What is happiness, and how can we all get some?
by Chad Prevost
There’s good and bad news when it comes to happiness. Photographer and author Matthieu Ricard, who left a career as a molecular biologist to become a Buddhist monk, has devoted his life to the question of how we can train our minds. His answer is influenced by his faith as well as by his scientific turn of mind: We can train our minds in habits of happiness.
He doesn’t ask that you just take his word for it, either. He participated in a 12-year brain study on meditation and compassion led by a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson. Davidson hooked up Ricard’s head to 256 sensors and found that when Ricard was meditating on compassion his mind was unusually light.
“The scans showed that when meditating on compassion, Ricard’s brain produces a level of gamma waves — those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory — ‘never reported before in the neuroscience literature’, Davidson said. The scans also showed excessive activity in his brain’s left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, allowing him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity.”
Ricard’s 2003 book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill contains many of the ideas you can hear in his Ted Talk. The good news of his message is that transformation is truly possible for all of us. The bad? It takes time, which is why perhaps so few of us really work on centering our mind and letting it control our actions and reactions.
What Do We Even Mean By “Happiness”?
Happiness sounds trite and shallow like we’re living in a bland world where everyone is high on Xanax and MDMA. Ricard clarifies what he means by happiness.
“Happiness is such a vague word. Let’s call it well-being. Well-being is not a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state which actually pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys or sorrows that can come one’s way. That might be surprising. Can we have this kind of well-being while being sad? In a way, why not? Because we are speaking of a different level…Very often we look outside, we think we need everything, which already dooms our happiness.”
Ricard provides our western, outward-seeking, grasping culture with an important — one might say crucial — message of looking inward. Westerners commonly write-off Buddhist thinking as passive and/or negative (i.e. — How does one think about “nothing”?). By contrast, Ricard demonstrates how we have to actively pursue unconditional compassion and open-mindedness. These are the necessary components to experiencing the healthy and sustained depths of emotional and psychic well-being.
Well-being is not merely experiencing the pleasure of a passing moment. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment. From the Eastern to Western traditions there have been wildly differing views on how to define happiness. Some have argued that it comes from the past as it aspires to the promise of the future. Others have argued that it is found in the freshness of the present moment.
Ricard further defines happiness as an underlying presence that pervades all other emotional states, all the joys and sorrows that come your way. Happiness is certainly not trying to have everything just right. That is to doom happiness from the outset. How can we ever have everything all at once, or sustain it if we were to somehow get it? So many of us focus on the outer things when it comes to aspiring to greater well-being, but as often as not we can’t control things outside of us.
Happiness comes from the mind and doing the inner work. Happiness is not fleeting or illusory like so many things in the outer world. Perhaps more importantly, it is something that we must train. He advises us to train like you would train to run a marathon.
“Mind training matters. It is not a luxury. It is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that is going to determine the quality of every instance for life. We are ready to spend 50 years in education. We spend a great deal of time doing fitness, jogging, trying to remain beautiful. Yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most, the way our minds function, which is the ultimate things that determine the quality of our experience.”
In a more recent book, Ricard collaborated with Wolf Singer, a distinguished neuroscientist. The two engaged in an unusually well-matched and perspicacious conversation about meditation and the brain in Beyond the Self. They don’t always agree on where the sources of growth lie in the brain, and the exchanges are fascinating.
Slowing Down Runs Against The Cultural Grain
One imperative takeaway from Ricard’s teaching as a whole is: You get there slowly. But that is not to suggest it is a passive journey. While it takes time, you also get there with clear and purposeful intention. Both messages are critical to understand, but perhaps it is best to begin with the idea of slow growth.
Hurry creates haste and anxiety. Hurry is the scourge of Western civilization, especially in the United States, but well beyond and into almost any urban population connected to the great global economic machinery. It is both a cause and a result of our high-pressure civilization.
All too often, men sacrifice their present happiness for the allure of more and faster. Men forget their place in the home is more than merely breadwinning. Through the nonstop pressure to “grind” and “crush it” they leave the home for countless hours every day, leaving the less prestigious work of domesticity to women. It’s an age-old story that has its roots so deeply dug into the narrative of our culture and family life that a few waves of feminism have only begun to disrupt.
But it’s not just men rushing around in a stew of anxiety and obligation. Women and men rush faster and faster to check the boxes on their calendars and provide to the needs of endless expectations. It’s a cultural legacy we hand down from generation to generation.
Well-being does not come through rushing. There is a micro and a macro view of how this works. Individually, you can do something about your personal happiness, but recognize that the cultural machinery does not value it.
The Cultural Mandate: We Will Be Happy At The Top
We see courageous and successful entrepreneurs on our screens. They’re inescapable if we’re on our various media channels. They purport to be harbingers of what we too can become if only we grind a little harder, make sacrifices with a little more discipline, and follow the “secrets” or the “keys” or the right step-by-step template.
We take a few steps, but something breaks down. We put ourselves “out there” and are met with hostility, or more often, indifference. We aren’t getting the likes and the downloads we need. We become anxious. We doubt. We decide this isn’t for us. It must be the better people who have made it to the top.
In fact, as so many “at the top” will tell you, there’s a terrific amount of luck involved. Sometimes those who have made it to great fortune and/or fame actually haven’t worked as hard as a great many who aren’t famous or financially in the top 1%.
The exceptions we hear about. Their algorithms are trending at the top of the platforms. They possess the thing we want. They say we can do it in 21 days, or 21 weeks, or whatever the number and whatever the secret, they promise if we do it right we can achieve it fast.
Meanwhile, life is passing us by. Our “windows of opportunity” are shrinking. We want to be drinking margaritas and watching the sunset out our beach window. We want to wear sandals and take long walks on the beach and have time just to chat with our friends and neighbors with no particular place to go.
But in order to get there, wherever the fantasy is — however grounded in possibility or wildly imagined — we first have lots to do, and we have to do them each and every day and then each and every week and month. We have to crank. We have to dig. No pain, no gain. Just do it. The inspirational mottos and cheerleading messages are endless. Then you wake up ten years later and wonder where you’ve even gotten for all the frantic pace. Or, as Thomas Merton put it:
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
What To Expect In The Short Term
Okay, so it’s a process. It makes sense. Few transformative things happen overnight (or in 21 days). Ricard suggests starting where you are, and with micromovements making the changes that will show results faster than you may think.
Start by thinking happy thoughts for as little as 10 to 15 minutes a day, Ricard says. Typically when we experience feelings of love or well-being or expressions of gratitude, it’s fleeting. Then we move on to the next thought. Instead, concentrate on not letting your mind get distracted. Keep focused on the positive emotions for the next stretch of time.
If you want a specific direction of what to meditate on, start a gratitude journal. The practice of gratitude is surprisingly well-documented. The practice is also in digging deeper and deeper for what you are grateful for with each passing day.
If you do the training daily, Ricard says even just two weeks in you can feel sustaining positive results. That’s backed up by research, too. One substantive study found that even 20 minutes of daily meditation can make people much happier overall. In other words, while it may be a process, you don’t have to meditate like the pros (60,000+ hours of meditation) to reap the benefits.
Get Happier By Getting Over And Out Of Yourself
You may end up a terrific meditator, and become exceedingly self-aware. But for you to really experience the deepest satisfaction, you have to get out of your own head.
When I was a graduate student I would fill up on information and profound and challenging ideas, but when I had nowhere to direct my learning I felt like a stagnant pool. I needed to apply my learning. Sometimes it was through service to others (as when I was in Seminary and worked with youth). Other times it was simply through teaching the material itself. Eventually, it became helping students become the best writers and editors they aspired to be.
You don’t even have to think about it in an altruistic way. Just think about it in a pragmatic way. When you help others you literally feel better. You also focus your energy outward. If you are wanting to get “beyond the self,” and into transcendence, what better way than by helping other “selves”?
This doesn’t mean you need to go into the ministry. You help others in all kinds of ways all the time. If you’re a parent, you help your children in small ways (cleaning up after them), and in large ways (providing). Your profession may help others. You may help your neighbor by getting their mail or taking out their trash when they’re out of town. You may help the person who’s car battery went out in an empty parking lot.
Or perhaps you do need to systematize your efforts to help others. You can volunteer at a local charity. There is plenty of need to go around. You should have no trouble finding ways to aid your brothers and your sisters.
Your Happiness Training Is Yours To Control
Some of us find limitless creative ways to deny death’s looming presence. Many of us, by contrast, are only too aware. We feel we have so much in us, so much possibility, so many things we want to see, things we want to do. Inevitably, tragic as it is for the way we have evolved as a species, our desires and imaginations will always outperform the actual potential we have to bring them into realization.
You can choose to live a harried, frustrated, anxious life checking off boxes just to prove the last paragraph wrong, to demonstrate how you are in fact the exception. Or you can accept unfulfilled desires as a part of life. This is the essential wisdom of Ricard.
Yes, you can control your psychological makeup — namely, your mind. It is critical to discovering the deeper sources of happiness or well-being. It is another of Ricard’s essential points.
The training you can put your mind to will keep your well-being running deep. With experience, you will be more like the deep parts of the ocean that remain calm even when a storm rages above. And you will be less like the coastline currents getting swept up in the high crests and the low troughs, getting pounded by the breakers.
One last thing is important to remember as you journey onwards in your mind training: don’t be in a hurry. After all, if this is a practice you intend to keep day in and day out, there is no need to rush. Say “yes” to experience as it comes. “Let the game come to you,” as coaches tell athletes.
Play within yourself. Slow down. Happiness doesn’t have to be hard. What is hard? Maintaining the illusions, ignoring the training, and chasing your tail in endless circles.