The Paradox of Joy: You Must Have It to Give It

If you’ve ever listened to a flight attendant’s safety talk, you’ve heard one thing every time: Secure your own mask first. This is probably the most powerful illustration of the fundamental necessity of self-care—you simply cannot help others in any sustainable way if you don’t look after yourself first.

Around this time of year, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the call to serve, whether at work, home, or in your community. There’s nothing wrong with that—as long as you bear in mind that finding joy for yourself is just as important as bringing joy to others. And to help us each find the joy we’re craving, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have published a new book about joy in a world of suffering:

Read the following excerpt from their book to learn about the importance of giving yourself the gift of joy, regardless of whether it’s packaged as a pocket-sized moment or an ongoing wave of delight.

If one of the fundamental secrets of joy is going beyond our own self-centeredness, then is it foolish selfishness (as the Dalai Lama would say) and self-defeating to focus on our own joy and happiness? The Archbishop had already said that we could not pursue joy and happiness in their own right, so is it not a mistake to focus on them at all?

Research suggests that cultivating your own joy and happiness has benefits not just for you, but also for others in your life. When we are able to move beyond our own pain and suffering, we are more available to others; pain causes us to be extremely self-focused. Whether the pain is physical or mental, it seems to consume all of our focus and leave very little attention for others. In his book with the Dalai Lama, psychiatrist Howard Cutler summarized these findings: “In fact, survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative, and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.”

Still some might wonder what our own joy has to do with countering injustice and inequality. What does our happiness have to do with addressing the suffering of the world? In short, the more we heal our own pain, the more we can turn to the pain of others. But in a surprising way, what the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama were saying is that the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others. It is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, “to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.” As we will see, joy is in fact quite contagious. As is love, compassion, and generosity.

So being more joyful is not just about having more fun. We’re talking about a more empathic, more empowered, even more spiritual state of mind that is totally engaged with the world. When the Archbishop and I were working on creating a training course for peace ambassadors and activists who go into conflict regions, he explained how peace must come from within. We cannot bring peace if we do not have inner peace. Similarly, we cannot hope to make the world a better, happier place if we do not also aspire for this in our own lives.

I asked the Dalai Lama what it was like to wake up with joy, and he shared his experience each morning. “I think if you are an intensely religious believer, as soon as you wake up, you thank God for another day. And you try to do God’s will. For a nontheist like myself, but who is a Buddhist, as soon as I wake up, I remember Buddha’s teaching: the importance of kindness and compassion, wishing something good for others, or at least to reduce their suffering. Then I remember that everything is interrelated, the teaching of interdependence. So then I set my intention for the day: that this day should be meaningful. Meaningful means, if possible, serve and help others. If not possible, then at least not to harm others. That’s a meaningful day.”

And now, Susan Cain’s own words about what joy means for her:

For me, joy comes most reliably from a feeling of deep communion with other humans. I don’t mean, like, let’s sit down together and have a cup of tea (though that is very nice too). I mean the kind of communion you feel when you’ve shared the exact same experience of what it’s like to be alive.

So sometimes, that joy comes when I watch my kids engaged in something they’re passionate about, and I know EXACTLY what it’s like to have that kind of passion, and I’m so happy that they’re experiencing it for themselves. Sometimes, it’s from reading a book where the author—who may have lived in a different country and even century—expresses some complicated emotion or idea, and I think OMG I HAVE FELT EXACTLY THE SAME WAY BUT NEVER PUT IT INTO WORDS UNTIL NOW (I feel this way a lot when reading E.M. Forster’s Howards End). And often it comes from music, especially music that communicates existential longing—yesterday’s such listen was Silent Rider by Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider.

What about you, my friends? What’s your most reliable source of joy?

Reprinted from The Book of Joy by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016, The Dalai Lama Trust, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu book cover