Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

by Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard gave up a career in cellular genetics at the Institut Pasteur to study Buddhism in the Himalayas. In this book he shares his wisdom about happiness drawing from thirty-five years of studying Buddhism and psychology.

“A change, even a tiny one, in the way we manage our thoughts and perceive and interpret the world can significantly change our existence. Changing the way we experience transitory emotions leads to a change in our moods and to a lasting transformation of our way of being.”

“Authentic happiness is not linked to an activity; it is a state of being, a profound emotional balance struck by a subtle understanding of how the mind functions. While ordinary pleasures are produced by contact with pleasant objects and end when that contact is broken, sukha—lasting well-being—is felt so long as we remain in harmony with our inner nature. One intrinsic aspect of it is selflessness, which radiates from within rather than focusing on the self.”

Suffering. “According to Buddhism, suffering will always exist as a universal phenomenon, but every individual has the potential for liberation from it… If our mind becomes accustomed to dwelling solely on the pain that events or people inflict on it, one day the most trivial incident will cause it infinite sorrow… In brief, we must: recognize suffering, eliminate its source, end it by practicing the path… So the way in which we experience these waves of suffering depends a great deal on our attitude.”

Ego. “Unlike Buddhism, very few psychological treatments address the problem of how to reduce the feeling of self-centeredness… For Buddhism, paradoxically, genuine self-confidence is the natural quality of egolessness. To dispel the illusion of the ego is to free oneself from a fundamental vulnerability… Genuine confidence comes from an awareness of a basic quality of our mind and our potential for transformation and flourishing, what Buddhism calls Buddha nature, which is present in all of us. Such recognition imparts peaceful strength that cannot be threatened by external circumstances or inner-fears, a freedom that transcends self-absorption and anxiety.”

“In what way is humility an ingredient of happiness? The arrogant and the narcissistic fuel themselves on illusions that come into continuous conflict with reality. The inevitable disillusionment that follows can generate… a feeling of inner emptiness. Humility avoids such unnecessary distress.”

Thoughts. “Learning to tone down the ceaseless racket of disturbing thoughts is a decisive stage on the road to inner peace… If we resign ourselves to being the perpetual victims of our thoughts, we are like dogs who run after every stick thrown for them.”

“When we feel anxious, depressed, cranky, envious, or emotionally exhausted, we’re quick to pass the buck to the outside world; tensions with colleagues at work, arguments with our spouse—anything… can be a source of upset. This reflex is far more than a mere psychological evasion. It reflects the mistaken perception that causes us to attribute inherent qualities to external objects when in fact those qualities are dependent on our own minds. Systematically blaming others and holding them responsible for our suffering is the surest way to lead an unhappy life. It is by transforming our minds that we can transform our world.”

Emotions. “If an emotion strengthens our inner peace and seeks the good of others, it is positive, or constructive; if it shatters our serenity, deeply disturbs our mind, and is intended to harm others, it is negative, or afflictive.” Ricard describes the five mental “poisons”: desire/greed, hatred, delusion “which distorts our perception of reality”, pride, and envy.

“The experience of introspection shows… negative emotions are transitory mental events that can be obliterated by their opposites, the positive emotions, acting as antidotes.” For example, anger can be neutralized by patience. Another method is liberation. Rather than getting overwhelmed by an emotion, you recognize that the emotion itself is just a thought. “The more you look at anger in this manner, the more it evaporates under your gaze, like white frost under the sun’s rays… One moment of anger can destroy years of patience.”

Anxiety. “When trekking in the Himalayas, you often have to walk for days or even weeks. You suffer from the cold, the altitude, snowstorms, but since every step brings you closer to your goal, there is joy in making the effort to attain it. If you get lost and find yourself without bearings in an unknown valley or forest, your courage instantly vanishes; the weight of exhaustion and solitude is suddenly crushing, anxiety mounts, and every step is an ordeal. You lose the will to walk; you want to sit down in despair. Perhaps the anxiety that some people feel likewise comes from a lack of direction in their lives, from having failed to grasp their own inner potential for change.”

Inner freedom. “Inner freedom allows us to savor the lucid simplicity of the present moment, free from the past and emancipated from the future. Freeing ourselves from the intrusion of memories of the past does not mean that we are unable to draw useful lessons from our experience. Freeing ourselves from fear of the future does not make us incapable of approaching it clearly, but saves us from getting bogged down by pointless fretting… What’s the point of worrying about things that no longer exist and things that don’t yet exist?”

Psychology. “Despite the improvement in material conditions, depression is now ten times as prevalent as it was in 1960 and affects an ever younger sector of the population… Martin Seligman has theorized that ‘an ethos that builds unwarranted self-esteem, espouses victimology, and encourages rampant individualism has contributed to the epidemic.’ In his view, exacerbated individualism helps explain the huge increase in the rate of depression in Western societies, partly as a result of the ‘meaninglessness’ that occurs when ‘there is no attachment to something larger than oneself.’ Buddhism would add that it is also surely due to the tireless dedication of most of our time to external activities and goals, instead of learning to enjoy the present moment, the company of those we love, the peace of natural environments, and, above all, the flowering of inner peace that gives every second of life a new and different quality.”

“As for the correlations highlighted by social psychology, in most cases it is unknown whether they act as causes or as consequences. We know that friendship goes with happiness, but are we happy because we have a lot of friends or do we have a lot of friends because we are happy?”

Altruism. “The Buddhist perspective… holds selfishness to be the main cause of suffering and altruistic love to be the essential ingredient of true happiness. The interdependence of all phenomena in general, and of all people in particular, is such that our own happiness is intimately linked to that of others… This corroborates the research of psychologists showing that the most altruistic members of a population are also those who enjoy the highest sense of satisfaction in life.”

Optimism and Pessimism. “For an optimist, it makes no sense to lose hope. We can always do better… Take the current situation as a starting point (instead of wasting our time crying over the past and lamenting the present)… The optimist, even when she has temporarily failed, is free of regret and guilt feelings. She knows how to step back and is always ready to imagine a new solution, without bearing the burden of past failures. That is how she maintains her serenity.” Ricard points out that the pessimist is less productive because “he’ll devote little energy to a task he feels to be doomed from the start.”

Ethics. “Through the interplay of the laws of cause and effect, which Buddhism calls karma—the laws governing the consequences of our actions—ethics are therefore intimately linked to well-being.”

“The main thrust of this book has been to differentiate true well-being from pleasure and other counterfeit forms of happiness. Wisdom is precisely that which allows us to distinguish the thoughts and deeds that contribute to authentic happiness from those that destroy it. Wisdom is based on direct experience, not dogma.”

“Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken. It doesn’t mean giving up what is truly beneficial, but finding out what really matters and what brings lasting fulfillment, joy, serenity, and above all, the irreplaceable boon of altruistic love… Having a simple mind is not the same as being simple-minded. On the contrary, simplicity of mind is reflected in clarity of thought. Like clear water that lets us see all the way to the lake bottom, simplicity reveals the nature of the mind behind the veil of restless thought.”

Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Buy from Amazon.com