The Nature of Joy

By Chase Duffy

Compassion, generosity, and love for our fellow human beings. This is how I would describe joy in the sense that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of it. I just recently finished The Book of Joy, which these two coauthored with Douglas Abrams. In the five-day interview, the two holy men speak expansively upon the nature of joy, its obstacles, and how to attain lasting happiness. The book touches upon grief, temporary happiness, anger, envy, and myriad other related issues, but both leaders agree: to have true joy in life, one must simply look beyond himself. Caring for other humans and having true regard for their health and well-being is the key to the joyful disposition that nearly all holy men seem to have. This jubilation and happiness comes from their unconditional love for their fellow human beings, and it is because of their compassion, intimacy with grief, and generosity.


From the very start of the book, the word compassion is almost inextricably linked to joy. When asked about what his hopes for the book are, the Dalai Lama says “[w]e need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now” (30). His Holiness continues to speak about both compassion and joy together, as if they were a package, throughout the book. He blames much of people’s suffering today on the self-centeredness that modern society promotes, and he suggests the remedy to our suffering is an unconditional, unflinching love of our fellow human beings. “[Y]our enemies are still human brothers and sisters, so they also deserve our love, our respect, our affection. That’s unbiased love. You might have to resist your enemies’ actions, but you can love them as brothers and sisters” (78). Archbishop Tutu also spoke expansively upon compassion, saying “compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved” (252). The Archbishop explains that when one is suffering and he focuses on alleviating others’ suffering, suddenly his suffering becomes easier to bear. The Dalai Lama is a man who has been exiled for over sixty years, who has seen countless friends and colleagues taken to Chinese work camps. Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived through apartheid in South Africa, from before the time Nelson Mandela was jailed until modern day. And both advocate for an unconditional love for all of our fellow human beings because they realize hatred is not the way. Hatred and anger have a tendency to hurt the one feeling these emotions the most, whereas love and empathy have the power to transform even the most negative feelings into a deep regard for the other’s soul and mortality.

Grief’s Role

Grief and sadness, though only one chapter in the book, played a large part in the message of the work as a whole. It is out of this grief that our compassion is born, and it is also through grief that we see the depth of our love. I recently tweeted a series of tweets about people lacking empathy having been through grief themselves, and the gist was this: if you have experienced the depth of pain that humans can feel, how could you ever disregard someone else’s suffering, which is invariably more serious. In The Book of Joy, “the Archbishop argued strongly, [sadness] often leads us most directly to empathy and compassion and to recognizing our need for one another” (110) and I would agree. Of all the developments that came from my father’s death, the most positive has been my love and empathy that I feel when other’s experience grief like I did. And all suffering for that matter. I was devastated when my father died, but I got to have him there for my first seventeen years of life; I never had to wonder where my meals were going to come from on the weekend, or had to hunker down in a house without heating in the winter. I have lived a blessed life except for one profound event of grief; it boggles my mind to see so much suffering just brushed aside in political discussion, disregarded by the same people who have dealt with grief in a very real way. In America, all too often it is accepted that suffering is just a natural fact of life when in fact “[a] lot of the problems we are facing are our own creation, like war and violence” (30). If they are made by us, these problems can be fixed by us too. We just need to care for our fellow man with actual compassion.


The design of The Book of Joy was one in which the Archbishop’s and Dalai Lama’s commentaries upon joy were interspersed with scientific research upon joy that Douglas Abrams had found and included. In one chapter, he introduces research from neuroscientist Richard Davidson on “four independent brain circuits that influence our lasting well-being” in which he explains “that we had an entire brain circuit… devoted to generosity” (56). Basically, the brain has an entire system dedicated to rewarding a person with happiness when one is generous. This can be the giving of money or gifts, spiritual guidance, or refuge from fear. It is hardwired into our DNA to care for our fellow humans; upon this basis, generosity was established as the eighth and final pillar of joy.* Archbishop Tutu mentions the concept of Ubuntu, or “[a] person is a person through other persons”(270), throughout the book, and generosity is the embodiment of this in action. It is the expression “of our interdependence and our need for one another” (264). There is a reason charity is included in all five of the world’s major religions. It is a universal virtue, one that spans across societies and cultures.

*The first seven are: Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Compassion

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