IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

I spent a week with the Dalai Lama. Here’s what I learned about happiness

When my work led me to spending some time with the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the lessons they taught me about true joy were invaluable.

If you got to spend a week with two of the world’s most respected Nobel Peace Prize winners and beloved spiritual leaders, what would you ask them? 

While my head and heart overflowed at the thought of the unending wisdom I could glean from these men, I had traveled to Dharamsala, India, for a different but related reason: I’m a filmmaker, and in 2015, I was working with the Dalai Lama and the now-late Archbishop Desmond Tutu to film a documentary about joy. And besides, I couldn’t bear to interrupt their relentless teasing of each other to ask for life advice.

The Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu described themselves as "mischievous brothers."
The Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu described themselves as "mischievous brothers." Courtesy Miranda Penn Turin

Not only were His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu self-described “mischievous brothers,” despite how different they were in so many ways, they delighted in giving each other unmerciful grief. As Archbishop Tutu’s daughter Mpho said in the film, “They behave like 8-year-old boys together.”

But despite their playfulness, I was still able to pick up plenty of wisdom, which I’m holding close this holiday season.

These two dear friends were on a mission to help us all create more joy for ourselves. And they were in a hurry. Because of age and illness, they feared this time together would be their last. Their conversations became the basis for an international bestseller, “The Book of Joy,” co-authored by Doug Abrams. Doug asked me to film the dialogues, which led to me co-directing and producing a documentary film of their week together. “Mission: JOY — Finding Happiness in Troubled Times,” which was launched globally in June 2022, includes never-before-seen footage from their final days together. Their message is needed now more than ever. We’re heading into the “most wonderful time of the year” and yet so many people are struggling. We’re wrestling with how to bring “joy to the world” when life is wrought with stress and challenges.

Filmmaker Peggy Callahan leans in during a discussion with the Dalai Lama.
Filmmaker Peggy Callahan leans in during a discussion with the Dalai Lama.Courtesy Miranda Penn Turin

Getting together has never been a simple proposition for these icons. While filming, they faced demanding schedules, visa denials caused by complex geopolitical issues, and Archbishop Tutu was battling cancer. If this mission was going to happen, it had to be scheduled between his treatments. The film equipment was hauled from Delhi to the Dalai Lama’s private residence 12 hours away. If anything went wrong with equipment, there were no nearby options for backups. But it all went off without a hitch — which was all the proof I needed that holy men were on the set.

The messages these two leaders shared offer a way forward for a troubled world. This is what I took away:

  1. We have at least some agency over the amount of joy we experience. Each of their spiritual traditions emphasizes that, no matter our circumstances, we can make a choice about how we’re going to think, feel and act. Neuroscience now backs that up; research indicates that small acts of joy such as expressing gratitude or sending a kind message positively affect our moods. 
  2. Joy and sorrow are inseparable. The adversities these men faced are a testament to the fact that joy is not just about happiness and everything going the right way. They did indeed emerge from their challenges with sadness, but also, somehow, with more joy. Determined to not let hardship deplete their joy, they spent their lives developing practices that allowed them to actually see dark times as the fertilizer to grow an even richer, joyful life. As Archbishop Tutu said in our film, “It is possible to walk through the fire and come out not broken. In fact, some suffering, maybe even intense suffering, is a necessary ingredient for developing compassion.”
  3. Joy is an inside (out) job. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu taught me that true, unshakeable joy has to originate from within us. Since so many circumstances are outside our control, this is profoundly good news. But joy gets even more riotous when we reach outside of ourselves and deepen our connection with other people. Meaningful relationships are the motherlode of joy. 
Callahan during filming with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died in December 2021.
Callahan during filming with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died in December 2021.Courtesy Miranda Penn Turin

At this moment when many things seem dire, I’m reminding myself that it’s more important than ever to follow the example of the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop and get good at using our agency to create and share joy.

Joy is possible, not only this coming holiday season with the decorations, feasts and fanfare, but all year round — in the quiet moments, hard times and always.

Related video: