anger, fear, stress, grief, and anxiety. They focus on cultivating strengths such as compassion, humility, humor, forgiveness, and gratitude.

Finally, they include a range of joy practices that are similar to many positive psychology interventions. You should not expect every practice to work for you but some of them will, especially if you dedicate time and effort to them.

Bonus idea: I’ve learned that if you listen to the audio version of the book, it includes the Dalai Lama and Tutu in conversation.


Lama, D., Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. C. (2016). The book of joy: Lasting happiness in a changing world. Penguin.

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