After four years of a Trumpian White House that made many of us look into the dark predictions of George Orwell’s “1984,” one might feel depressed. Then there was an insurrection. We’ve had a year of pandemic restrictions, and not all of our friends have survived. One might be struggling to find joy and happiness. These are definitely troubled times so perhaps this documentary: “Mission Joy (Finding Happiness in Troubled Times)” is just what the world might need now.
The documentary itself is not a reaction to any of those things. You won’t find any mention or see any impact of the worldwide pandemic. Instead this documentary is more of a visual explanation for and an invitation to read a book. Yet even if you don’t read the book, there are things here worth considering.
An American man, Douglas Abrams, who had worked as a religion editor at the University of California Press brought together two Nobel Peace Prize winners and long-distance friends, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, and Archbishop Emeritus of Southern Africa, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, and together, these three men took on the weighty subject of finding joy. The resulting 2016 book, “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World,” was a New York Times bestseller. “Mission: Joy (Finding Happiness in Troubled Times),” attempts to encapsulate the dialogue between these two men, adding in science to support their faith-based assertions.
Abrams is the founder and president of Idea Architects, a creative book and media agency and was already familiar with Tutu, having worked with him as his cowriter and editor for over a decade, and before founding his own literary agency. Abrams was a senior editor at HarperCollins and, for nine years was the religion editor at the University of California Press. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.
Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Southern Africa, rose to prominence under apartheid as he and like-minded people such as Nelson Mandela, crusaded for justice and racial reconciliation in South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. In 1994, Tutu was appointed chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by Nelson Mandela. Instead of looking for revenge, he sought a country’s redemption, and pioneered a new way for countries to move forward after defeating oppression and emerging from horrific and bloody civil conflict. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan People and of Tibetan Buddhism. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. Born in 1935 to a poor farming family, he was recognized as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, at age two. The documentary uses animation to cover his childhood and, his eventual escape from Tibet after the takeover by communist China. He lives in exile in Dharamsala, India.
The Dalai Lama and Tutu first met in October 1990 in Newark, NJ. In April 2015, Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday. They looked back on their long lives to answer one question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? And these men have clearly known and seen suffering. Thupten Jinpa Langri, PhD translator to the Dalai Lama, helps the Dalai Lama when his language skills fail and offers his own observations.
Together, these men are far from strict or reserved, rather, Mpho Tutu van Furth, daughter of Tutu, says that they have “the energy of 8-year-old boys.” They are two mischievous spiritual brothers. Yet despite their different backgrounds, despite their different faiths, they both believe in finding joy in the same manner.
Tutu says, “When you pursue happiness, you’re not going to find it.”
The Dalai Lama agrees noting that while “everyone seeks happiness, joyfulness, the ultimate source of a happy life is inside, not outside.”
Life is filled with hardship. Tutu says, one must ask oneself, “How can I use this as something positive?”
The Dalai Lama says, “Opportunity is testing you.” Langri adds that there is a Tibetan saying that suffering makes you appreciate joy.
In this case, science supports faith. Sonja Lyubomirsky, who is a behavioral scientist and a professor of psychology at UC Riverside, notes that there is a happiness strategy: performing acts of kindness for others.
That assertion came as a comfort to me. During a particularly dark period of my life, I felt some joy in cheering up others, doing things like baking cookies for friends facing cancer. Speaking to someone who meant to help me, that act was treated with contempt. Shouldn’t I be doing something for myself?
Kindness toward certain people might not be such an easy thing. In countries rocked by unrest that might be imperative, especially when there’s been a lot to forgive. The Dalai Lama notes that while one must forgive, that doesn’t mean one forgets.
The pandemic impacts everyone, but COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic in world history. Perhaps it’s worth considering what opportunities there were or are and if there were any pandemic pop quizzes we should be quick to take and pass. Certainly there were plans I made that folded, flattened or fell off the radar–some that had been formulated two or three years ago. Still, I could not have afforded attending Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca, but the pandemic forced these festivals online. That’s a blessing that I found because I was looking for it. Who knows where these little, unexpected blessings will lead?
Yet even in more normal times, I think you can find people who can find joy in life where others would be submerged in despair. These two men suggest that we can choose to be happy; joy in the world is our choice. You might have times when you think the cup half full argument doesn’t apply to you, but maybe you’ve missed the point. While contemplating this documentary and digging myself out of mourning from recent losses, I came upon this video:
“Mission: Joy (Finding Happiness in Troubled Times)” made its world premiere at Tribeca on 12 June 2021.