The happiest man in the world. . .

August 23, 2023 • 12:30 pm

. . . according to the New York Times, is a 77-year-old monk named Matthieu Ricard, who happens to be the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter. The NYT article (click below) also says his books have been bestsellers, that he got the French National Order of Merit, and that he has a Ph.D in “cellular genetics.”

Of course the title of “world’s happiest man” is a bit dubious, as it’s based on brain activity, but the interview with him by David Marchese, which is well worth reading, is very good. It emphasizes that happiness comes from compassion (a Buddhist tenet that I happen to agree with), and that one can never be happy all the time, for suffering is part of life. But you can be unhappy without being angry or despairing. Above all, Ricard preaches empathy for others.

Here’s how he got his monicker:

In the early 2000s, researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that Ricard’s brain produced gamma waves — which have been linked to learning, attention and memory — at such pronounced levels that the media named him “the world’s happiest man.”

And here he is with his Boss (photo from the NYT):

Click the screenshot below to read the interview:

First, how he reacts to his title (interviewer’s questions are in bold, Ricard’s answers in plain text):

For a while now, people have been calling you the world’s happiest man. Do you feel that happy?

It’s a big joke. We cannot know the level of happiness through neuroscience. It’s a good title for journalists to use, but I cannot get rid of it. Maybe on my tomb, it will say, “Here lies the happiest person in the world.” Anyway, I enjoy every moment of life, but of course there are moments of extreme sadness — especially when you see so much suffering. But this should kindle your compassion, and if it kindles your compassion, you go to a stronger, healthier, more meaningful way of being. That’s what I call happiness. It’s not as if all the time you jump for joy. Happiness is more like your baseline. It’s where you come to after the ups and downs, the joy and sorrows. We perceive even more intensely — bad taste, seeing someone suffer — but we keep this sense of the depth. That’s what meditation brings.

And his three “rules for life”:

You know, once I was on the India Today Conclave [an annual TED-like event held in India that gathers leading thinkers from a variety of fields].  They said, “Can you give us the three secrets of happiness?” I said: “First, there’s no secret. Second, there’s not just three points. Third, it takes a whole life, but it is the most worthy thing you can do.” I’m happy to feel I am on the right track. I cannot imagine feeling hate or wanting someone to suffer.

And when I read the last point, I immediately though of my blog nemesis, P. Z. Myers, who is always going off on me.  I rarely respond, and am not really going to diss him, but I think he needs to listen to Ricard’s last sentence, as Myers is always wishing that people (especially Republicans and rich people) would suffer or die, an emotion I’m training myself to curb. Here’s the latest example from Myers, one of many, and the subject is Elon Musk, whom Myers hates:

. . . Ronan Farrow reviews Elon Musk’s life. Imagine an angel of utmost probity assessing his soul at the doorway to heaven, nodding kindly as he summarizes each decade, and then, sadly, pulling the lever that drops him into a blood-drenched flaming tunnel to Hell. It’s so satisfying.

Sadly, many of the followers who bark at Myers’s heels share this same wish for people to suffer.

But I must move on. More on compassion in the interview:

It’s not the best thing to say, but I can easily imagine wanting certain people to suffer. How are we supposed to deal gracefully with our polar opposites in a world that feels increasingly about polarities? I mean, the Dalai Lama could talk to Vladimir Putin all he wants, but Putin’s not going to say, “Your compassion has changed me.” 

Once, a long time ago, someone said to me, who is the person you would like to spend 24 hours alone with? I said Saddam Hussein. I said, “Maybe, maybe, some small change in him might be possible.” When we speak of compassion, you want everybody to find happiness. No exception. You cannot just do that for those who are good to you or close to you. It has to be universal. You may say that Putin and Bashar al-Assad are the scum of humanity, and rightly so. But compassion is about remedying the suffering and its cause. How would that look? You can wish that the system that allowed someone like that to emerge is changed. I sometimes visualize Donald Trump going to hospitals, taking care of people, taking migrants to his home. You can wish that the cruelty, the indifference, the greed may disappear from these people’s minds. That’s compassion; that’s being impartial.

I no longer wish anyone to suffer or die, and my philosophy of determinism helps me with that. If you think that bad people are like broken cars—the results of the laws of physics, including their genes and environments—then you don’t wish them to suffer—any more than you wish a broken car to suffer. What you want is for the car to fe fixed, and that’s what Richard wants. Fixing “bad people” is what should be the sole goal of judicial punishment (as well as keeping them from doing more harm).

You should read the whole interview, as I think it’s helpful. Ricard adds that sadness (which “goes with determination to remedy the cause”) is okay, but that there’s no point to despair. For those of you, like me, who say that “I can’t help it: I do feel despair,” Ricard notes that emotions can be changed (well, not by some numinous “will”, but by training). It’s similar to cognitive behavioral therapy.

Finally, Ricard recounts the last time someone “got on his nerves”, a very rare event:

Who gets on your nerves at the monastery? My nerves? Once in New York, when I was promoting one of my books, a very nice journalist lady said, “What really upsets your nerves when you arrive in New York?” I said, “Why do you presuppose anything is upsetting me?” It’s not about something being on your nerves. It’s about trying to see the best way to proceed. Paul Ekman [an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California San Francisco, known for his work on facial expressions and emotions. He is also the co-author, with the Dalai Lama, of the book “Emotional Awareness”] once asked me to remember when I got really angry. I had to go back 20 years: I had a brand-new laptop, my first one, in Bhutan, and the monk who didn’t know what it was, he was passing by with a bowl filled with roasted barley flour and spilled some on it. So I got mad, and then he looked at me, and he said, “Ha-ha, you’re getting angry!” That was about it. I get indignation all the time about things that should be remedied. Indignation is related to compassion. Anger can be out of malevolence.

There’s a lot more, so read the interview. I have to add that as I get older, I do seem to have acquired a bit of useful wisdom, which is a shame because you should be born wise, for when you’re really wise from experience and age, you either die or get dementia! One thing I’ve learned (though I still let it control my emotions sometimes) is that anger is a toxic and generally useless emotion, which can stand in the way of fixing either personal or societal problems. Another is that if you want to cooperate with others, and have them do what you think is best, treat them with respect and never, ever call them names.  Also, never accuse someone directly of bad behavior: simply tell them how their behavior makes you feel.

I know I’m sounding sappy. So it goes. Now if only I could curb my biggest problem: anxiety. I tried meditation, but I’m generally too keyed up to meditate!

17 thoughts on “The happiest man in the world. . .

  1. A priest, a vicar and a rabbi are discussing what they would like people to say about them when they are dead and lying in their coffins.
    The priest says, “I’d like people to say that here lies a man who was truly a servant of God.”
    The vicar says, “I’d like people to say that here lies a man who faithfully served his parishioners.”
    The rabbi says, “I’d like people to say… “Look! He’s breathing!”

  2. Not sappy, Jerry, wise and refreshing. I emphasize one of your and Ricard’s points: No human being–indeed, no living thing–deserves suffering.

  3. Fixing “bad people” is what should be the sole goal of judicial punishment (as well as keeping them from doing more harm).

    You no longer view general deterrence as a legitimate penological goal, Jerry? Only rehabilitation and incapacitation of the as-yet unrehabilitated?

  4. Once in New York, when I was promoting one of my books, a very nice journalist lady said, “What really upsets your nerves when you arrive in New York?” I said, “Why do you presuppose anything is upsetting me?”

    Jeez, not even having to wait for a table at Elaine’s in the old days, Monk Matt? 🙂

  5. “I no longer wish anyone to suffer or die, and my philosophy of determinism helps me with that.”

    Indeed and thanks for highlighting compassion as exemplified by Ricard. For some reason compassion has never been fashionable. Determinism is of course not the only route to it, but it’s harder to demonize your opponents when you appreciate they couldn’t have turned out otherwise, and but for the luck of circumstances beyond your control you might have ended up like them.

  6. “. . . treat them with respect and never, ever call them names.”

    . . . and respect that they might have different perspectives about what “is best.” An admittedly difficult task in matters of importance.

    I increasingly wonder whether unhappiness, intolerance, and incivility all go hand-in-hand.

    1. “I increasingly wonder whether unhappiness, intolerance, and incivility all go hand-in-hand.”

      Absolutely, and you don’t have to wonder, it’s been proven by science (neurology). It’s all part of the brain’s limbic system and the amygdala is probably the most involved with these behaviors. Many of them have feedback loops and feed off each other, the underlying activation is fear- crazy complicated for a comment such as this. If you want a really good primer on the subject, I’d recommend Sapolsky’s Behave

  7. I find it helpful to imagine placing myself in the shoes of others. What made them act the way they are? It certainly helps when questioning the actions done that we dislike, from those in the present or past. Many of us are fortunate to have have circumstances such that we don’t act abhorrently, but if the cards were dealt differently we too could be that person. There is no free will after all. This does not excuse people for their actions – accountability still matters. Rather, it helps not to seek vengeance and provide sympathy and ask how we could have avoided this outcome.

    As for PZ Myers, I was a follower of his many years ago . I bought his book, and read his blog (mostly read, almost never commented). If I recall properly, it was a _favorable_ blog post that led me to PCC(E). This was perhaps a decade ago, more or less. I became increasingly aware that PZ was growing intolerant. I could not take it anymore so I stopped reading his blog.

  8. I think Ricard’s and PCC’s words are valuable and worth contemplating, but I
    have real difficulty in how to respond to the events that occurred in Germany in the
    30’s and 40’s.

  9. I don’t take the Times, so have only your excerpts to go on. It looks like a very interesting interview.

    It takes practice for me not to get angry and I may never succeed fully. Interestingly (to me at least) I never get angry while driving. I give other drivers all the room in the world. I find some driver behaviors to be annoying, but letting annoyance become anger is dangerous in a car. This is how people get killed! An angry driver runs you off the road and its curtains! Most of the time, I get angry over trivial matters—like someone leaving one’s tools about and not putting them away. Oy. I need to fix that.

    I’ve read in various guises that one reason to be compassionate and tolerant of others is that each person is him- or herself fighting a fierce battle. I do believe that this is true—that everyone is engaged in his or her own struggles. So, we need to give folks a break.

    Are there those who do not deserve compassion? I think so. I do believe that there are some in the world who are irredeemable. Compassion in such cases should be directed toward the victims, not toward the perpetrator, and the compassionate thing would be to oppose the perpetrator—with violence if necessary. This implies that compassion does not necessarily mean being kind to everyone equally. Rather, it means choosing the path that contributes the most *net* compassion to the system (the context) at hand.

    I do find that I am happy when I am kind. Perhaps I need to invoke kindness more consistently.

    This is a thought-provoking topic and a good one to bring to light.

    1. “I do find that I am happy when I am kind. Perhaps I need to invoke kindness more consistently.”

      For whatever reason, this is the second time I’m bringing up Sapolsky’s Behave on this thread. So I’ll do it again. As described in the book, kindness is a positive feedback loop- being kind does indeed release dopamine and creates “good feelings” for the individual. Prefrontal Cortex (the executive/social part of the brain) is mostly involved in doing the “good thing.” Like my other comment on this, I’m oversimplifying the brain mechanisms involved in kindness, but it’s really cool and well researched.

  10. Wikipedia says Ricard did a PhD in molecular biology under no other than Nobel laureate Francois Jacob.

    And Ricard’s father was famous classical liberal philosopher Jean-Francois Revel.

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