. . . 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!