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Love & Compassion: the Key to a Better World

Dalai LamaIs there anyone who isn’t concerned about the world today?

The question is:  how do we get to the heart of the matter and turn the tide?

The Dalai Lama has answered this question and given us a remarkable step-by-step guide for building a better world.  His plan doubles as a template for securing your own happiness and well-being at the same time.  All the details are contained in his bestselling Ethics for New Millennium, published ten years ago.

Voted the most respected world leader in a 2009 Gallup poll, the Dalai Lama – with his warm heart, infectious smile, and positive disposition – is universally admired.   Wouldn’t we all love to know his secret formula for happiness?

As disastrous oil spills shake us to our core and the dangers of climate change continue to unnerve us, it seems judicious to revisit his plan for global sanity.

In this 5-part series based on Ethics for a New Millennium, I will present some of the key principles and practices that the Dalai Lama emphasizes as crucial to greater peace and harmony both as individuals and as a society.  They are simple steps, easily accessible to all.

How Can I be Happy?

The Dalai Lama has traveled the world far and wide.  He has met people from all walks of life, cultures, religious traditions, and those who ascribe to no religion.  Among the countless people he’s encountered, he’s observed one single factor as the driving force behind all our actions.  He says,

“Indeed the more I see of the world, the clearer it becomes that no mater what our situation, whether we are rich or poor, educated or not, of one race, gender, religion, or another, we all desire to be happy and to avoid suffering.”

This is the great question that confronts all of us:  “How can I be happy?”  It is the motivating question behind all our actions and endeavors both as individuals and as societies.  The desire to be happy and to avoid suffering is our very nature.

This simple principle lies at the heart of his plan for transforming the world.

Despite Material Abundance, Unhappiness Prevails

As he has traveled about, the Dalai Lama has also noticed,

“…those living in materially developed countries are in some ways less satisfied, are less happy, and to some extent suffer more than those living in the least developed countries.”

“They are so caught up with the idea of acquiring still more that they make no room for anything else in their lives.  In their absorption, they actually lose the dream of happiness, which riches were to have provided.  As a result, they are constantly tormented, torn between doubt about what might happen and the hope of gaining more, and plagued with mental and emotional suffering – even though outwardly they may appear to be leading entirely successful and comfortable lives.”

He notes a disturbing prevalence of psychological and emotional suffering in the form of  “anxiety, discontent, frustration, uncertainty, and depression” among people living in developed countries.  “Indeed, if we compare the rich with the poor, it often seems that those with nothing are, in fact, the least anxious, though they are plagued with physical pains and suffering.”  The simple abundance that Raam Dev found in a remote village of Nepal illustrates the Dalai Lama’s point well.

Ethics for a New MillenniumOne of the significant changes that has occurred in developed countries is a reorganization of the way we live.  Our lives are now structured to increase autonomy and independence, while reducing our direct dependence on others.  Thus people strive to own their own home, car, computer, and so on.  This acquired autonomy makes it seem as though we are self-sufficient and that our future is no longer dependent on our neighbors, but only on our employer.  This in turn can lead us to feel that if others are not so important to my happiness, their happiness is not so important to me.

The end result is a society where it’s difficult for people to express basic affection.   There’s a diminishing sense of community and belonging, and a growing sense of loneliness and alienation.  The emphasis on economic growth and development reinforces competitiveness and envy, compounding the sense of separation.  As science takes precedence over religion, there are fewer guideposts and more confusion about how to conduct ourselves in daily life as well as a tendency to think that nothing exists.

Just take a look around the blogosphere and you will see an explosion of blogs offering advice on how to find happiness, love, and positivity to fill this growing chasm of discontent.  Isn’t it ironic that despite having all our basics needs met, we simply don’t know how to be happy?

This same scenario of inner suffering occurs in areas of the world – like parts of Southeast Asia – where prosperity has recently increased.  A sense of discontentment seems to consistently rise in tandem with economic development.  This shows us that the potential for this unease exists within all of us and can easily manifest given a shift in circumstances.

The success of science and technology has led us to believe that the keys to happiness are material well-being and the power conferred by knowledge.  However, with each passing day it  is becoming clearer and clearer that material well-being cannot bring happiness.  The budding interest in minimalism reflects this conclusion.  While knowledge is powerful indeed, it alone cannot bring happiness.  Happiness can only be found through an inner personal development that is not dependent on external factors.

A Revolution Is In Order

The Dalai Lama is not proposing that we abandon scientific achievements.  Nor does he recommend idealizing old ways of life.  He believes the challenge at hand is to find ways to enjoy the same degree of harmony and tranquility enjoyed by traditional cultures while continuing to benefit from the material developments we have secured.

He points to the escalation of certain negative trends as indicative of the turmoil we face in modern society, including an increase in:

  • murder, violence, and rape
  • abusive and exploitative relationships
  • drug and alcohol addiction
  • divorce and its adverse effects on children

But, he is quick to point out,

“none of these problems are by nature inevitable. Nor are they due to any lack of knowledge.  When we think carefully we see they are all ethical problems.  They each reflect our understanding of what is right and wrong, of what is positive and what is negative, of what is appropriate and inappropriate.  But beyond this we can point to something more fundamental:  a neglect of what I call our inner dimension.”

“…given the complexity or our species—in particular, the fact that our having thoughts and emotions as well as imaginative and critical faculties—it is obvious that our needs transcend the merely sensual.  The prevalence of anxiety, stress, confusion, uncertainty, and depression among those whose basic needs have been met is a clear indication of this.  Our problems, both those that we experience externally – such as wars, crime, and violence – and those we experience internally—our emotional and psychological sufferings—cannot be solved until we address this underlying neglect.  That is why the great movements of the last hundred years and more—democracy, liberalism, socialism—have all failed to deliver the universal benefit they were supposed to provide, despite many wonderful ideas.

A revolution is called for, certainly,  But not a political, an economic, or even a technical revolution.   We have had enough experience of these during the past century to know that a purely external approach will not suffice.  What I propose is a spiritual revolution.”

In calling for a spiritual revolution, the Dalai Lama is not proposing a religious solution to our problems.  Rather he is calling for a reawakening of the basic human values that are common to us all.  These we will explore in Part 2 of this series A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony.

What are your thoughts on the Dalai Lama’s ideas for a better world?

A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony:

Image of the Dalai Lama from his Facebook Page.



How Wide Is Your Love?


3 Great posts, 2 Useful Resources, and Water


  1. The Dalai Lama is quite correct in pointing out the big disconnect between material possessions and happiness. The two don’t support each other. In fact, I could argue they work against each other.

    It is important to understand the difference between happiness and joy. The former is an emotion usually generated by external circumstances and is temporary. Joy is an internal feeling. True joy is not temporary and not affected by external circumstances.

    Aiming for only for happiness instead of joy is setting your sights too low.

    • Hi Bob,

      That’s an interesting distinction between happiness and joy – the first time I’ve heard it and I think it’s a good one. I agree that there is a different between happiness based on external circumstances and a joy and sense of relaxation that comes from having a bigger perspective on life. At the same time, I feel it’s important not to get too hung up on happiness. Suffering will occur in life, it’s realistic to understand that and at the same time to realize how we see suffering depends upon our own mind.

      Thanks for your insightful comment.

  2. Beautiful write up!

    > a neglect of what I call our inner dimension
    I like that.

    I know a lot of people without their basic needs met anymore … I think we have a lot of interesting challenges at all levels of the Maslow stack.

    • Hi J. D. – I haven’t looked at the Maslow stack for eons. In this context, basic needs means water, food, and the like. I suspect it means a bit more in the Maslow context, but will have to check it out. You’ve got me curious now!

  3. Beautiful post. I agree that material possessions don’t bring happiness – although some of them they make your life easier.
    I like the idea of a spiritual revolution – the only one that can actually work. I believe that all changes must come from within, and that we need to find joy within ourselves. It’s not easy, but when I find that place inside myself where I’m at peace, content, then I can look at life with new eyes.
    I’m looking forward to the next post on this series 🙂

    • Thank you, Cristina. I appreciate your clear and realistic perspective. Cultivating joy is a new habit for many of us and, as you point out, it takes dedicated effort. Our tendency is to fall back to old habits, but it is possible to change. You certainly have found the right spot inside yourself. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Wow, Sandra! Fantastic post.

    Interestingly, somebody gave this book to me a couple of months ago, suggesting that I read it. I’m disappointed to stay I still have not. But you blog post motivates me to right that situation!

    What intrigues me most about this cogent book review is how the Dalai Lama’s observations of modern society mirror those included under the umbrella of modernism, which encompasses literature, philosophy, art and more beginning from the early the 20th century.

    The central problem of modernism? Alienation.

    I also appreciate the Dalai Lama’s point that knowledge is not the key to happiness. Though I am a voracious reader and knowledge seeker, I believe it’s highly important to recognize that these are not the end-all-be-all. The elevation of character and raising of consciousness is.

    Can’t wait for part two!

    • Hi Travis,

      I think this book is a very valuable read for anyone who is interested in inner transformation as well as societal change. The Dalai Lama’s style is very analytical and logical, but also from the heart.

      Thanks for telling us about modernism. It’s always help to have the right word from a concept.

      I’m sure the Dalai Lama would agree that knowledge is extremely important. He studies Buddhist text voraciously and is a scholar himself. He’s simply point out that it’s not “the” source of happiness as you say here as well.

      It’s good to hear your perspective! Thank you.

  5. Hi Sandra, the best thing I have found about Dalai Lama is that he gives his message in a way that is easy to understand. Talking about happiness and joy I have been to several happenings with both Europeans and Africans. The Africans dance, sing and laugh, while most of the Europeans sit and watch.

    • Hi Tom,

      I love the example that you have given here of the contrast between Europeans and Africans when it comes to relaxing and enjoying. This is a wonderful reminder for all of us. Thank you.

  6. I think for all of us to be happy would be impossible. Because of the humans egos. Everything is seen as skeptical and fear mongering. So true happiness between us all is almost improbable. Plus We came into this world in fear. So we are breed this way. I think we can achieve happiness, but with the ying without the yang, correct?

    • Hi Jonathan,

      This is a really interesting point. When you look around the world and within too – and you will see so much ego indeed – it can easily seem impossible to achieve lasting happiness. From a Buddhist and Hindu perspective this period of time is considered a degenerate time – it is called the Kali Yuga – when turbulent emotions are at a peak and control us far more than we control them. The Buddhist view though is that we all have Buddha nature – the very same nature as a Buddha – fundamental goodness – that is with us here and now, this very moment. We simply don’t see or recognize it. Recognizing our true nature – not just intellectually – but with our fully being brings lasting happiness, but this ‘lasting happiness’ may not have exactly the same meaning as the word happiness we use. It is beyond words and concepts. The belief in Buddhism is that eventually everyone will indeed attain ‘enlightenment’ – the realization of their true nature – but not necessarily in this span of time. The perspective of eons is used in Buddhism and there is the belief in reincarnation.

      Yes, we have a lot to overcome – lifetimes of bad habits – but I am optimistic. The ego is indeed an obstacle, but when you look deeply you see that it doesn’t fundamentally exist, it’s just a dualistic way of looking at the world and self that can be dissolved. When you are in balance, you are not living in the extreme of yin or the extreme of yang but in harmony in the middle.

      I’m in danger of writing a book here, so I will stop. But I want to say a hearty thank you for raising these points. Whether we can all live in total happiness perhaps is unknown, but in the meantime we can do something today to find joy in ourselves and bring a bit of joy to others.

      • HUH? lol, I can see your point there. The ego is something we have to edge out. But i think that might be impossible for we are all born with one aren’t we? Aren’t we born to be selfish in a way.

        For example – When we are born we care unconsciously to find warmth, food, clothing and nutrition. This grows into adult hood, often misguided but non the less, leads us to where we are now, don’t you agree?

        • Jonathan,

          We are all born with basic needs but that’s not the same thing as the ego. All the great spiritual traditions teach us how to dissolve the ego or realize that it never existed in the first place. It’s simply a construct we’ve created because we don’t understand who we truly are. “I” is simply a label, a designation for something that doesn’t exist in a permanent, independent, or singular way. In other words, it’s just a name we use to give ourselves a sense of identity. Our big mistake is taking that identity to be solid, real, lasting when it’s simply a mindstream, a constant flux.

          If all the great spiritual teachers tell us that the way to happiness is allowing the ego to dissolve, I think there might be something to that. Of course, ego and positive self esteem are not the same.

          Thanks again for your stimulating comment.

  7. After an extended backpacking trip this past weekend, this is just so wonderful to read. I’m still reeling from being immersed in the simple and profound beauty and completeness of Nature — so much so, that HHDL’s words seem to resonate with me even more. Underneath the wide-open sky, in the shadows of the mountains and pines, with nothing but the cool wind whipping past your ears there is no “anxiety, stress, confusion, uncertainty, and depression” to be had at all. It is the absolute manifestation of happiness and joy.

    Just beautiful, Sandra. Thank you.

    • Hello Bill,

      What a beautiful and inspiring comment you have written. Makes me want to leap outside and bask in the beauty around me. But even here inside, I can let the wind caress my ears. I’m so happy you had such a joyful time in the wilderness. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Sandra,
    This is all so true and each time I saw the children and adults in Haiti after the earthquake I was mesmerized by their joy in the face of disaster and destruction. I’ve so downsized my life in every way over the past two years of reading Leo’s Zen Habits. However I can see where I can easily get caught up in success online. Each time I achieve something my ego moves the line. But don’t worry I’m on to it;) Love the Dalai Lama and I’ve seen him in person in Chicago. The crazy thing is people were pushing people to get to the front. Our ego will use anything against us!

    • Tess,

      This is another wonderful example of cultural differences that gives one pause for thought. I’m glad you have raised this point of striving for online success. I see people in my realm of the blogosphere who are burning out from blogging. Getting caught up in online success can really have an adverse impact, that’s for sure. But the universe is always bringing us the precise lessons we need to grow and change. I’m constantly re-looking at me and blogging to be sure I’m doing it in a sane way because it’s easy for me to get caught up too. I love being in the presence of the Dalai Lama. His presence is moving that it naturally touches everyone around him. Of course, people will push and shove – none of us are perfect yet!

  9. This is a very insightful article. I too have noticed that those who have less tend to be happier than those who have so much more. I have gone to a third world country to serve the poor and it was really eye opening to see how happy everyone was even though they barely had any worldly possessions.

    I also see the same differences in children, they are so happy to be alive and love to learn about the world. They are not concerned with gaining wealth or expensive things. They just want to enjoy life, enjoy the people in their lives, and learn as much as possible!

    • Hi Stacy,

      I’m so glad you came by to share your experience. It’s so revealing to see how neurotic we are in comparison to most people in the world and how unnecessary it actually is. I’m so glad you took the time to leave a comment. Thanks very much.

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