Rereading The Book of Joy, Three Years Later

In 2017 I loved The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams so much that I now own my own copy.

The last time I was looking for joy, I was traveling in Greece. It seems funny to me now that at a time when, looking back, my life seemed pretty easy and wonderful, I felt that I was lacking true joy. After rereading that post I wrote three years ago, I think I was actually looking for a personal escape. I was working at a company I loved, doing a job I loved, but I felt stressed and overworked. I wanted to feel happier in the career choices I’d made. I wanted to know that I didn’t make the wrong choices and that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I just needed to shift my attitude and my perspective and then I’d feel more joyful about my daily life.

And it’s true – a lot of what the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop say truly boils down to an attitude adjustment. Telling yourself to find joy and be grateful. Reminding yourself that everyone is struggling and your struggles are not unique, meditating about the people around you and wishing them happiness which will in turn bring you more happiness. These things aren’t true changes that you need to make in your life. They are mental shifts.

It was also easy to feel more joyful after vacationing in Greece. I took a break from my phone and the internet, I observed a new culture and world around me, I relaxed, exercised, and drank ouzo. I was full of joy.

But now. After the year we’ve had I felt like another dive into The Book of Joy was warranted. I am feeling lonely, sad, self-centered, and stuck. My grandparents just died. When I picked up this book, I was looking for meaning and purpose beyond my day to day activities. If my grandparents were able to live their lives in meaningful ways that made such a difference to so many around them (as I’d come to realize at their funerals), then what could I do to give my life that same sense of purpose and fulfillment?

It’s amazing how you can read a book more than once and take away different messages each time. Different chords ring true, different phrases stand out, and different chapters make more sense. Last time, I unknowingly focused on anything related to internal happiness. My own joy.

What I took from the book this time was its focus on others. You can’t just find happiness within yourself. You can’t just will it to happen with an attitude adjustment. You actually have to go live a purposeful life. And the way to do that is to actually focus on others. Life is meaningful in relation to the people around you. The people you help, the people you go through stuff with, the people you love. Your life’s meaning comes from what you do for others. Focusing on others take the focus off yourself. You forget your own troubles but you find such joy in making others happy that your troubles aren’t important.

It’s been difficult to do this in a pandemic. How can we focus on being kind to others when we can’t see their face under the mask? How can we practice compassion when we’re holed up in our own homes? It makes sense that I’ve turned inward, focusing more on myself. But perhaps it’s because of this pandemic that we should be turning even more to others. Helping each other, supporting each other, talking to each other. It’s just so difficult.

I rarely reread books, but this one was worth it. It was worth the reminder right now that even though it feels like we are all living in our own little Covid-bubbles, we are actually all still connected. Even though we feel isolated and we’re struggling, there are others who are struggling as well. Even though it’s difficult, we will get through this by focusing on the greater community, the world around us, and helping others.