Anyone can be the happiest person: Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Matthieu Ricard

The happiest man in the world does not own a house or car, or earn any money, and he spends three months each winter alone in a tiny Nepalese hermitage without home comforts or even any heating. Matthieu Ricard does, however, carry in his simple fabric bag a laptop in a padded case.

Mr. Ricard is a molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk who for almost, a decade, has enjoyed (or laboured under) the title of the most content human on the planet.


A little embarrassed by the “happiest man” title, he says it was first coined in a British newspaper headline, and calls it a total exaggeration. But it does reflect the result of a striking piece of research published by neuroscientists in the 1990s which found that, while undergoing meditation, Mr. Ricard’s brain showed a degree of stimulation in areas associated with positive emotions and impulses that was previously unrecorded in scientific literature.

Meditating for a long period of time, the University of Wisconsin research suggested, had the potential capacity to alter the brain, a finding which was interpreted more widely as an ability to train oneself in happiness. He has, at the moment, abandoned his mountain top to tour the world. He has been talking about a new book on altruism, and an app designed to teach meditation.

The obvious question to be asked of Mr. Ricard is what there is to be so happy about when a devastating earthquake in Nepal has led to the deaths of thousands. Because evolution, he says, has equipped us to focus on danger and drama “we have this overwhelming feeling of this wicked world”. He adds: “The banality of goodness is overlooked. Of course there was a moment [after the earthquake] when everyone ran for their life. But immediately afterwards, there was calm, discipline, helping. They do it in solidarity.”

He insists he sees signs of the perfectibility of humanity everywhere, claiming that globally violence rates are falling, signs of grassroots solidarity are everywhere. There is, he argues, something in the air.

He is, by training and instinct a scientist, having begun studying Buddhism in the late 1960s at the same time as he was completing a PhD at the Pasteur Institute, in Paris. “It wasn’t like slamming any doors,” he says, “it is that you cross a mountain pass and the next valley is so beautiful you want to settle there.”

He chooses to participate in studies on meditation to back up his thesis that altruism can make humans better people, and in so doing can nudge society, bit by bit, towards something better.

Meanwhile, he says, ongoing neurological studies suggest that you do not need to own a pair of sandals and have a Himalayan view to develop your capacity for positivity and compassion.

Four weeks’ of “caring mindfulness” meditation for 20 minutes a day was also shown to alter the brain and enhance the immune system, he says. The lesson? “Anyone can be the happiest man or woman in the world if you look for happiness in the right place.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2021 12:33:01 PM |

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