Summary of “Happiness” by Matthieu Ricard: Matthieu Ricard, one of the world’s greatest specialists in Buddhism, offers us a fascinating philosophical reflection on authentic happiness and the means to achieve it: to do this, let’s no longer look outside but inside ourselves and practice a more altruistic approach to the world!
By Matthieu Ricard, 2004, 384 pages
Chronicle and summary of “Plea for Happiness“.
Chapter 1 – Did you say happiness?
1.1 – What is happiness?
Philosophers define happiness differently. However, “perfect” happiness seems to have a common denominator: “the momentary disappearance of inner conflicts”, that is, feeling in harmony with the world around us and with ourselves. This is often referred to as a “magic moment”, a “state of grace”.
In the space of a few moments, thoughts of the past no longer arise, plans for the future no longer clutter the mind, and the present moment is freed from all mental composition. This moment of respite during which any emotional urgency disappears is felt as a deep peace. …] This letting-go is felt as a deep sense of relief, free from expectation and conflict.
However, for Matthieu Ricard, there is a difference between these moments of happiness captured on the fly and absolute serenity. According to him, these two states have neither the same dimension, nor the same duration, nor the same depth.
1.2 – The soukha (well-being) and the doukha (discontent)
For Matthieu Ricard, happiness is, in fact, a state of fullness that lasts through all the ups and downs of life.
In “Happiness“, the author uses the Buddhist term Sukha to refer to this state of well-being, resulting from a healthy and serene state of mind. In a state of soukha, one is less vulnerable to good or bad circumstances in life:
He who knows inner peace is no more broken by failure than he is exhilarated by success. He knows how to live these experiences fully in the context of a deep and vast serenity, understanding that they are ephemeral and that he has no reason to become attached to them.
The opposite of soukha is the Sanskrit term doukha, which is generally translated as “suffering”, “unhappiness” or more precisely “discontent”.
1.3 – Happiness depends on an inner state
Even if external conditions have an influence, discontent and well-being are essentially internal states.
In fact, happiness consists of eliminating our mental toxins (hatred, obsession, etc.) that poison the mind. For this, it is essential to acquire a better knowledge:
- The workings of our minds;
- Of the true nature of things not modified by our mental fabrications (in short, a more accurate perception of reality).
In summary, soukha is:
- The state of lasting wholeness that manifests itself when one has freed oneself from conflicting emotions and mental blindness.
- Wisdom that allows us to perceive the world as it is, without veils or deformations.
- The joy of journeying towards inner freedom, and the loving kindness that radiates towards others.
Chapter 2 – Is Happiness the Purpose of Existence?
Consciously or unconsciously, skilfully or clumsily, we all aspire to “be better”, whether through work or idleness, passions or calm, adventure or daily routine.
2.1 – From analysis to contemplation
In “Happiness”, Matthieu Ricard describes ignorance as the “ignorance of the true nature of things and of the law of cause and effect that governs happiness and suffering”. He then explains that one can only live a meaningful life if this ignorance is dispelled. And for this, a lucid and sincere introspection must be carried out. Two methods can be followed:
- The analytical method
It is about assessing the ins and outs of our suffering and the suffering we inflict on others. We must therefore have a deep desire to change and understand what thoughts, words and actions contribute to suffering or well-being.
- The contemplative attitude:
It consists of leaving the bubbling of our thoughts for a moment to calmly look deep inside us, observe our inner landscape and discover what embodies our most cherished aspiration.
2.2 – Four essential ideas on happiness, according to “Happiness“.
- Some people think that one must sometimes feel uncomfortable and have bad days in life to better appreciate the richness of the moments of bliss. In reality, while these unhappy moments help to give more “persective” to existence, they are never sought for themselves, but only in contrast, in view of the change they give hope for.
- To consider happiness as the materialization of all our desires and passions is “to confuse the aspiration to fullness with a utopia that inevitably leads to frustration”:
Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the fulfillment of unlimited desires turned outward.
- To experience authentic happiness is to reveal a potential that one has always carried within oneself: it is enough to eliminate all the mental toxins that mask this potential.
- Our happiness comes through the happiness of others: it is by making others happy that we make our own:
True happiness comes from an essential goodness that wishes from the bottom of the heart that each person finds meaning in his or her existence.
- Happiness depends on us and is cultivated day after day:
Happiness is not decreed, not summoned, but cultivated and built little by little, over time.
Chapter 3 – A two-sided mirror – it’s all about the outside and the inside
Clumsily, we seek happiness outside ourselves, whereas it is essentially an inner state. …] We make friends, form a family, live in society, manage to improve the material conditions of our existence… Is this enough to define happiness? No. One can be very unhappy when one apparently has “everything to be happy” and, conversely, remain serene in the face of adversity. There is a lot of naivety in imagining that only external conditions will ensure our happiness.
Of course, it is desirable to live a long and healthy life, to be free, in a peaceful country where justice is respected, to love and be loved, to have access to education and knowledge, to enjoy sufficient means of subsistence, to be able to travel around the world, to contribute as much as possible to the well-being of others and to protect the environment. However, for Matthieu Ricard, by placing all our hopes outside ourselves, we can only be disappointed.
On the other hand, if happiness is a state that depends on inner conditions, happiness is not given to us, nor is unhappiness imposed on us. We are at a crossroads at every moment, and it is up to us to choose which direction to take.
Chapter 4 – False Friends
In order to define the external factors and mental attitudes that promote soukha and those that hinder it, we must first of all distinguish between happiness and certain apparently similar but in reality, very different states.
4.1 – Happiness and pleasure: the great confusion
“Pleasure is the happiness of fools, happiness is the pleasure of wise men.” Barbey d’Aurevilly.
Confusing happiness with pleasure is a very common mistake.
- Is caused by pleasant stimuli of a sensory, aesthetic or intellectual nature.
- Depends on circumstances, places and special moments.
- If repeated, this often can become dull even disgusting.
- Is a fleeting, individual, essentially self-centred experience.
- May combine with wickedness, violence, pride, greed and other mental states incompatible with true happiness.
Unlike pleasure, soukha:
- It is born from within and although it can be influenced by circumstances, it is not subject to them.
- Lasts and grows as we experience it: it generates a feeling of fullness that, over time, becomes a fundamental trait of our temperament.
- Is not linked to action, it is a “state of being”, a deep emotional balance.
- Is felt over a long period of time (whereas ordinary pleasures occur through contact with pleasant objects and end as soon as the contact ceases).
- Naturally consists of altruism, which radiates outward instead of being self-centred.
This distinction between “pleasure” and “happiness” does not mean that one should refrain from seeking pleasant sensations. Pleasure, different from happiness by nature, is not the enemy.
Actually, it all depends. If the pleasure:
- Hinders inner freedom, it hinders happiness;
- Is lived with perfect inner freedom, it “adorns it without obscuring it”.
4.2 – Happiness and joy
In his book “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard demonstrates a clear difference between:
- “Joy” and “euphoria”:
Deep joy is a natural and lasting manifestation of the soukha. Euphoria is a jubilant exhilaration that results from a momentary excitement and is accompanied by a relapse into gloom (examples told by the author: the celebrity of a singer, the effects of drugs, lottery winners).
- “Joy” and “happiness”:
This difference is more subtle, because soukha radiates spontaneously in the form of joy, not necessarily exuberant but serene. According to Matthieu Ricard, the emotions associated with joy contribute to happiness provided they are free of all negative emotions and associated with the other components of true happiness (lucidity, kindness, etc.).
4.3 – The spirit translates suffering into unhappiness
In “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard also makes a distinction between “suffering” and “unhappiness”.
In fact, for Matthieu Ricard:
- Suffering: is triggered by various causes beyond our control (disability, illness, loss of a loved one, war, natural disasters, etc.).
- Misfortune: is the way we live these sufferings. Misfortune can be associated with physical and emotional pain generated by external conditions, but is not essentially related to them.
It is the mind that translates suffering into unhappiness, so it is up to the mind to control its perception. That is why even a small change in the way we think, perceive and interpret the world can significantly transform our lives:
We suffer the pain but we create the unhappiness.
Chapter 5 – The Alchemy of Suffering
5.1-The modes of suffering
For Matthieu Ricard, even if we feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of all the world’s pain, it is incumbent on us to be concerned, in thought and in deed, and to do everything in our power to relieve these torments.
In his book “Happiness“, the Buddhist master distinguishes three types of suffering:
- Visible: which is obvious everywhere.
- Hidden: which hides under the appearance of pleasure, euphoria, carelessness, entertainment.
- Invisible: which has its origin in the very bosom of the blindness of our mind in the grip of ignorance and selfishness.
For Buddhists, there is no place that is free of suffering.
5.2-The causes of suffering
According to Buddhism, suffering will always be present as a global phenomenon: we cannot expect suffering to disappear from the universe. However, on an individual level, each individual has the possibility of freeing themselves from it.
A man walks on a beach covered with millions of starfish dying in the sun. With each step, he picks up a star and throws it back into the sea. A comrade watching him remarks, “Do you realize that there are millions of starfish on the beach! No matter how worthy they are, your efforts make no difference.” And the man, while throwing another star into the water, to answer: “Yes, it makes a difference to this one!” So it is not the enormity of the task that matters, but the magnitude of our courage.
5.3-The four truths of suffering
The first obstacle to happiness is to not recognize suffering for what it is. Very often, we mistake happiness for what is actually disguised suffering.
More than 2500 years ago, the Buddha enunciated the following Four Noble Truths:
- First truth: suffering;
- Second truth: the causes of suffering (ignorance that leads to greedy desire, malice, pride, etc.);
- Third truth: the end of suffering;
- Fourth truth: the path of transformation (the process of eliminating the causes of suffering).
In short, it is necessary to: recognize suffering, eliminate its origin and stop it by practicing the path of transformation.
5.4 – Four essential ideas about suffering, according to the book “Happiness”
- Pain and unhappiness are different: pain is ephemeral and depends on external circumstances, whereas unhappiness is a deep state of dissatisfaction that persists despite favourable external circumstances. Therefore, it is possible to suffer physically or mentally without losing the feeling of fullness, soukha, which is based on inner peace and altruism.
- It is important to become familiar with and prepare for inevitable suffering, such as illness, old age and death, rather than being caught off guard and falling into distress.
- Suffering is by no means desirable, but when it is unavoidable, it can be an extraordinary teaching for human and spiritual progress.
- Suffering is not an anomaly or an injustice, it is in the nature of the world and the logical and inescapable product of the law of cause and effect. We are, in fact, the result of a very large number of free acts for which we are responsible. This approach is linked to the Buddhist notion of “karma” which means “act”, but also refers to the dynamic link between an act and its result.
5.5-The three methods of dealing with suffering from “Happiness“
In “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard tells us about three methods, not to escape pain, which is impossible, but to change one’s perception of it:
The power of images
In modern psychology, this is called mental imagery (visualization). By visualizing a mental image, we mobilize attention and thus distract the patient from his or her pain. Scientific research has shown that, in 85% of cases, the use of mental methods increases the ability to cope with pain.
Other methods to distract the patient from pain (less effective) include focusing on an external object (looking at a photograph), practicing a repetitive exercise (counting from one hundred down to zero), or conscious acceptance of pain.
The power of compassion
Compassion is a state of mind based on the wish that beings can be delivered from their sufferings and the causes of their suffering. By practicing compassion, we realize that other people are afflicted by sorrows comparable to our own, and sometimes much worse. We feel a sense of love, responsibility and respect for them.
Contemplating the very nature of our mind
The third method is to look at our pain, physical or mental, and ask ourselves what colour, shape or other characteristic it is. This allows us to “no longer be the passive victim of pain, but, little by little, to face and remedy the devastation it causes in our minds.”
Chapter 6 – Is Happiness Possible?
The author also refers here to the “wicked world syndrome“, generated by the widespread belief in the West that man and the world are inherently evil and which challenges the possibility of true happiness.
But for Matthieu Ricard, spiritual practice such as meditation can really bring about transformation, even if only for a few moments a day. According to him, thanks to introspective experience, we understand, day after day, how our thoughts arise and how we can no longer fall prey to mental poisons. We can free ourselves from our inner fears, become more open to others and better equipped to face the hazards of existence.
Chapter 7 – An Unfortunate Misunderstanding – The Veils of Ego
7.1 – What to do with the ego?
There are very few psychological methods designed to reduce or even eradicate the feeling of the importance of the self, certainly because “ego” is often confused with “self-confidence”.
However, in “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard explains that the ego in reality only provides a false confidence, built on precarious attributes (power, success, beauty and physical strength, intellectual brilliance, the opinion of others). Thus, when one loses one of these attributes, when things change, the ego becomes irritated and wavers. Self-confidence collapses, leaving room for frustration and suffering.
It is therefore, according to Buddhists, important to dispel the illusion of ego which allows one to free oneself from this vulnerability, this fragile sense of security.
Usually, we are afraid to approach the world without references, and we get dizzy when masks and epithets are exposed: if I am no longer a musician, writer, civil servant, cultured, handsome or strong, who am I? Yet, to have no label is the best guarantee of freedom and the most flexible, light and joyful way to live life.
7.2 – The deconstruction of self
The author addresses the idea of “deconstruction of self”, through three aspects: the “I” (our current state), the “person” (a dynamic continuum that brings together the bodily, mental and social aspects of our existence) and the “me” (an indivisible and permanent whole that characterizes us from childhood to death, “empty of autonomous and permanent existence” according to Buddhism).
By clinging to our ego, we tend to be preoccupied only with ourselves. The slightest annoyance disturbs and discourages us. We are obsessed with our successes, failures, hopes and worries.
To give up this fixation on our own image, to no longer give so much importance to the ego, provides an immense inner freedom. This allows us to approach any being and any situation with naturalness, benevolence, fortitude and serenity. Not need to win and or fear of losing, one is free to give and receive.
Thus, according to Matthieu Ricard, as long as the importance of self “holds the reins of our being”, we will never know lasting peace.
Chapter 8 – The River of Emotions
8.1-The impact of emotions
According to Buddhism, if an emotion:
- Reinforces our inner peace and tends towards the good of others: it is positive or constructive.
- Deeply disturbs our mind and harms others: it is negative or disruptive.
Thus, it is the consequence that counts: the only criterion considered is the happiness or the suffering that we generate by our actions, words and thoughts, for ourselves as well as for others.
8.2 – What science says about it
Western psychology does not generally evaluate emotions according to whether they are beneficial or harmful. However, an emotional episode is considered disruptive or dysfunctional when a person expresses an emotion:
- Adequate but with disproportionate intensity.
- Inappropriate for a given situation.
For Western psychologists, the aim is then to manage the way we translate our emotions into action, not to transcend it as we understand it in Buddhism.
8.3 – Towards a positive psychology
In “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard explains the reasons that justify the approach of positive psychology:
- Simply to eliminate negative emotions does not necessarily lead to joy and happiness: positive emotions must also be developed.
- To refrain from harming others is not enough: one must also do good for them.
- Positive thought leads to flexible, welcoming, creative and receptive behaviours; it expands our intellectual and emotional universe, opens us up to new ideas and experiences, and enables us to better manage adversity.
8.4 – Why is it called “negative emotion”?
- They hinder lucidity, inner freedom and are a source of torment for us and those around us,
- Tend to distort our perception of reality and prevent us from seeing it as it is.
Attachment idealizes its object, hatred demonizes it. These emotions make us believe that beauty or ugliness are inherent in people and things. It is the mind that decrees them “attractive” or “repulsive”.
Inner introspection (with rigorous and prolonged training) allows us to identify the mental activities that lead to “well-being” and those that reinforce “discontent” (even if they bring us moments of pleasure). But Buddhism has identified five disruptive mental “poisons”, regardless of the degree and context in which they occur:
- Desire: as “thirst”, greed that torments
- Hate: the desire to harm
- Confusion: distorts our perception of reality
In total, Buddhist texts mention “eighty-four thousand negative emotions”, a number that gives an idea of the complexity of the human mind. For this reason, Buddhism speaks of “eighty-four thousand doors” that lead to the path of inner transformation.
Chapter 9 – Disruptive Emotions: The Remedies
9.1 – The spiral of emotions
Psychological studies run counter to the conventional wisdom that by giving free rein to one’s emotions, one temporarily lowers the accumulated tension. In reality, the opposite is true: by systematically letting your negative emotions express themselves, you develop habits that you will fall prey to again as soon as their emotional charge reaches the critical threshold.
So, like an untreated infection, disruptive emotions become more powerful when they are given free rein.
The result is what is commonly referred to as a “bad temper”, accompanied by chronic malaise.
This does not mean, however, that we should suppress our emotions. It would mean preventing them from expressing themselves while leaving them intact, which can only be a temporary and unhealthy solution.
9.2 – Three methods to free yourself from negative emotions
In “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard describes three methods to not be victim of conflicting emotions and the suffering they usually cause:
- Antidotes: look for a specific antidote for each negative emotion (kindness as an antidote to hatred, for example).
- Liberation: “liberate” the emotion by discovering its true nature.
- Use: use the strength of each emotion as a catalyst for inner transformation.
The choice of one or the other of these methods depends on the timing, circumstances and capabilities of the person using them.
First method: the use of antidotes
Introspective experience shows that negative emotions can be annihilated by their opposite: positive emotions. These then act as antidotes, just as the destructive effects of a poison are neutralized with a serum.
In fact, according to Matthieu Ricard, when two mental processes are diametrically opposed, they cannot occur simultaneously: they are as antagonistic as water and fire (love and hate for example). This is why we must identify the antidotes that correspond to each negative emotion, and then cultivate them.
It is for their use that the herbalist will distinguish poisonous plants from medicinal plants.
These antidotes are to the psyche what antibodies are to the body. The more we develop this antidote, the more the disruptive emotion will diminish and eventually disappear.
Second method: releasing emotions
Rather than suppress each distressing emotion with its own particular antidote, the second method is to identify a single antidote, acting at a more fundamental level on all our mental afflictions.
Matthieu Ricard therefore proposes the following financial year. If we feel, for example, a whiff of anger, he invites us to examine this anger carefully: to locate it, to observe whether it has a colour, a shape, whether it burns like a fire or crushes like a rock. In this way, according to the author, we will find nothing consistent, nothing that justifies the tyrannical influence it exerts on our existence. We will then realize that anger has no consistency in itself. It will suddenly lose its power.
We often do this analysis only after the crisis has passed. It is at the very moment when anger arises that we must recognize its nature. By repressing the anger, we will neutralize its power to turn itself into a cause of sufferance. As we become accustomed to such a process of liberation, the emotion becomes more and more transparent. Over time, irascibility eventually disappears. This method can be used for all other mental difficulties.
Third method: using emotions as catalysts
This is a matter of using the positive sides of a thought generally considered as negative. Indeed, emotions are not intrinsically disruptive: they become so as soon as we become attached to them. This kind of practice requires great mastery of the language of emotions. We must know how to let powerful emotions express themselves without falling prey to them.
To sum up:
Each negative emotion had to be countered with a particular antidote, that just one can do the job and finally, that the negative emotion could be used in a positive way as well.
9.3 – Long-term work
In the West, modern psychology is about how to manage and modulate emotions after they have invaded our minds. But for Matthieu Ricard, the process lacks:
- What Buddhists call “awakened presence”: to recognise an emotion at the very moment it occurs, to understand that it is only a thought devoid of its own existence and to let it unravel spontaneously, and avoid the cascade of reactions it usually causes.
- A long-term training that aims to transform one’s emotional states and temperament: very often, when we give in to these emotions, we will pretend that it’s normal, that it’s part of our existence.
Chapter 10 – Desire
10.1 – The motivations of desire
Desire can feed our existence just as it can poison it.
Everything depends on our motivation for this desire. When that motivation is:
- Vast and altruistic: desire can engender the greatest human qualities and achievements.
- Limited and self-centred: desire will only serve to fuel the endless preoccupations of ordinary life, will offer no guarantee of deep satisfaction, and may even lead to devastating destruction.
However natural it may be, desire quickly degenerates into “mental poison” as soon as it becomes imperative thirst, obsession or uncontrollable attachment.
Therefore, Buddhism does not require the abolition of essential desires and aspirations. But it does advocate freedom from the enslaving of desires that lead to a host of unnecessary torments.
10.2-The mechanisms of desire
The pleasures, once tasted, do not remain, do not accumulate, do not keep and do not bear fruit: they fade away. It is therefore unrealistic to hope that they will ever bring us lasting happiness.
Usually when mental images of desire begin to manifest in the mind:
Either we satisfy this desire:
This is an abandonment of self-control. But the satisfaction is only a respite because the mental images formed by desire resurface very quickly. Moreover, the more frequent the indulgence, the more invasive and constraining these images will become, sometimes leading to mental and physical dependence. The experience of desire will then be felt more as servitude than as satisfaction: we have lost our freedom.
Or we repress it:
An inner conflict is triggered, always creating a source of torment.
10.3 – From desire to obsession
According to Matthieu Ricard:
The haunting desire that often accompanies passionate love degrades the affection, tenderness and joy of appreciating and sharing the lives of others. It is the opposite of altruistic love. It stems from a sickly egocentricity that, in the other, cherishes only oneself or, worse, tries to build one’s own happiness at one’s own expense. This type of desire only wants to appropriate and control the beings, objects and situations it finds attractive.
By obstinately seeking satisfaction in situations that are the very cause of their torments, the victim of obsession can know no satisfaction: neither joy nor fulfillment.
10.4 – Desire, love and attachment
Matthieu Ricard points out here that the notion of love devoid of attachment is relatively foreign to Western mentality. Yet, according to him, not being attached does not mean that one loves a person less. It means that “one is not primarily concerned with self-love through the love one claims to give to the other.”
Altruistic love is the joy to share the lives of those around us and to contribute to their happiness. We love them for what they are and not through the distorting prism of egocentricity. In fact, instead:
- “To be attached to the other, one is concerned with their happiness”;
- “To want to own them, one feels responsible for their welfare.”
- “Waiting anxiously for gratification from them, one knows how to receive their reciprocal love with joy”.
Chapter 11 – Internal Freedom and Renunciation
For many people, freedom means being free to act, to move and to hold opinions. In short, freedom lies outside of oneself. For Matthieu Ricard, with this conception of freedom, we become the plaything of thoughts that stir our minds. In reality, it is inner freedom that we must seek.
Connection with this inner freedom, Matthieu Ricard then develops three strong ideas on “relinquishment”:
- In relinquishment and non-attachment many people see the sad deprivation of small daily pleasures. But renouncement does not consist in depriving oneself of what brings us joy and happiness: it aims to free oneself from what causes us incessant torment. It amounts to:
- Wondering about certain things in one’s life if they really make us happy.
Relinquishment is to have the audacity and intelligence to examine what are usually considered pleasures and to check whether they really bring about a sense of well-being.
- Distance yourself from non-essential things.
Renunciation is a sensible way to take control of one’s life, that is to say, to stop being manipulated like a puppet by egocentricity, the race for power and possessions, the thirst for fame and the insatiable search for pleasures.
- In order to detach oneself from something, one should not force oneself, but clearly become aware of the benefits that come from it. We must feel a deep longing to free ourselves from what we are about to give up. In this way, renunciation is felt as a liberating act, not as a constraint.
- Finally, “renunciation has a flavour of simplicity, of profound peace”. To get rid of the superfluous, we must simplify our words, actions and thoughts.
Chapter 12 – Hate
Of all the mental poisons, hatred is the most harmful. […] Without hatred, there can be no murder, no war, none of the millennia of suffering that are the history of us all.
12.1 – The Hideous Faces of Hatred
Many negative emotions and attitudes are linked to hatred: ignorance, anger, malevolence, aggression, resentment, resentment, contempt, intolerance, fanaticism, slander, fear…
By giving in to hatred, we are not necessarily harming our enemy, but we are sure to harm ourselves. We lose our inner peace, we do not do anything right, […] we drive away those who come to us. What’s the point? Even if we get to the end of our rage, we’ll never eliminate all our enemies.
The Dalai Lama
Once hatred overwhelms us, we are no longer in control of ourselves. It is then impossible for us to think in terms of love and compassion. We blindly follow our destructive tendencies. Hate always begins with a simple thought. This is the precise moment when we must intervene and resort to one of the methods to dissolve negative emotions described above.
12.2 – The desire for vengeance, hatred’s twin
Matthieu Ricard develops three main ideas here:
- An individual who is prey to hatred, anger and aggression should be considered more like a sick person than an enemy: even if they think and behave in an extremely harmful way, the cruellest torturer is not born cruel, and who knows what they will be in twenty years’ time.
- One can find an extremely intolerable situation and want to remedy it, without being driven by hatred.
- In any case, revenge is not the most appropriate solution (it does not console anything and exasperates hatred). On the other hand, to renounce the thirst for revenge and hatred sometimes magically causes a mountain of resentment to collapse within us.
In fact, Buddhist compassion means wishing with all one’s heart that all beings without distinction (including criminals) be free from suffering and its causes, especially hatred.
12.3 – Hate hate
“How many bad guys would I kill? Their number is infinite. But if I kill the spirit of hate, all my enemies are killed at once.”
Shantideva, Indian Buddhist poet
For the author, the only means to eradicate hatred are self-awareness, inner transformation and altruism. Indeed, when a sufficient number of individuals accomplish this change, society can then evolve towards a more humane collective attitude.
With this in mind, Matthieu Ricard invites us to practice different meditations that aim to cultivate four essential thoughts: love, compassion, joy in the face of the happiness of others and impartiality.
Chapter 13 – Happiness and Altruism
13.1 – The joys of altruism
Research has shown an undeniable correlation between altruism and happiness. It has shown that the people who claim to be the happiest are also the most altruistic.
In this part of “Happiness“, the author explains how this idea fits in with the Buddhist viewpoint, which holds egocentricity as the main cause of unhappiness, and altruistic love as an essential component of true happiness.
Moreover, the interdependence between all phenomena in general, and between all beings in particular, is such that our own happiness is intimately linked to that of others. The joy that accompanies an act of selfless kindness, for example, brings deep satisfaction. Thus, for the author:
Our happiness necessarily depends on the happiness of others.
13.2 – True altruism
According to Matthieu Ricard, contemporary research in behavioural psychology tests the hypothesis that true altruism, which is motivated by no other reason than to do good for others, exists.
The experiments carried out have made it possible to distinguish two types of altruists:
The “false altruists”
These individuals help because they:
- Cannot bear the distress they feel when faced with the suffering of others, and so hasten to defuse their own emotional tension;
- Fear the judgment that is passed on them;
- Wish to be glorified;
- Want to avoid guilt.
If they have no choice but to intervene, they rescue the person in difficulty. However, if they can avoid being confronted with the painful spectacle of suffering or dodge it without anyone’s fault, they do not intervene any more than inadequately altruistic individuals do.
The “true altruists”
These individuals help even though it would have been easy for them to look away, or to avoid intervention without anyone knowing. A true altruistic person will be just as satisfied if someone else helps that person. For him or her, it is the result that counts, not the personal satisfaction of having helped.
In a Western population, there is an average of 15% of true altruists.
13.3 – Gold remains gold
The author develops two ideas here:
- The nature of the mind is fundamentally neither good nor bad:
If we look inward and observe in the long term how the mind works, we see that negative emotions arise mainly as reactions to provocations or other specific events. They are not hard-wired or permanent states of mind. On the other hand, love and compassion are much more fundamental states.
- Goodness and happiness are generated and reinforced by each other:
To generate and to express goodness quickly melts away uneasiness to give way to a lasting sense of fulfilment. Conversely, being happy allows goodness and inner joy to blossom.
Chapter 14 – The Happiness of the Humble
According to Matthieu Ricard, the benefits of humility are considerably underestimated. In our contemporary world, which is preoccupied with appearances and obsessed with images, humility is often associated with a lack of confidence in our abilities or an inferiority complex.
The author develops two notions here: pride and humility.
Pride is the amplification of self. It..:
- Consists of boasting of the few qualities one has and taking credit for those one lacks.
- Closes the door to any personal progress, because to learn, you must first think that you don’t know.
- On a collective level, it is expressed by the conviction of being superior to the other as a people or a race, of being the bearer of the true values of civilization, and imposes this dominant “model”, willingly or unwillingly, on “ignorant” peoples.
Humility is a component of happiness. It..:
- Goes hand in hand with great inner freedom.
- Is an attitude essentially turned towards others and their well-being.
- It translates to “body language devoid of arrogance and ostentation.”
Chapter 15 – Jealousy
“There’s more self-respect in jealousy than love.” La Rochefoucauld
There are several degrees of jealousy, but in all cases, jealousy stems from an injury of the ego. An exacerbated form of envy, it quickly leads to haunting and hatred. It is fundamentally an incapacity to rejoice in the happiness of others.
Chapter 16 – Seeing Life in Gold, Pink or Grey – Optimism, Naivety and Pessimism
There are many ways to experience the world. For Matthieu Ricard:
- To see life in gold, “is essentially to realize that all beings, including ourselves, have within them an extraordinary potential for inner transformation and action. It means approaching the world and beings with confidence, openness and altruism.” But that doesn’t mean you have to look at life through rose-tinted glasses…
- Seeing life through rose-tinted glasses: “is to hide from reality and declare with blissful naivety that all is well in the world.” It is not a question to turning away from the pain of people, the sense of responsibility and the laws of cause and effect that cause all this suffering.
- To see life in grey is to think that life is doomed to failure and misfortune, and that nothing good can come of it.
In psychological language, to see life in gold is called optimism […]. Life in grey is pessimism and life through rose-tinted glasses is naivety.
16.1 – Two ways of looking at the world
- Thinks their problems will last forever, get out of hand and jeopardize everything they do.
- Constantly anticipates disaster and becomes a chronic victim of anxiety and doubt. They have no confidence in the world or in themselves and constantly expect to be bullied, abandoned and ignored.
- Adopts from the outset, in everyday life, an attitude of refusal.
- Is suspicious and rarely gives the benefit of the doubt.
- Judges their difficulties to be momentary, controllable and related to a particular situation.
- Is confident that it is possible to achieve their aspirations and that with patience, determination and intelligence he or she will eventually succeed (in fact, more often than not, he or she does).
- Enjoy greater well-being, approaches new relationships or situations with confidence rather than distrust.
16.2 – The qualities of optimism
Thus, in optimism lie many of the qualities found in true happiness:
- Hope: i.e., the belief that one can find the means to accomplish one’s goals and develop the motivation necessary to achieve them.
- Determination: the optimist perseveres and succeeds more often than the pessimist who backs down in the face of difficulty, resigns, doubts everything or turns to temporary distractions that will not solve their problems.
- Adaptability: In the face of difficulties, the optimist reacts constructively and creatively, learns lessons and considers solutions, while the pessimist, fatalistic, turns away or adopts escape strategies.
- Serenity: the optimist knows how to take a step back; they are free of regret and feelings of guilt.
- Strength of character: the optimist is able to find within themselves the resources and imagination to overcome the trials of life.
- Courage and daring
Chapter 17 – Methods from “ Happiness” to Stop Disruptive Thoughts
Most of the time, it is not external events, but our own mind and its negative emotions that make us unable to preserve our inner peace. The mind is therefore worthy of effort.
First, we should quietly observe our inner suffering until it gradually fades away. Rather than avoid it or bury it in a dark corner of our mind, the author invites us to make it the object of our meditation. It is useless, however, to brood over its causes, as there is a risk that it will increase. The most urgent thing is to face it, isolating it from the invasive thoughts that stir it up.
Second, there are several methods of training the mind. Matthieu Ricard proposes some of them here:
Meditate on feelings that go beyond our mental afflictions
Meditate on a feeling of altruistic love for all beings in particular, raises us to a level that goes beyond personal pain, to the point that it becomes imperceptible.
Observe the source of thoughts
This is to recognise that thoughts, like rainbows, are totally empty, immaterial and impalpable. Thus, to gradually familiarize ourselves with this way of managing thoughts, we learn to free ourselves from inner toxins, anxiety and doubt.
Do not blame the whole world
It is tempting to systematically shift blame to the world and to others, to attribute to external objects qualities which are, in reality, closely dependent on our own minds. But it is by transformation of our mind that we can transform “our” world.
Exchanging the suffering of others for our happiness
This method uses the power of the wish. It is based on an inspiring form of meditation that involves the exchange of the suffering of others for one’s own happiness. Through such an exchange, our torment opens us to others instead of isolating us from them.
Cultivating serenity and detachment
It’s about using the power of mental imagery. To visualise scenes of serenity allows us to resonate with the peaceful nature that lies deep within us. Detachment, on the other hand, is not about painfully tearing ourselves away from what we love, but to softening the way we perceive it: it is not the object that makes us suffer, but the way we cling to it.
Identify the strength of the experience
The turmoil we are going through contains a valuable potential for transformation. They can be a treasure trove of energy from which one can draw great strength to build what apathy does not allow.
It is difficult to begin to put these instructions into practice when you are suddenly confronted with suffering. It is therefore advisable to familiarize oneself with them now, so as to be able to apply them when unfavourable circumstances arise.
Chapter 18 – Golden Time, Leaden Time, Junk Time
18.1 – Our time is running out
Our time is our most precious asset. For Matthieu Ricard, we must therefore stop postponing the essential to later “to allow ourselves to be trapped by the incoherent constraints of society”.
As Seneca says, “It’s not that we have very little time, it’s that we lose a lot of it.”
Matthieu Ricard evokes three types of time:
- Golden: this is the one that, despite apparent inaction, allows us to fully enjoy the present moment.
- Leaden: the one that “weighs down on the idle as a burden and overwhelms the one who can’t bear to wait, the delay, the boredom, the loneliness, the annoyance and sometimes even the existence.”
- Junk: this is how much time we spend being tossed around and distracted, going around in circles.
To feel time as a painful and tasteless experience, to feel that nothing has been done at the end of the day, at the end of a year and then at the end of life, signals how unconscious we remain of our potential for fulfilment.
Yet rather than examine one’s life:
We assume that there is no choice and that it is simpler to let the activities follow one another and rush as they have always done and will continue to do.
For Matthieu Ricard:
Boredom is the evil of those for whom time has no value. On the other hand, those who perceive the inestimable value of time take advantage of every moment of respite in daily activities and external stimuli, to savour with delight the serenity of the moment. He ignores boredom, that dryness of mind. The same is true of solitude.
18.2 – To go back to the Golden Age
In this part, Matthieu Ricard gets us to contemplative introspection and to question ourselves on the meaning of one’s life:
Why not sit by a lake, in a clearing, on a hilltop, or in a quiet room, to examine what we are made of deep down inside? Let’s first take a clear look at what is most important to us in life, and then prioritize what is essential and the other activities that invade our time.
Then, in order to live more harmoniously in our relationship with time, we must, according to the author, cultivate several qualities:
- Vigilance: which allows us to keep an eye on the passage of time, not to let it pass without even realizing it.
- The right motivation: which gives time depth and value.
- Diligence: making good use of time.
- Inner freedom: which prevents time from being monopolized by disruptive emotions.
Chapter 19 – Captivated by the Flow of Time
Matthieu Ricard returns here to the experience of “flow” studied by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. Flow” is characterized by an intense absorption in an act, an experience or a sensation. In moments of “flow”, we do not see time go by. Actions, movements and thoughts follow one another naturally. We use our capacities to the maximum. Being immersed in what you are doing is more important than the result of the action.
Even if the experience of “flow” can sometimes lead to addiction, or even dependence, it remains, for Matthieu Ricard, an instrument to be cultivated. Nevertheless, to truly promote a better quality of life, it must be imbued with human qualities such as altruism and wisdom.
Chapter 20 – A Sociology of Happiness
20.1-The three main findings of studies on happiness
Matthieu Ricard makes three major points from his many works on happiness:
- We have a genetic predisposition to be happy or unhappy: about 50% of the tendency to be happy can be attributed to genes.
- External conditions and other general factors (social status, education, leisure, wealth, gender, age, ethnicity, etc.) have a circumstantial influence but explain only 10-15% of the variation in life satisfaction.
- One can greatly influence the experience of happiness and unhappiness through one’s way to be and think, through the way one perceives the events of existence and acts accordingly.
20.2 – The general conditions of happiness
A lot of research shows, among other things, that:
- More people say they are happy in economically prosperous countries
However, in these countries, beyond a certain wealth threshold, even if income continues to rise, the level of satisfaction does not increase.
- Poor people can be more cheerful and carefree than a lot of stressed-out rich people.
For Matthieu Ricard:
Those who have almost nothing would probably be very happy to have more, but as long as they can eat what they need and are not obsessed by the lack of wealth, having little goes hand in hand with a carefree form of freedom.
- Happiness is not proportional to possessions…
It may be different when you don’t have the minimum subsistence level, but then it is a question of survival and not of the volume of wealth.
20.3-The Modernity Syndrome
According to statistics, the feeling of happiness is higher among people who:
- Live in countries that offer security, autonomy, freedom, and sufficient facilities for education and access to information.
- Live in a climate of peace, i.e. in countries where individual freedoms are guaranteed and democracy is established (regardless of economic conditions, those living under military rule are more unfortunate).
- Have social involvement and participate in voluntary organizations, practice sports, music, belong to an activity club.
- Maintain quality private relationships: Married people or couples, for example, are almost twice as happy as single, widowed or divorced people who live alone.
- Doing paid work: with the exception of housewives who are no more dissatisfied than people in employment.
- Are in good physical condition and have great energy.
It is also noted that:
- Happiness does not seem to be linked to the climate: contrary to popular belief, people are generally no happier in sunny regions than in rainy ones.
- Age can bring relative wisdom: older people perceive their lives as somewhat less pleasant than younger people, but experience more stable overall satisfaction and more positive emotions.
- Leisure time promotes satisfaction, holidays have a positive effect on well-being, calm and health.
- Those who watch a lot of television are less happy than average.
Many of the correlations mentioned above link average happiness to the “modernity syndrome”. …] The more modern the country, the happier its citizens are…. While civilization has its share of problems, it nevertheless provides more benefits.
20.4-The situation is not nearly as rosy as it seems
Matthieu Ricard points out that, despite the conclusion of these studies, we can see that:
- Depression has greatly increased in developed countries and increasingly affects younger individuals.
- The suicide rate has risen and is responsible for 2% of annual deaths worldwide (putting it ahead of war and homicide).
Matthieu Ricard provides an answer to these statistics:
The excitement and pleasure caused by the multiplication and intensification of sensory stimuli, noisy, glittery, frenetic and sensual entertainment cannot replace this inner peace and the joy of life it produces… To cultivate serenity for oneself and kindness towards others means that one can breathe the oxygen that is the joy of life.
Furthermore, the author points out that in most cases it is not known whether these correlations act as causes or consequences.
Finally, even if all external living conditions mean that we have “everything to be happy”, we are not always happy. It only takes one or two conditions not to be met for the whole thing to fall apart.
We begin by asking ourselves with hope and anxiety whether we will be able to gather the ideal conditions, then we fear to lose them, and finally we suffer when they disappear. The feeling of insecurity therefore remains ever present.
Chapter 21 – Happiness in the Laboratory
In this chapter of “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard shares with us the results of several works carried out to show the implications of happiness in terms of brain function.
He then explains that when people report feelings, there is significant brain activity in the left or right prefrontal cortex depending on the mental state. The resulting emotional balance point is an average around which our daily moods fluctuate.
Matthieu Ricard then details the entire process of a research program that has had amazing results. It aimed to study five meditators from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who have dedicated themselves for some twenty years to the development of compassion, altruism and inner peace.
Thus, Öser, the first of the five monks studied, was tested in several ways:
An observation of his brain activity
Thanks to technology, the monk was observed practicing six states of meditation: concentration on an object of attention, awakened presence, visualization, meditation on love and compassion, fearlessness, or inner strength.
The data then clearly showed that Öser was able to voluntarily regulate his brain activity. Each new state and each new meditation performed by Öser indicated significant differences between rest and meditation periods.
A test for the recognition of emotional signs
The ability to recognize fleeting expressions indicates an unusual disposition to empathy and insight. Therefore, in this test, Öser was asked to identify facial signs (anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, or joy) in only one-thirtieth of a second. And Öser scored much higher than the five thousand subjects previously tested.
A jump test
The intensity of the shock in an individual is indicative of the importance of the negative emotions that may be felt.
Among the hundreds of subjects tested, none had ever managed not to jump. Previous research had shown that even police snipers, who fire shots every day, cannot help but be shocked. But when Öser was tested, he almost managed to make his shock disappear! No researcher had ever seen this before, it was a spectacular success.
It turns out that none of Öser’s facial muscles shivered when he was in an awakened state, but his physiological parameters (pulse, sweat, blood pressure) followed the increase that usually accompanies a shock. This means that Öser’s body reacted, recorded the effects of the bang, but his mind was detached, the sound had no emotional impact on him.
21.2 – What to do with all this?
This research demonstrates the influence of mental training (a process available to anyone with sufficient determination) on the development of beneficial emotions.
How long does it take to get results? Matthieu Ricard answers: like a musician, “the more hours of practice, the greater the transformation.”
Meditation can induce … profound changes in the brain. From a cognitive science perspective, meditation could be described as a systematic effort to focus attention and the associated mental and emotional faculties.
Chapter 22 – Ethics, the science of happiness?
22.1-Determining Ethical Factors
In Buddhism, the purpose of ethics is to free oneself from suffering and to help others free themselves from suffering. To do this, our actions must contribute to our happiness, but at the same time not cause harm to others.
Thus, rather than to define Good and Evil as absolutes, it is to become aware of the happiness and suffering that one generates, in deeds, words and thoughts. And for this, two factors are decisive:
Motivation for our actions
The form an action takes is only a facade:
If a mother brutally pushes her child across the street to keep him from being run over by a car, her act is violent only in appearance: she has spared him death. On the other hand, if someone approaches you with a big smile and covers you with compliments just to swindle you, his conduct is non-violent only in appearance, because his intention is in fact evil.
The result of our actions
Matthieu Ricard questions the reader on several moral cases that imply an extremely difficult ethical position. These situations raise questions about the criteria to determine what is happiness and what is suffering for others. Through an in-depth reflection, Matthieu Ricard provides several elements of answers. The main idea is this:
When the suffering caused by non-action is greater than that caused by action, the latter must be accomplished.
On the other hand, for the Buddhist author, it is wisdom and a sense of universal responsibility that helps to distinguish thoughts and actions that contribute to happiness from those that destroy it. And wisdom is experience (not dogma). This does not exclude rules of conduct and laws, but altruistic wisdom is still necessary because it is the wisdom that allows us to recognize the exception.
22.2-Buddhism and the main streams of ethics
Generally speaking, in the history of ethics, two aspects can be distinguished:
- Divine Laws
They concern monotheistic religions. In all cases, in the eyes of the believer, the divine wishes are mysterious, the commandments are not debatable and they must abide by them.
- The main philosophical principles
These principles are very divergent, but they do point to two main directions:
- Ethics based on great abstract principles: here the author develops Plato’s Good in itself and Kant’s sense of Duty.
- Pragmatic ethics based on lived experience: this is the very approach of Buddhism which conceives the notion of an Absolute Good as a mental construction.
In this part, Matthieu Ricard also talks at length about utilitarian ethics, which is based on an approach to happiness based on pleasure, the ultimate criterion to judge the validity of our actions. Utilitarian ethics thus translates into a pleasure-displeasure relationship that is supposed to define our degree of happiness.
Finally, the author reflects on an exercise that the Dalai Lama once submitted to lawyers:
“Two men have committed the same offence and are liable to 15 years in prison. One is alone in life, the other has four children to support and the mother is no longer around. Will you take into account that, in one case, four children will be deprived of their father for fifteen years?”
The author concludes this part by questioning the repercussions of our decisions and to stress that the Buddhist ethic of happiness refuses fixed models.
Chapter 23 – Happiness in the Presence of Death
“Remember there are two kinds of lunatics: those who don’t know they’re going to die, those who forget they’re alive.”
The way in which we view death greatly influences our quality of life.
In the contemporary West, people tend to look away from death. Death is “hidden, concealed, sanitized”. For Matthieu Ricard, it is not about living in the fear of death, but it is essential to remain aware of the fragility of existence so as to give full value to the time we have left to live.
Moreover, Matthieu Ricard advises not to wait for the last breath to prepare for one’s death: it will be much better to adopt, at that moment, a serene, altruistic, unattached attitude.
The wise man, for his part, enjoys a very special freedom: ready to die, he appreciates the richness of life at every moment. He lives each day as if it were the only one. That day naturally becomes the most precious day of his life. When he lights his fire, he asks himself, “Will I light that fire again tomorrow morning?” He knows that he has no time to lose, that time is precious and that it would be pointless to waste it on nonsense. When the day of death really comes, he dies serene, without sadness or regret; without any attachment to what remains behind him.
Chapter 24 – One Way
24.1 – To hear, reflect, meditate
Everyone sets out on the spiritual path from the point where they are, with different natures, personal dispositions, intellectual architecture, beliefs… And everyone can find a method that suits them.
Like everything learned, the practice of a spiritual path involves several steps. It involves:
- To be taught and to assimilate.
- Reflect deeply on its meaning and integrate what you have understood until you arrive at a new perception of reality and the nature of the mind. From there, we no longer talk about theories, but about self-transformation.
- To hatch new positive qualities until they become an integral part of our being, through meditation.
There are various ways to meditate: all of them have in common that they are a long process of transformation within us. Much more than intellectual brilliance, meditation needs determination, humility, sincerity and patience. It must be followed by action, that is to say, its application in everyday life.
24.2 – Withdrawing into solitude
In order to encourage the blossom of meditation and self-transformation, it is sometimes necessary to immerse oneself in a deep recollection that is more easily found in the quiet solitude of a secluded place.
Thus, to maintain some distance from the turmoil of the world allows us to see things from a new, wider and more serene perspective. It helps to better understand the dynamics of happiness and suffering. To find inner peace, one becomes able to share it with others.
24.3-Last statement of a defence witness
Here are the author’s concluding words:
I can sincerely say that I am a happy man… The happiness that I now feel at every moment of my life […] has been built up over time in conditions such that I understand the causes of happiness and suffering. In my case, the encounter with beings who are both wise and blessed has been decisive; for the power of example speaks louder than any other discourse. It showed me…that one can become free and happy in a lasting way if one knows how to do it.
Book critique of “Happiness” by Matthieu Ricard
What to remember!
In “Happiness“, Matthieu Ricard conveys two major ideas:
- Genuine and lasting happiness lies within us; it is an inner freedom that must be distinguished from pleasure. We can find it only if we engage in inner introspection and profound transformation. It depends on us alone.
- It is through a more altruistic approach to the world and to become less egocentric that we will find happiness. And it is built, day after day, with others.
So, it is up to us to change our outlook on life in order to be happier!
The philosophical reflection of a great spiritual master
“Happiness” is a book that offers a fascinating philosophical reflection on a dense and profound subject. It is read slowly and meticulously. The author’s style is quite fluid but the words are not light. As a result, some parts are more difficult to read than others.
The sometimes-spiritual dimension is interesting. Certain concepts, largely inspired by Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, can confuse the less initiated. Nevertheless, perhaps because he has a double culture, Western and Eastern; Matthieu Ricard manages to make this content accessible which could, at first sight, be discouraging! Scientific support (biology, psychology, sociology, etc.), anecdotes, metaphors and quotations bring rhythm and concreteness to the more theoretical passages.
- A rich spiritual teaching for the reader who wishes to engage in a process of personal transformation with new keys to understanding.
- A philosophical reflection that opens up concepts full of wisdom and optimism.
- Anecdotes and scientific works that illustrate the author’s words and bring pragmatism to the theoretical content.
Weak points :
- Some parts are more difficult to read and require careful reflection.
- This is not a weak point but a remark: on such an individual and personal subject; everything is a matter of one’s points of view; some readers might therefore not adhere to the author’s philosophy.
My rating :
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