The Role of Happiness in the World Religions

It's hard to deny that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and the world's most famous Buddhist, is the also world's foremost expert on happiness. He clearly states in writings that seeking happiness is the very purpose of life, and he's dedicated his life to learning how to be happy and sharing this knowledge with others.

But what about other major religious traditions? Is happiness a good thing, or bad? To be sought in this life, or the next?

We're about to find out: The Dalai Lama will explore the concept of happiness with other world religious leaders Oct. 17 at Emory University's "Summit on Happiness: Understanding and Promoting Happiness in Today's Society." For two hours, he joins in conversation with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Krista Tippett, host of the radio program "Being," will moderate.

Happiness has been a shining spotlight of psychological and scientific study and pop culture since the 1990s, and it shows no signs of fading (witness Coke's recent ad campaign, "Open Happiness" and happiness courses being offered in major U.S. universities, following Harvard's lead). Newsweek (Feb. 2, 2008) pinpoints the happiness movement catalyst to discoveries of brain activity underlying well-being, and the emergence of positive psychology, which focuses on strengths and virtues rather weaknesses and faults when assessing mental health.

But the Abrahamic religions have not heavily weighed in on the debate. Where in all the "Values in Action" surveys and the "Happiness Movement" conventions and the university syllabi is the wisdom of the Torah, the Bible, the Quran? Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) decided to find out by launching a five-year project on the Pursuit of Happiness. Among the questions they hope to answer: What do Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism share in their understandings of happiness? What are the areas of disagreement, and why? Dare they explore a common scientifically explained physiological state of happiness that is brought about by giving up oneself in service to others, either through acceptance of faith or through meditation? Is happiness achievable in this life, or must it wait for the afterlife? Can the world religions construct a way of working together to cultivate peace?

A sneak peak at some of these answers comes from Emory scholars recently interviewed about their work in the Pursuit of Happiness project. Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament, says happiness in the Old Testament meant "the well-lived life that brings satisfaction" (what the Greeks called eudaimonia).

"To have a life of well being, they assumed you had to look around and see how the world works. How do your acts have consequences? And as you understand those connections, you can act in such a way that you get the kind of consequences that do make for well being. So, once you learn how to do good in the world, you also begin to experience good," says Newsom.

What about Jesus? Was he happy? The short answer is: "Yes, if you think of happiness in terms of well-being and that Jesus was interested in human well-being and lived his life in a way that promoted human well being," says Carl Holladay, Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament.

Is that well-being to be found in the present or in the afterlife? Again, Holladay: "Jesus' understanding of human well being sort of oscillates between the then and the now; there's a sense in which we experience it now but there's also a sense in which it's still to come, so it's some of both."

Islam has a different view of the here and now of happiness, according to Scott Kugle, Associate Professor of South Asian and Islamic Studies. "The Quran is very clear that happiness in this world in this moment is really not the object of life. Rather you should be living not for your own contentment and satisfaction but for God's contentment and satisfaction with you," he says.

Ego and its impulses are a major obstacle to achieving this state of contentment, Kugle explains. "If we can ... withdraw our cravings and desires from short-term goals of happiness and contentment in this world and focus our energies on a higher quest that is for well being that will lead to salvation of the soul in the next world then that is the ultimate happiness."

Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, says happiness in this life is celebrated in Judaism. "The scripture says rejoice in your festivals, be REALLY happy. I think the Jewish view of happiness emanating from that is that the life you've been given in this world is a gift and it is very much this-world focused and you should take pleasure in all the things, the spiritual things, the familial relationships, material things, enjoy the life."

Buddhists believe genuine happiness is achievable now and by everyone. Says Matthieu Ricard, author and Buddhist monk who is taking part in Emory's happiness conference, "We usually look outside for the causes of happiness. Unfortunately, our control of the outer world is limited, temporary and often illusory. In fact, it is our mind that translates outer conditions into happiness or suffering, and, even though it may not be easy to transform one's mind, it is something that lies within the reach of our capacities."

The challenge of the religious leaders at Emory's event is to meld these wisdoms and understandings into a way forward -- one that unleashes the powerful forces of religion to nurture happiness among their peoples and ultimately bring peace to the world.

The Dalai Lama, Emory's most famous faculty member (he serves as Presidential Distinguished Professor), may open up the path. As he writes in The Art of Happiness, "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life."

Emory's Summit on Happiness events are being live streamed per the schedule below. (RealPlayer is required for viewing. To download RealPlayer, go to

The event features His Holiness the Dalai Lama in conversation with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth; The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a distinguished scholar of Islam. Krista Tippet, host of the radio program Being, moderates.

Reception & Reflections on the Summit

Sun., Oct. 17, 5-7 p.m. EST

Krista Tippett moderates a discussion among Emory experts who offer their reflections on the Dalai Lama's interfaith conversation.

Happiness in Interreligious Perspective
Mon., Oct., 18, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. EST

Religious leaders deliver a series of major lectures from their respective traditions followed by responses from Emory scholars. The schedule: Chief Rabbi Sacks (9 a.m.), Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori (11 a.m.), Professor Nasr (2:15 p.m.), and the Venerable Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and author (4:15 p.m.).

For more information on the conference, go here: