Summarizing the Book of Joy

51vCdW-S8JL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_This summer I read the Book of Joy, which is written by Douglas Abrams describing a week long discussion between the Dali Llama (spiritual leader of Buddhism) and Desmond Tutu (a retired archbishop and influential leader in Anglican church), on topics relating to finding joy in a changing world. Both the Dali Llama and Desmond Tutu are well-respected religious leaders from faiths with vastly different traditions, but what we find is that most if not all religions help find compassion, joy and a life of meaningfulness and in that much there is much commonality.

The ultimate goal of the book is to help people understand how to cultivate sense of joy that is tied to how they live their live and not just a temporary feeling. It’s also to remind us that we need to live with joy and purpose. Many people are waiting for happiness or joy by waiting for an accomplishment, love, becoming rich, but these things are not necessary to find joy. It’s tough as success in our society in measured by money, power, fame and influence.

What’s the difference between Joy and Happiness? Simply put happiness is fleeting because it depends on external factors, while joy comes from internal factors such as empathy, compassion, purpose and meaningfulness. Joy is therefore more important than happiness.  Ironically, much of life is spent in sadness, stress and suffering.

Finding joy is hard, when the world is filled with much suffering. We have conflict in Syria, hurricane devastating parts of the United States, and people still dying from starvation in many third-world countries.  Everyone is born with empathy and compassion the question is whether we are willing to exercise it.

So how do we start to find joy? Well, as a society we need to have a greater concern for others’ well being. In the modern world, we lack compassion and kindness because we are often competing against everyone and everything.  Our education system focuses on external, materialist values and not inner values.  I find this is somewhat true based on my experience in undergraduate. The focus of education is to get training and don’t emphasize the social responsibilities of the profession, but engineering programs are doing a much better job in helping shape well-rounded engineers that can make an positive impact on society.

Joy is also hard to keep at times because life always brings constant challenges and suffering. The important thing to remember is that suffering is inevitable, but it’s how we respond to suffering that’s vital.  We can choose to respond with anger, or we can change our perspective and approach it differently. We need to recognize others suffering and realize that we are not alone and our individual pain is lessened. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness.

At various points in the book, scientific research around neuroscience relating to things that are fundamentally important to joy are brought up. According to researchers at the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow, there are only four fundamental emotions: fear, anger, sadness and joy. From this list it is obvious that 3 of 4 are negative emotions while only one is a positive. Sonja Lyubomirsky,  a psychologist points out there are three factors to increase our happiness, our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.

Facing Adversity is not a bad thing; some of the greatest lessons in life come from situations that test our ability to find a solution. Perhaps the most paradoxical thing is that it depends on how we face all of the things that seem to be negative in our life that determines the kind of person we become. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, pointed out, “The path to joy and life with sadness, did not lead away from suffering and adversity but through it. Nothing beautiful comes without some suffering.”

We will face physical pain, but mental pain can be learned to be lessened. When you experiencing a tragic situation there is no way to overcome the situation thus there is no point in worrying about it too much. Life will bring frustrations, instead of looking for ways to avoid the frustration or escape it, think about how you can use the frustration to your advantage. What can you take that is positive from it?


In society there is much isolation and alienation. I experience this each day waiting for the transbay bus, rarely do people say hello to each other or good morning. Instead we spend time staring at devices. Everyone wants a happy life but our individual happy life depends on a happy humanity. One of the major obstacles to joy is the inability to develop a mental immunity, when events occur in our life, we can either have destructive emotions or develop positive ones. Much unhappiness in life stems from wanting things to be different than they are, versus accepting them as they are. Sometimes we are overly realistic about our own ability or don’t have a clear understanding of our own capabilities. In my experience this understanding is developed over time by trial and error to a certain extent once you understand what works and what doesn’t. This unrealisticness can lead to stress and lack of being in a joyful state. Fear and anger also destroy the mind, we must learn to realize that anger can’t solve problems. We have to learn to avoid emotions that will disturb our happiness and peace.

Some other things the Book of Joy touched on is how do you create more friends? One easy and obvious guide is to create trust and a have a genuine sense of concern for others and their well-being. Trying to create friendships for money or power are not real friends. I’ve always said that I prefer fewer friends, but quality friends that I can trust.  In corporate America, I often see leaders that refuse to admit doubt, and while at times this is necessary because being in leadership rarely allows the admission of weakness that exist. But it is ok to feel afraid when things are uncertain, that’s normal.

As Mandela wrote in his book, Notes to the Future, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness.”

The latter part of the book focuses on the eight pillars of joy that are fundamental for helping us find joy in a turbulent world. The eight pillars of joy are broken up between four that are qualities of the mind and four that are qualities of the heart that one should have. Four are qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor and acceptance. Four were qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.

I certainly think laughter is important as it helps us face the cruelties and uncertainties of the world and everyday life. Generosity is an important one to me, as the book points out there are three kinds of generosity: material giving, giving freedom from fear, and spiritual giving which can involve giving your wisdom, moral, and ethical teachings to another. This is important as it points out that being generous doesn’t just mean writing a check. It doesn’t require you to be rich. I also think that just writing a check doesn’t teach you or give you the perspective you need by helping someone through a situation face-to-face.

To create a more compassionate society we need to remember that humans have a tremendous capacity for goodness. We are constantly trying to grow and become compassionate. We need to learn to be thankful for the things we do have. Making the world a better place for everyone will involve removing the barriers we create between ourselves and others as individuals and society.

Finally the book ends with some suggestions about practices we can engage in to help us be more joyful.

Joyful practices:

  • Read short inspiration passages that support your ideals (Your favorite book, Eucharist lines, etc)
  • Meditate
  • Don’t envy others.
  • Think about ways to use your suffering to help others,
  • Journal for Gratitude, think about what you are grateful for,
  • Reflect on your day.

2 thoughts on “Summarizing the Book of Joy”

  1. Thanks for summarizing this book and sharing about it Shawn! Sorry my first reaction was to message you, but later I decided I should comment on your blog cause people like receiving comments, and it helps build the blogging community, to share thoughts and comments with one another openly.

    I especially like the part about generosity as not being just material giving of money and items, but also of giving time and wisdom, of giving freedom from fear, and others. The eight pillars of joy are great to know about, to concentrate our energies on these. I definitely agree that those things bring joy.

    Qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor and acceptance.
    Qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.

    They aren’t easy to have at all times since we are imperfect, but we should strive towards them. It reminds me of the Bible and how it commands us to be joyful and that we should consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds asi tests our faith and produces perseverance. James 1:2-4 I think that best shows how joy is different from happiness, since when we go through tough times, we’re not happy. We’re not cheering. But joy is so much more than that, and you can be sad and joyful at the same time.

    I also nominated you to receive the Liebster Award. You always write such interesting blog posts and they are a joy to read. ^_^

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