Nobel Prize laureates’ take on lasting joy yields wisdom

Sharing our joy with others is a key to happiness. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Sharing our joy with others is a key to happiness. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Gil Barbezat goes in search of happiness.

Acquiring happiness has long been an elusive human aim. Current world events described by media, including an ODT editorial (29.10.22), do not provide a source of joy and happiness for the community at large.

As a result, many resort to surfing the internet to find information that satisfies their curiosity while not disturbing their feeling of wellbeing. This too often drives people to dead-end echo chambers, many providing mis- or disinformation. We are all familiar with distractions providing temporary relief to our quest, but remain frustrated when their transient effect evaporates.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World is an international bestseller providing an interesting and challenging alternative. The book records the proceedings of a week spent with two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, debating the topic; it is narrated by Douglas Abrams (an American describing himself as a Jewish atheist). They reach the commonly held conclusion that frustration is a result of individuals’ futile quest of seeking joy for themselves, and not primarily for others. Caring for others, including the biodiversity and climate of our precious planet, is what leads to more lasting joy.

They describe eight basic pillars of joy.

Four are qualities of the mind:

Perspective: seeing the bigger picture, including others’ views going beyond self-interest.

Humility: remembering we are just one of billions of Earth’s inhabitants depending on our environment for survival.

Humour: ability to laugh, including at ourselves.

Acceptance: accepting reality of life as what is best for humanity, and not necessarily what we would like it to be.

Four are qualities of the heart:

Forgiveness: truth, forgiveness and reconciliation often need acceptance as a triad, enabling us to forgive others and ourselves.

Gratitude: realisation that most good fortune and enjoyment comes from outside ourselves, from other people or nature itself.

Compassion: genuine concern for the health and happiness of others, and how we could contribute towards sharing a happier world.

Generosity: sharing our joy with others by giving of our time and material gains to further human freedom and combat hunger and fear.

These are presented not as abstract qualities, but qualities now an integral part of their thinking and characterising their interactions with others. These qualities of living have been instrumental in enabling them to achieve remarkable success in overcoming severe adversity (the Dalai Lama particularly in his long exile from Tibet, and Tutu for his heroic stand against the inequities of apartheid) and being such radiantly positive examples to their fellow humans.

Their concept of working towards the creation of a joyous environment overlaps significantly with the Christian principle of treating others as you would wish them to treat you; the Maori "te whare tapa wha", where a vital life feature relates to relationships with others; the African concept of "ubuntu", literally meaning ‘I am because we are’; the view of the 16th century English poet John Donne that no man is an island; and also the ODT editorial conclusion that we benefit from looking after others before ourselves. We each need to view our existence as part of a whole, and therefore have some responsibility towards benefiting human integrity, biodiversity and the planet.

The personal qualities of these two men stand out in such contrast to so many other current world leaders. It almost creates a watershed of personalities separating those who strive to promote peace and make others happy, from those who pursue their own political or personal agendas whatever the consequences. The fruits of these divergent contributions are evident for all to see.

It is tragic that asking world leaders to examine and adopt these pillars of joy seems so far from today’s reality. Increasing comment is evident concerning general interpersonal intolerance in modern society, typified by aggression, hate speech, riots and road rage. A positive alternative has been suggested in The Book of Joy to revolutionise interpersonal attitudes and reverse this negative trend. Some countries consider the wellbeing of their populations as a measure of successful governance.

What do we need to persuade humanity that there are better ways than those of selfishness and greed? Humanity is urged to take a fresh approach towards peaceful relations between individuals and eventually between nations. Application of the pillars of joy into daily life is surprisingly helpful. Other similar and helpful approaches to seeking joy are available, such as the Thankfulness Project (, designed to promote positive responses to mental health issues.

Human destiny faces many challenges; these require teamwork and understanding to achieve peaceful coexistence. We certainly owe it to our descendants to shape a better quality of life for their future. Finding happiness in creating supportive attitudes between one another while caring for our precious environment are lifestyle choices with clearly demonstrable practical benefits.

— Gil Barbezat is an emeritus professor of medicine.