Cuong Lu: Happiness Is Overated

In writing this brief review, I decided to leave out the diacritics on the author’s name because I can’t even guess his last name. Sure, his first name is Cường, but his last name could be Lư or Lữ. I couldn’t find any reference to his name. That said, let’s get to the book.

Cuong Lu who was a longtime student of Thích Nhật Hạnh is picking up where his teacher left off. He writes about Buddhist psychology with concise prose and clarity. Happiness Is Overrated is insightful and practical. What strikes me the most is how happiness and suffering are close to each other. The book itself is super short. It can be read in one sitting. If I have to choose one chapter from the book, it has to be chapter 5, which titled “True Wealth.” I am just going to quote the entire chapter here so I can refer back to later on. Cuong Lu:

We all want to be happy. We think happiness is the answer to every kind of suffering. Just be happy in the here and now, and everything will be fine. I wish life were that simple. But it isn’t. Your happiness, for example, can be the suffering of someone else. We need to see ourselves in others, too. If we don’t care about the suffering of others, that is not true happiness.

When we only think about ourselves, there are many things we can do to make ourselves happy. When we think about others, there are many things we can do to help them be happy. Sometimes, though, we need to choose. We only have one treat, and we have to choose. We can choose to eat it, or we can choose to give it to someone else. Sometimes we want to have it for ourselves, and yet we give. We’re not 100 percent happy, but at a deeper level you can’t overestimate the joy of giving and helping. Facing these choices is part of the journey to discovering the meaning of your life.

You are more than you think. Others are also you. When you respect others, you’re respecting yourself. When you love others, you are loving yourself. When you help others, you are helping yourself. But when you’re happy and others are suffering, your happiness is incomplete. When you’re rich and others are poor, something is wrong. We need to share. And we need to share our happiness with those who are suffering. Only by sharing can we be truly happy. Only by sharing can we be truly wealthy. There’s no way to be rich in spirit without giving and sharing.

The more you give, the richer you become. Sharing is an art. If you’re rich and don’t know how to share, you are still a poor person. If you are happy and don’t know how to make others happy, you are suffering. Taking care of yourself is not enough. You need to learn to take care of others. Happiness is not only in the here and now. Future generations are in us. We need to work for the happiness of future generations; then we’ll be happy.

In the Lotus Sutra, there is a story of two friends who met each other after many years apart. One had become rich, the other poor. After a dinner with a lot of alcohol, the poor friend fell soundly asleep, and the wealthy friend, before leaving, sewed a diamond inside the lining of his friend’s jacket. Many years later when they met again, the poor friend was still poor. He never realized that he had a gem inside his jacket.

This is not a story about wealth. The gem is a metaphor for your true self. You have a diamond in you. You don’t have to search for it; it’s already yours. Happiness and suffering are both yours, as is the wisdom of knowing how precious life is. With this wisdom, we know how to love one another and protect life.