Updated: Feb 17
Are you happy? Do you have long-lasting happiness that stays with you throughout your whole day, or temporary pleasure that dies quickly?
Modern society teaches people to chase fleeting pleasures, such as checking social media, eating junk food, playing video games, watching TV, or shopping. As a result, people crave these things like drug addicts, and craving is suffering. When we finally do these things, we get a temporary pleasure, but afterwards, we get an emotional low, which is more suffering. So what is true happiness then?
True happiness is long-lasting, and long-lasting happiness comes from being a good person. When we are a good person, everyone is happy to interact with us, so all our relationships are happy. When we are a good person, we can look at ourselves in the mirror without any sense of shame or guilt but rather with self-confidence and self-worth. When we are a good person, we radiate positive energy and make the world around us a better place. So how can we be a good person and have true happiness? Well, we need to build a virtuous character, and that’s where Guide to A Happy Life, also called Di Zi Gui (弟子规), comes in.
What is Di Zi Gui?
If you have not heard of Di Zi Gui before, you surely have heard of Confucius. Confucius is perhaps the most well-known and wise teacher of China, and his teachings have been passed on for 2500 years! Di Zi Gui takes the most important essence of Confucius’s teachings and puts it into an easy-to-understand form that even children can understand. That’s like trying to explain rocket science to a little kid. Only an outstanding teacher could do that, so Di Zi Gui is truly an amazing book.
In short, Di Zi Gui teaches us five main virtues:
Filial Piety: being a good son or daughter
Carefulness: being caring and respectful towards all tasks and matters, no matter how small.
Trustworthiness: having good faith, integrity, humility, and carefulness.
Loving Kindness: wanting the best for all people without any conditions or expectations.
Humility: always seeking to improve our virtues and being appreciative of criticism.
Think about it:
If you can’t even have a good relationship with your parents, can you truly have a good relationship with anyone else? If your relationships are full of conflict, will you be happy?
If you lack carefulness and often make mistakes, will you be happy or successful?
If people don’t trust you, they will avoid you or bring you down. Can you be happy or successful then?
If you aren’t loving and kind towards others, will others be loving and kind towards you?
If you are scared of criticism and don’t try to improve yourself, will your life get any better or happier?
From these questions, we can see that having a virtuous character is the key to not just happiness but also success.
Our life is determined by our actions.
Our actions are determined by our thoughts.
Our thoughts are determined by our character.
This book has become especially influential in China. In 2004, a large company in Shenzhen published a job posting in the newspaper for a senior manager position. The salary was 180,000 RMB per year, and one of the requirements for the job was to be able to recite Di Zi Gui. This job posting spurred many parents and teachers to study Di Zi Gui and realize how important its teachings were and how leaders need to role model its lessons.
The book has seven chapters, which the rest of this article will summarize. (You can click on the chapter to jump to that section).
You can read the e-book here (free for distribution).
Chapter 1: Filial Piety
Filial piety means being a good child. Another way to explain filial piety is being grateful to the people that we owe most gratitude to, which for most of us is our parents. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Among a hundred virtues, filial piety is the first.” Why?
Let me explain with a quick example. Many charity organizations save poor people from starvation, but strangely enough, the more money they gave to some poor people, the less grateful these people were. In fact, they seemed to just expect it. They asked an old monk why this was happening, and the old monk replied, “If they aren’t even grateful to their parents, why would they be grateful to you?”
We can extend the same idea further. If a child is lazy and doesn’t respond to their parents’ requests at home, can you expect them to be diligent and attentive at work? If a child often argues with their parents, can you expect them to be humble and harmonious with anyone else? If the person you are dating lies to their parents, can you believe that they will not tell lies to you?
It’s thanks to our parents that we even exist in this world. They also took care of us tirelessly when we were helpless little infants. They gave us unconditional love for so many years, so it’s most natural and easy for us to give back unconditional love to parents. If a person cannot give unconditional love and respect to parents, then they can’t do so to anyone else. Their love and respect will always be selfish: If you can benefit them, they will treat you well, and if you cannot benefit them, they won’t treat you well. It all goes back to how they treat their parents!
Now that we see the importance of filial piety, let’s look at some of the teachings from this chapter:
When my parents call me, I will respond right away. When my parents ask me to do something, I will do it promptly.
When my parents try to teach me something, I will listen respectfully. When my parents criticize me, I will accept it respectfully.
What is good for my parents, I will do my best to provide. What is bad for my parents, I will do my best to eliminate.
If my body gets hurt, my parents will worry. If my virtues are bad, my parents will be ashamed.
If my parents have faults, I will encourage them to improve in a warm and gentle manner. If they don’t accept my encouragement, I will try again when they are happy.
Respecting loving parents is easy. Respecting harsh parents is true filial piety.
Let’s pretend we are the CEO of that big business in Shenzhen. We can see why filial piety is important! We hope our employees will
respond to messages and do their tasks promptly
listen to criticism respectfully
try to provide what is best for the company and get rid of anything bad for the company
have good virtues and not bring a bad name to the company
advise their leaders to improve in a warm and gentle manner
In fact, a teacher hopes the students will behave this way. A person hopes their husband or wife will behave this way. A president hopes his citizens will behave this way. Any leader hopes their followers will behave this way. All of these virtues start at home with how the child treats the parents.
Chapter 2: Siblinghood
Siblinghood means being a good brother or sister. Siblinghood can be seen as an extension of filial piety since being a good sibling is part of being a good child. The way we treat our siblings is going to be very similar to how we treat other people around the same level as us, such as our classmates at school and colleagues at work. Parents hope all their children will support each other, and leaders hope all their followers will support each other.
Let’s look at some of the teachings from Chapter 2:
Older siblings should be friendly towards younger ones. Younger siblings should be respectful towards older ones. When siblings are harmonious, they are being filial.
Treat material things lightly, then resentment won’t arise. Hold back hurtful words, then anger will naturally fade.
Whether it be eating, sitting, or getting up, let elders go first, then juniors follow.
When calling elders, use proper titles of respect. When in front of elders, do not show off.
Treat all parents as your own parents. Treat all siblings as your own siblings.
Anyone who is older or has a higher position than us is considered an elder, while anyone who is younger or has a lower position is considered a junior. It is natural for elders to take care of juniors and for juniors to respect elders, so the teachings here accord with logic and natural human sentiment. Letting elders go first and addressing them by proper titles such as “Mister” or “Misses” are all ways we show respect.
Treating material things lightly means valuing relationships and human sentiment more than objects. For example, sometimes siblings will go to court to try to get more of their deceased parents’ property. When siblings compete and fight over material objects like that, it will make the parents very sad and bring shame to the family name.
If everyone loved each other as members of their own family, the same way a filial child loves parents, then imagine how peaceful and happy the world would be! It all starts with us being filial at in our homes.
Chapter 3: Carefulness
Once we’ve developed our filial piety and siblinghood, we’ve developed a heart of love and respect towards people. Carefulness is about being caring and respectful towards tasks and matters. We are always doing things for people (even ourselves), so being careful towards tasks is an extension of our respect towards people (or ourselves).
Let’s look at some of the teachings from Chapter 3:
Get up early and go to bed at a reasonable time. Knowing how time flies, we should treasure every day.
When it comes to clothes, care about cleanliness not extravagance. Whether at work or at home, wear what is appropriate for the situation.
Towards food and drinks, don’t be picky. Eat enough, not excess.
When turning corners, leave ample space. Hold empty containers as if they are full.
Don’t rush things. Haste makes mistakes. Don’t be afraid of difficult tasks, and don’t be careless with easy tasks.
Stay away from bad influences. Don’t be curious about them.
From this chapter, we can see that we need to be careful with our time (#1), clothes (#2), food (#3), body (#4), tasks (#4 and #5), and environment (#6). Small matters are a big deal because how we do anything is how we do everything.
Chapter 4: Trustworthiness
Confucius said, “Untrustworthy people cannot succeed.” That's because trustworthiness is the foundation for relationships, and relationships are the foundations of our interdependent society. If a person lacks trustworthiness, no one would want to interact with them, let alone be friends with them, hire them, or do business with them. This person would face many struggles in life, and they certainly wouldn’t have a happy life.
Many people misunderstand trustworthiness to simply mean honesty. But someone who is bluntly honest is inconsiderate and careless. How can you trust such a person? Trustworthiness requires good faith, integrity, humility, and carefulness.
1: Good Faith
Good faith is about wanting the best for the other person. As Theodore Roosevelt said,
"People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
For example, you hope your doctor is giving you a medicine because it is the best medicine for you, not because the doctor can make extra money by selling you that medicine.
We only trust people if we believe they have our best intentions at heart, not their own selfish intentions. That’s why the filial piety chapter taught us, “What is good for my parents, I will do my best to provide. What is bad for my parents, I will do my best to eliminate.”
Integrity is about doing the right thing even when the matter is small and no one is watching. For example, if someone breaks a small promise, can you trust them to keep a big promise? If you see someone is lazy and careless when no one important is watching, can you trust them to do important jobs?
Integrity is also about walking your talk. For example, if you tell someone "I love you", do your daily actions and calendar prove your words? If we say one thing but do another, how can anyone trust us? Actions speak louder than words.
We only trust people if they show integrity. That’s why Chapter 1 taught us, “No matter how small the matter, I must not act unethically. If my virtues are bad, my parents will be ashamed.”
No one is perfect, and we're all going to make mistakes in life. If a person is arrogant, won't listen to criticism, and can't admit their mistakes, how can you trust them with important tasks?
Aside from always trying to improve yourself, humility also includes acknowledging and taking responsibility for one's mistakes. That’s why the Chapter 1 taught us, “When my parents criticize me, I will accept it respectfully.”
Earlier, we looked at how carefulness is about doing all things, especially the small things, with care. As the common adage goes,
"How you do anything is how you do everything."
Hence all of Chapter 3 applies to trustworthiness as well. After all, if someone often makes mistakes in small tasks, how can you trust them with big tasks?
Examples of Trustworthiness
Now that we understand what trustworthiness entails, let’s look at some examples from Chapter 4:
Whatever I speak, trustworthiness comes first. What I don’t know for sure, I will not say.
If I am asked to do something inappropriate, I should not carelessly agree. If I do, then I will be wrong whether I keep or break that promise.
Some people like to gossip about others. It’s none of my business; I will not gossip.
If my clothes and food are not as good as others, I will not be bothered.
When I see other people’s good points, I will learn from their goodness. Even though I may be far from them now, I can gradually catch up. When I see other people’s bad points, I will reflect on myself. If I have the same vice, I will fix it. If not, I will guard against it.
If I get angry when hearing criticisms and happy when hearing praise, then bad people will come and good people will leave. If I am uneasy when hearing praise and happy when hearing criticisms, then good people will come.
Doing wrong unintentionally is simply a mistake. Doing wrong intentionally is a crime. If I can correct my mistake, then it is gone. If I hide my mistake, then I add a further crime on top.
From these teachings, we can see that trustworthiness requires us to have good faith (#1, #3), integrity (#2, #7), humility (#4, #5, #6), and carefulness (#2, #4).
Chapter 5: Broadly Love All
After we’ve cultivated our trustworthiness, we can establish ourselves in society. People will trust us in relationships and with matters. This chapter raises the standard higher, telling us to love all people, to focus on giving in relationships, and to help others improve their virtues. This is the virtue of loving kindness.
Most people have conditional love: If I like you, I will treat you well. If you can benefit me, I will treat you well. If you make me upset, I won't treat you well. Conditional love is based in selfishness. Loving kindness is unconditional love, regardless if the other person treats me well or not, regardless if they can benefit me or not. It's like how a mother loves her child despite all of the child's imperfections.
People who treat others badly often weren’t treated with enough love growing up, so if we want to influence them to be kind, we need to return their mean behavior with kind behavior. Love begets more love, kindness begets more kindness. If we are only nice to people who are nice to us, then that’s conditional love. If we can be kind to those who are mean to us, then that is true virtue.
Let’s look at some of the teachings from Chapter 5:
I should love all people, for we all live on the same Earth and under the same sky.
Whatever abilities I have, I should use to help others. Whatever abilities others have, I should not look down on.
When sharing things, be clear on who gets what. Give more to others and take less for yourself.
I should broadcast other people’s virtues; that itself is a virtue. I should not broadcast other people’s faults; that itself is a fault.
Whatever I impose on others, first ask if I want to be treated that way. If not, then don’t do it to others.
I will hold the kindness of others in my heart and forget grudges. I will spend my time repaying kindness rather than holding grudges.
If I force others, their hearts will not be with me. If I am reasonable with others, they will have nothing to reject.
As we can see, the chapter tells us to widen our hearts, to love all people, to treat others the way we want to be treated, to be sensitive to other people's feelings, to praise others, and to repay kindness. When we treat others this way, how can we not have happy and loving relationships?
Chapter 6: Get Close to Virtuous People
People are heavily influenced by the environment and people around them. Therefore, if we want to have a happy life and build a virtuous character, we need to surround ourselves with virtuous influences and remove any negative influences. This doesn’t just mean choosing virtuous friends. It also means choosing virtuous books to read, virtuous videos to watch, and virtuous social media accounts to follow. We don’t want bad things going into our bodies, so naturally we don’t want bad things going into our minds.
This chapter is very short. It teaches us
While we are all people, we are not all the same. Most people are ordinary. Few people have great virtues.
If I can get close to virtuous people, the benefits are limitless. If I get close to non-virtuous people, the harm is limitless.
As mentioned earlier, our life is decided by our actions, our actions are decided by our thoughts, and our thoughts are decided by our character. That’s why spending time with virtuous influences brings limitless benefit, and bad influences bring limitless harm.
We can use the virtues mentioned in Di Zi Gui as criteria for selecting virtuous versus negative influences. If someone is spreading filial piety, carefulness, trustworthiness, kindness, humility, and integrity, then we can let them into our mind. If they are spreading selfishness, arrogance, anger, deceit, hypocrisy, wastefulness, and disrespect, then we should block them out of our minds.
Chapter 7: With Spare Time, Study Good Literature
This chapter tells us after we complete our necessary work and duties, we should use our remaining time and energy to study good literature. In this case, “good literature” refers to virtuous books. The chapter also explains to us that a proper learning attitude requires us to be respectful, careful, and humble.
Let’s look at some of the teachings from this chapter:
If I learn but don’t act on the learnings, I am being superficial. If I act but don’t keep learning, I don’t truly understand.
Set a large chunk of time for study, then study diligently. When my efforts mature, I will understand thoroughly.
If I am confused, I should note down my question, then ask a person who has the expertise to answer my question.
I will keep my room tidy, my desk organized, and my utensils properly placed.
Do not be harsh on myself nor give up on myself. With dedication and training, I too can become a virtuous and noble person!
Applying what we learn into real life is extremely important because if you don't apply what you learn, you don't get any benefits, and your understanding might even be wrong. Especially since we are learning about virtues, if we simply know theories about virtues but don’t actually improve our own virtues, then we are actually growing our arrogance, which will harm us in the future. If we are learning about knowledge such as math, science, social sciences, history, etc., always think about how you can use this knowledge in your future job, and how that future job is important for society.
As for the learning process, we need to be diligent and patient; we must not give up too early. Learning is like boiling water. From 0 to 99 degrees, the water still looks like nothing is happening, but as soon as it hits 100 degrees, the bubbles start rolling. Learning is the same, so we must not give up halfway. Even if learning seems difficult at times, we must not be harsh nor give up on ourselves. Indeed, with dedication and training, we can all become virtuous and noble people!
My Experience with this Guide to A Happy Life
I first read Guide to A Happy Life when my mother gave it to me a couple years after I graduated university. When I first read the book, I was very skeptical. I thought, “Listen to parents? But what if parents are wrong? What if they don’t know what is best?” Clearly, I was very arrogant back then.
Fortunately, my mother introduced me to the Guide to A Happy Life Lecture Series by Mr. Cai. I was studying for the HSK 5 Chinese test (advanced Chinese) at the time, so I thought watching these videos would be a good way to improve my Chinese. After I watched the first episode, I felt like Mr. Cai was very wise, and I wanted to learn from him. I loved how Mr. Cai shared so many real stories to illustrate each line in the book and how he made the lines relevant to modern society. Later, I ended up watching his 40-hour lecture series three times!
One day, I had a realization: A lot of my unhappiness and stress in life was due to my conflict with family. The root of my problem was lack of filial piety. Deep down in my heart, I didn’t respect my parents. I also remembered struggling to figure out how to bring out a heart of respect towards my parents like the people in Mr. Cai’s stories.
There was no quick fix. I simply practiced the lines in Di Zi Gui, such as standing to attention when my mother entered the room, or replying her as soon as she said something, or doing things as soon as she asked. Initially, my mother felt it was weird, but she knew I was trying to practice Di Zi Gui, so she encouraged me, and she also decided to practice Di Zi Gui herself, which I admired. Over time, my accumulated actions helped me believe that I value filial piety, and that changed me into becoming more filial. We gradually had much less conflict and much more harmony at home.
I also reflected on the influences around me and realized I consumed a lot of negative media. My social media posts were mostly of people showing off their delicious food or amazing vacations or new clothes, or people complaining about things, so I deleted all those negative influences and followed positive ones from inspiring authors and speakers. I also spent a lot of free time playing video games, but I realized these games were teaching me greed, conflict, and arrogance because I was always trying to win and be better than others in these games. Hence, I quit gaming and used my free time to read virtuous books instead. I found that studying virtuous books brings me long-lasting happiness and purifies my mind of negative thoughts and emotions.
Since Di Zi Gui had benefitted me and my family so much, I incorporated its teachings into the Business Leadership course I was teaching at school. I told the students to pick 5-10 lines and recite them every morning and night for two weeks, just like I did, and then journal about the changes that happened in their life. I was very surprised and touched to hear many of the stories that the students shared regarding their virtues improving, which is why I always for opportunities to share this book to more people!
To help bring these teachings to life, I also compiled a short story book called A Story Book of Virtues. Each story only takes a few minutes to read, so I encourage you to read one story a day.
Using the Guide to a Happy Life in Your Life
To summarize, this guide teaches us five main virtues: filial piety, carefulness, trustworthiness, loving kindness, and humility. If you are interested in further readings about these five virtues, check out these articles:
It's worth saying again: Our life is decided by our actions, our actions are decided by our thoughts, and our thoughts are decided by our character. If we can establish these five virtues, we set the foundation for a happy and successful life.
Another way to think about our character is our accumulated habits. Some who always practices respect from a young age has built the virtue (good habit) of respect, so now, their thoughts automatically are respectful. Someone who practiced arrogance from a young age has built the vice (bad habit) of arrogance, so now, their thoughts automatically are arrogant. The good news is that habits can be changed, so our character can be changed! Habit research shows people generally need a couple weeks to a couple months to change a habit.
Remember: It’s not enough to know virtues, we have to DO virtues. It’s also not enough to do virtues once or twice, we have to do them every day until it becomes a habit! To start, I recommend you to pick 1-3 lines for each of the 5 virtues. In the morning, read your Di Zi Gui lines out loud to remind yourself you want to do them today. Before bed, record in a diary all the things you did that support those virtues or go against those virtues. Try it for 2 weeks.
If you don’t want to use a paper journal, I made a Daily Self-Inspection document that you can use:
This document has the whole year, so you can just start on whichever day you get this document. Everyday, you can give yourself 1 point for every virtuous deed you do, or a -1 point for negative action you do. You can add a comment to explain why you got that +1 or -1 point by right-clicking any box and then clicking “New Comment.”
Whenever you give yourself a -1 point, you should also note down how you can prevent the same mistake next time.
I suggest setting a goal for each day, such as 3 virtuous deeds per day. Once you get better and better, you can increase that goal. If you journal about your virtues for 2 weeks, you will surely notice your life getting happier and better!