The Dalai Lama: How Americans can heal amid 'anger and great discontent'

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Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and spiritual leader of Tibet, and Arthur Brooks write in an op-ed for the New York Times that the answer to social isolation and emotional pain "is not systematic. It is personal."

While rates of poverty, hunger, and childhood mortality are decreasing worldwide, there is still "such anger and great discontent in some of the world's richest nations," they write. "In the United States, Britain and across the European Continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about the future." Those countries' residents "report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on hopelessness."

Gyatso and Brooks write that our uneasiness stems from the innate desire to be needed. They point to a study that found elderly people were about three times more likely to die prematurely when they didn't feel useful, compared with their peers who did. Other studies have found that U.S. residents who prioritize charity and "doing good for others" are about twice as likely to report being very happy with life, while German residents "who seek to serve society" were five times more likely to report being very happy.

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"Being 'needed' does not entail selfish pride or unhealthy attachment to the worldly esteem of others," they write. "Rather, it consists of a natural human hunger to serve our fellow men and women."

And that explains why many wealthy countries' residents are increasingly despondent, Gyatso and Brooks write. "The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies."

In the United States, there are three times as many working-age males outside the workforce than there were 50 years ago. This is similar in other developed countries, which Gyatso and Brooks write leads to social isolation, emotional pain, and "creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root."

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But building a society in which people feel needed and appreciated is "no easy task," they say. The solution can't be found in one specific philosophy, ideology, or religion. "The problems we face cut across conventional categories; so must our dialogue, and our friendships," they write.

Educators can help, Gyatso and Brooks write, by passing on lessons that instill students with "greater ethical understanding and with practical skills that can lead to economic security and inner peace."

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They go on to emphasize that it will take "innovative solutions from all sides" to find ways for people to feel fulfilled and see meaning in their lives. "[People's] refusal to be content with physical and material security actually reveals something beautiful: a universal human hunger to be needed," Gyatso and Brooks conclude. "Let us work together to build a society that feeds this hunger" (Gyatso/Brooks, New York Times, 11/4).

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