Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have dubbed the French-Tibetan monk and molecular geneticist Matthieu Ricard “the happiest man in the world”.
Over the past decade or so, at the prompting of the Dalai Lama and neuroscientists such as Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Ricard has joined numerous other advanced meditation practitioners in research on the effect of mind-training and meditation on the brain. In addition, “novice” meditators have participated in studies requiring the relatively modest time commitment of 30 minutes meditation a day for three months.
In both cases, study results have indicated that regular meditation can produce changes in the function and structure of one’s brain, which is an encouraging finding in and of itself.
However, what makes Ricard’s case remarkable is that when researchers attached 256 sensors to Ricard’s skull while he engaged in compassion meditation, a higher level of gamma waves – associated with attention, learning and memory, and consciousness – was demonstrated than had ever been recorded before.
In addition, MRI scans revealed that Ricard experienced extremely high levels of positive emotions and negligible negative emotions.
So, perhaps it’s worth listening to what Ricard, who trained as a cell biologist in France, then moved to the Himalayas in 1972 to study Buddhism, has to say on the subject of happiness.
- Happiness is an inside job. According to Ricard, “Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things.” In other words, it’s not the house, the car, or the perfect relationship that produces true happiness. Even if such situations produce momentary pleasure, at any moment things could change, making this a precarious predicament indeed. As Ricard explains, “If you allow exterior circumstances to determine your state of mind, then of course you will suffer; you become like a sponge, or like a chameleon.”
- Happiness can also encompass other emotions we commonly associate with discomfort. Ricard believes that true happiness depends largely on the development of inner peace, inner strength, altruistic love, and forbearance. As a result, we will become more in tune with other people’s plights. “Sadness is not incompatible with happiness because happiness is not just a pleasant sensation. Sadness can help you feel compassion. Even when you are sad, you can continue to do wonderful things.”
- Happiness can be nurtured by not becoming entangled with our emotions. Ricard states, “Anger is a destructive emotion, which reduces us to puppets.”. Instead of identifying with the anger, we recognize that we are not the anger, just as we know that clouds are not the sky. “You don’t just want to suppress it [anger] or you’ll be like a time bomb. Instead, you look at your anger and let it vanish. When you cease to fuel a fire, it slowly dies out.”
- Happiness can be developed through meditation and mind-training. Along with many other researchers who have advanced the field of neuroplasticity, which proclaims that one’s brain has the ability to change throughout one’s life, based on one’s experiences and behavior, Ricard believes that anyone has the ability to train themselves toward greater happiness through meditation: “Meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree. It completely changes your brain”. However, says Ricard, “Happiness is a skill and it requires time and effort”. Ricard recommends various ways of training the mind, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an eight-week course developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and now taught throughout the world.
- Happiness is found through helping others. Ricard acknowledges that our happiness is not immune to external happenings, but genuine happiness enables us to respond effectively. “Unlike pleasure, genuine happiness may be influenced by circumstance, but it isn’t dependent on it. It actually gives us the inner resources to deal better with those circumstances.” We aren’t off meditating on some mountain (or in our living room), removed from the world’s events. Instead, deeply-rooted, enduring happiness moves us to take appropriate action. Says Ricard, “The ultimate reason for meditating is to transform ourselves in order to be better able to transform the world.”
Matthieu, R (2006). Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.