The Happiness Workout

Photo: Courtesy of Konchog

Matthieu Ricard, happiness guru, has a new book, Why Meditate, a follow-up to his earlier how-to manual, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. He came to town to promote both it and the practice of happiness in general. Ricard is a 64-year-old Frenchman who, shortly after receiving a doctorate in cellular genetics, decided to become a Buddhist monk. Today he is wearing the yellow-and-burgundy robes of his calling at an event in the West 17th Street loft offices of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation. He is conducting a daylong meditation workshop for 57 quietly—and spiritually—affluent-looking men and women. He is also signing a few books.

Neuroscientists studying meditation have done numerous brain scans and brain-wave measurements on Ricard; they found that the parts of his brain associated with positive emotions were unusually active. In 2007, a British paper nicknamed him “The Happiest Man in the World,” which stuck.

In person, Ricard does seem to chuckle a lot. He says that while often people think of happiness as the absence of conflict, it’s actually “a cluster of qualities: altruism, compassion, inner peace, inner freedom, and inner strength.” And it can be cultivated. “It’s not, in principle, different from any skill. Instead of going to a gymnasium for fitness, you go to a compassion gymnasium, which is sitting in the morning and, for twenty minutes, bringing love and kindness to your mind.” Eventually, “It will raise your baseline.”

I confront him with the basic type-A New Yorker’s suspicion of bliss: Wouldn’t someone lose their mojo, their creative spark and ambition, if they were too happy? “You don’t become dull like a vegetable,” he promises. “You’ll still have your ups and downs, but where you come back after winning the lottery or losing, your response will be different.”

Wouldn’t a person too steeped in good feelings become vulnerable to being taken advantage of? “Altruism and compassion doesn’t mean stupidly letting everyone step on your toes,” he says. “When you meet someone, have an open attitude—an a priori trusting. If you smile, smile—but you don’t have to smile like you’re crazy. If you value others, you are concerned with their happiness and suffering. That doesn’t mean you’re weak.”

I ask him if he thinks unhappiness is romanticized. “When my book on happiness was published in Paris, many said, ‘We don’t care for happiness, so leave us alone!’ They say suffering is so interesting, it’s always changing. But I think for some reason you are lost and can’t see how you cultivate happiness. And you make a whole romantic theory about unhappiness, rather than remedy the cause of that suffering.”

So what irritates him? “I don’t feel irritation,” he responds haltingly, after a beat. “Irritation has to do with a self-centered attitude: ‘This bugs me! I can’t stand that!’ It’s not like indignation, which is a noble form of anger. It says, ‘This is not acceptable that there is a massacre, that there is an injustice.’ It comes from compassion that there is something here that has caused a lot of suffering and should be remedied. But irritation is basically when you’re not in control of your mind.”

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The Happiness Workout