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What really matters for a happy and meaningful life?

08 Jul 2015 | Daniel Goleman

The following is an excerpt from Daniel Goleman's new book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World

Image 1 - Dalai Lama On Stage (small)

"What's the source of happiness?" a student at Princeton University asked the Dalai Lama.

Looking around at the students waiting for his answer, the Dalai Lama paused a beat or two, then called out: "Money!"

Another beat or two: "Sex!"

And then: "Nightclubs!"

His joke brought down the house.

Then he went on to say that when we see the world through a materialistic lens, we look to such sensory stimulation as the source of satisfaction or joyfulness. But, he added, focusing only on sensory delights leaves us perpetually dissatisfied, because such pleasures are short-lived.

When I met with the Dalai Lama in Italy for this book, he had just received an invitation to a conference on the nature of happiness from Lord Richard Layard, whom my wife and I stopped off to see the next week in his office at the London School of Economics.

The aim of life, Layard told us, should be to create as much happiness as we can - and as little misery - in the world around us.

Layard and his allies sought to stir a supporting social change that would offer an alternative to the predominant self-obsession with financial striving. They wanted to spread a better vision of what a happy, fulfilling life looks like.

And so began Action for Happiness, a secular movement that captures much of the ways in which religion aims to give people an ethical and emotional anchor -- teaching how to engage life with meaning, and treat others well - but in a way that also appeals to people with no particular religious interest. As a sign of his endorsement, the Dalai Lama agreed to be the organization's "patron".

Image 2 - Richard Layard With Dalai Lama (small)
[Action for Happiness co-founder Richard Layard with His Holiness the Dalai Lama]

On joining Action for Happiness, people pledge: "I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me." That means taking action to improve their own wellbeing, but also to help create happier neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and communities, says Mark Williamson, the group's Director.

While Action for Happiness' membership numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and about 60% of those live in farflung countries, "The magic is in small, face-to-face groups," Williamson says. The model seems a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous, in that anyone who qualifies can initiate a local group where people meet together regularly around a set format.

Each meeting starts with a few minutes of mindfulness and expressions of gratitude, with the topic for discussion at the heart of the session. The meeting ends with people choosing an action to take, along the lines of helping someone in need or connecting with a lonely person. One group launched a Happiness Cafe, where like-minded people can connect and share ideas to create a happier and more supportive local community.

In Exploring What Matters, the main Action for Happiness program, groups meet for eight weeks, with each session focusing on a big question for discussion. They start with "What really matters in life?" and then "What really makes us happy?". These are followed by sessions on dealing with adversity, having good relationships, caring for others, and creating happier workplaces and communities. They end with "How can we create a happier world?"

Image 3 - Action For Happiness Event (small)
[Animated discussions at an Action for Happiness event in London]

This progression from personal meaning and happiness to compassion often leads people to find ways to help other people. For instance, Jasmine Hodge-Lake came to Action for Happiness because of her chronic pain. Degenerative spine disease, carpal tunnel, and fibromyalgia created a toxic mix of suffering that had brought her life to a standstill.

Unable to work, and having been in constant pain for over a decade, she spent her days in despair. A pain management course that brought no relief left her feeling more helpless, plunging her deeper into depression. "At the end I felt, I have no hope," said Hodge-Lake. "This is my life: no life."

Adding to her funk, she felt isolated. "I didn't want to be around other people and thought that no one really cared about me," she recalls.

By chance, she stumbled on the Action for Happiness website, which includes a simple list of Ten Keys to Happier Living - connecting more with people, for example. For Hodge-Lake that list brought the realization there were practical steps she could take to become happier. And so she joined the eight-week course.

Her first "lightbulb" moment in the course came as she was listening to a talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn about mindfulness and saw that she could change her relationship to her pain: Accept it rather than fight against it. That internal shift lessened her emotional distress, even as the sensations of pain remained.

Another lightbulb came during the week on what makes work meaningful and fulfilling. Hodge-Lake, realizing she had lost passion for just about everything, resolved to work with other people suffering from chronic pain, to see how she might help them too.

"I was still fairly depressed, but I started to do more things," Hodge-Lake said. "It was amazing how the tools that Action for Happiness gave me helped. I found there were things I could do that would make a big difference. I started to feel hopeful about the future."

With that inner change, she thought about how to improve support for people who live with chronic pain. "I realized we need a new approach - one that is more hopeful and uses some of the ideas that I had learned from Action for Happiness."

Hodge-Lake now informally counsels others with chronic pain about ways they might be helped - and she seeks to give them hope. She's in the process of becoming a "patient voice" in a program to improve patient-care guidelines for Britain's medical system. And she's spreading the word about Action for Happiness, passing out their card on Ten Keys to Happier Living - and encouraging people to get involved.

"I wouldn't be where I am now without Action for Happiness and that course," she contends. "I still have bad days and life certainly isn't perfect. But it has really helped me so much. Now I'm trying to be the change that I want to see."


In A Force for Good, with the help of his longtime friend Daniel Goleman, the New York Times bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence, the Dalai Lama explains how to turn our compassionate energy outward. This revelatory and inspiring work provides a singular vision for transforming the world in practical and positive ways.

Image 4 - Daniel Goleman (small)  Image 5 - A Force For Good (small)


A Force For Good

Dan Goleman's fantastic new book about the Dalai Lama's vision for our world.

A Force For Good

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