Zen and the Art of Happiness

The most recent book I have read is Zen And the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss.


Prentiss is cofounder and codirector (along with his son) of a substance abuse treatment center in Malibu. Apparently he is one of the foremost Western translators of the I’Ching.

I’m not a Zen expert but I’m guessing the link between Zen and the philosophy outlined in Prentiss’ book is pretty slender. The core premise of the book is that the universe is conscious, and that it only acts in its own best interest, and that we are all part of the universe, and therefore everything that happens to us is the best possible thing that could happen. If you’re rolling your eyes at this, believe me, I did too – but the book still has some value.

At the beginning of the book Prentiss said the way to achieve lasting happiness is to be happy. This sounds hokey, but what he means is that happiness requires attentiveness to our choices in how to respond to events. This is not a radical idea; it is similar to that expressed by many others in the literature – we choose how to respond to the events that occur to us. The book has plenty of good examples illustrating this point, and I think this is where much of its value lies.

Choosing our responses requires conscious attention, which is where Prentiss draws the link with Zen. Following on from his premise, Prentiss suggests that acting as though the statement “Everything that happens to me is the best possible thing that can happen to me” is true, will change how you perceive and respond to events, and will lead to happiness. Personally, I can see how this can work in a “mind over matter” way – when I was younger I lived in a place where the ocean was very cold, but I used to swim in it, and I used to tell myself “I’m not cold” over and over, as a way of enduring the stinging pain caused by the water. That technique was quite effective for me, so I can see how Prentiss’s approach may work. But I’m not so much convinced it will lead to happiness as that it will reduce unhappiness – after all, my technique didn’t cause me to feel that the water was warm, nor did it entirely eliminate the painful cold, but it did make it bearable. Perhaps that is the most that can be asked of this kind of approach, at least at first.

The book is interspersed with inspirational quotes from Eastern literature, some of which I really enjoyed, such as this one from the Dhammapada:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you
As much as your own thoughts, unguarded.
But once mastered,
No one can help you as much.

At about 140 pages this is a quick read. It’s not the best book out there on the subject, but I got enough out of it that I can recommend it.


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