Type “Happiest Person in the World” into your search engine, and there’s Matthieu Ricard, the French-born biologist turned Tibetan monk and close associate of the Dalai Lama.
That’s a lot to live up to, especially as Ricard earned the title when a scan of his brain showed the highest-yet recorded activity in areas associated with positive emotions. “Of course, it is better than being called the unhappiest person in the world,” he told The Daily Beast.
Yet now Ricard and his 864-page new book, Altruism, say that happiness as it’s conventionally understood is actually counterproductive. If you really want to be happy, he said, stop trying to be happy, and go help someone else instead.
“In modern Western societies, happiness is often equated with a maximization of pleasure,” he said, “and some imagine that true happiness would consist of an interrupted succession of pleasurable experiences. This sounds more like a recipe for exhaustion than for genuine happiness.”
So what’s the alternative? Altruism the book doesn’t have a lot of feel-good platitudes in it, but it does have a mound of data—economic, neuroscientific, psychological—about what actually causes humans to feel happy. What’s the answer?
Said Ricard, “Happiness is a way of being that comes along when a certain number of positive human qualities come together: altruism and compassion, inner freedom [so that you are not the slave of your own thoughts], senses of serenity and fulfillment, resilience, as well a clear and stable mind that does not distort reality too much.”
Easy for a monk to say, of course. But Ricard is quick to point out that “the important point about all these qualities is that, unlike pleasure, they are skills that can be cultivated through training the mind in compassion, caring mindfulness, emotional balance, and so on.”
Are selfish people really unhappy, though? Plenty of morally questionable people seem to be pretty happy. Dick Cheney’s recent Playboy interview, for example, revealed him to be quite satisfied with his efforts to promote war and torture, grow the wealth gap, and deny climate change.
Ricard responded with several points. “Seeking selfish happiness seems unlikely to succeed for several reasons,” he said. “Excessive self-centeredness multiplies our hopes and fears and makes us brood on what might affect us. Obsession with ‘me,’ with the ego, leads us to magnify the impact on our well-being of the slightest event. We project onto our surroundings judgments and values fabricated by our inner confusion. Essentially, selfishness makes everyone lose: It makes us unhappy and we, in turn, pass that unhappiness on to those around us.”
He continued, “Some people might find some comfort in being successful, they might be proud of themselves even they have done things that are harmful to others, but if they ever look deep within themselves, can they find a genuine sense of peace, fulfillment, compassion? Ignorance might be bliss for a while, but the confrontation with reality might be painful at times.”
Of course, if they’re lucky, they’ll never confront it at all.
Still, Ricard insisted that altruism is a more stable source of happiness than selfishness. “Altruistic love is accompanied by a profound feeling of fullness and it also turns out to be the state of mind that activates the most brain areas linked to positive emotions. One could say that altruistic love is the most positive of all the positive emotions.”
That, Ricard pointed out, is how he got the “happiest man” title in the first place.
“The experiments carried out at [neuroscientist] Richard Davidson’s lab that triggered this funny story,” he said, “were actually focused on studying the strong activation that the meditation on compassion has in the brain.”
In other words, when Ricard’s happiness level was off the charts, he was meditating on compassion for other people. And here we thought the “ultimate high”came in a pill.
Ricard’s data-driven rejection of selfish happiness puts him at odds with classical economics, of course, with its emphasis on selfish behavior on the part of homo economicus who seeks only to maximize his own welfare. And this is one of Ricard’s central points: “If we have more consideration for others, we will move toward a ‘caring economics.’ We will be more concerned with the improvement of working conditions, family and social life, and many other aspects of existence, and we will care more about the fate of future generations.”
Ricard’s data is also at odds with, perhaps not coincidentally, the predominant religious ideology on the rightward end of the spectrum: the evangelical narrative of sinfulness and redemption. Ricard insists that children are not born selfish or “sinful,” but naturally altruistic. Citing one well-known study, he said, “Michael Tomasello and Felix Warneken have established that, from the age of 1, when they are just beginning to learn to walk and speak, children already spontaneously exhibit behavior of mutual aid and cooperation that they were not taught by adults. Very young children spontaneously offered to help an experimenter complete various tasks… and they did so without the prospect of any kind of reward.”
“It appears,” he continued, “that helping behaviors manifest very early, long before parents have inculcated in their children the rules of sociability, and are not determined by any external pressure. The discovery of similar behavior among the great apes leads one to think that behavior of altruistic cooperation did not appear out of nowhere among human beings, but that it was already present in the ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees some six million years ago, and that concern for our fellows is deeply anchored in our nature.”
But if we’re born altruistic, why do human beings end up acting selfish? Bad education—like being told you’re a hopeless sinner, or being subjected to corporal punishment for being “bad,” or “learning” that everyone is out for themselves. “Studies show that if children are made to understand that they are capable of altruism and that they are kind, they will tend to behave kindly when the occasion arises. If children are persuaded they are mean, the opposite effect will occur—namely that at the next opportunity, the child will in fact tend to behave as if he or she were really mean.”
Tell people that they’re selfish wealth-maximizers, or hopeless sinners, and eventually they’ll act like it.
Even after 800 pages of case studies, experimental research, and spiritual verities later, it’s easy to be cynical about arguments like these. Nice guys often finish last, even if the selfish ones destroy civilization in the process. In a political season in which Ayn Rand is now being taken seriously as a moral philosopher, a Buddhist monk is easy to dismiss as naïve.
Then again, Ricard has paid his dues. Before becoming a bestselling author (of The Monk and the Philosopher, with his well-known philosopher father, Jean-Francois Revel; and of the 2006 bestseller Happiness), he left a successful scientific career to spend 26 years as a monk, largely in silence. Even today, he spends three months a year on silent retreat in an unheated hut in Nepal.
And he spends a great deal of time in the trenches. He’s donating all profits of his book to his Nepal-based nonprofit, Karuna Shechen, which is working with families displaced by the recent earthquake, for example, and is, after all, part of the most oppressed religion in the world.
Meanwhile, one of his most powerful stories came from an unlikely source. “I remember being asked to visit a prison in France,” he said, “in which inmates had been there for some 20 years. I mentioned to them that despite having done terrible things, everyone, including themselves, had a potential for change… They said that this was quite uplifting to them, since usually they were told that they were double-sinners: sinners at birth and sinners through having committed harmful acts. So, we should never underestimate our potential for change. Our mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy. It can cause us to hate or to love.”