The happiest men in the world

by Jake Wallis Simons, The Times, February 8, 2010

A Buddhist monk and a British peer have very different views on the secrets of a contented life. Were they still smiling after East met West?

London, UK -- It is a most unlikely scene. I am in an elegant sitting room in the Royal Society of Arts. Opposite me, sitting uncomfortably side-by-side on a too-low leather sofa, are an English peer and a French Buddhist monk.

<< Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard (L) with Professor of Economics Lord Richard Layard at the RSA in London

The contrast is striking. Lord Layard is white-haired, well-dressed and unobtrusive; the Venerable Matthieu Ricard is larger than life in flowing, burgundy robes. Yet despite their differences, these men have a common denominator: both have devoted their lives to the study of happiness.

Layard is the UK’s leading happiness economist. In his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Layard — a devotee of the 18th-century Utilitarian thinker Jer-emy Bentham — argues that governments need to take their responsibilities for our happiness seriously. “We need a wider debate about what lifestyles are conducive to happiness,” he says.

“Far more public funding should be allocated to mental-health services, parenting support networks, and positive-living education in schools. Everyone is concerned with avoiding poverty, ill health, conflict and enslavement. But these things are nothing but versions of unhappiness. So what we’re all really concerned with, although we might be afraid of the simplicity of the term, is happiness.”

Ricard, on the other hand, a celibate monk who lives in a Himalayan hermitage, has a different perspective. He is a proponent of the Buddhist theory that cultural change can start only with the individual. His latest book, The Art of Meditation, which came out last month, focuses on matters of the mind, such as meditation and altruism. Whereas Layard believes that there are seven areas of life — family, work, health, mental attitude and so on — that influence fulfilment and happiness, Ricard believes that the mind trumps all. “If you have inner peace,” he says, “then whatever happens, you are going to be fine.”

He has demonstrated this in his own life by eschewing intimate relationships, children and a career in favour of a life of the mind. Leading neuroscientists have said that Ricard is the happiest man in the world. While this epithet is unashamedly hyperbolic (how many men in the world have been tested for happiness?), the results of experiments are remarkable. Brain scans found that Ricard’s grey matter produces a level of gamma waves — those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory — never “reported before in the neuroscience literature”, according to Dr Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin.

In addition, his brain is dramatically asymmetrical. The left prefrontal cortex is swollen, while its counterpart on the right is shrivelled and prune-like. No prizes for guessing what each cranial bedfellow is responsible for; Ricard has an abnormally large propensity for happiness, and his capacity for negativity has all but withered away.

“It’s not just the brain that is measured,” the monk elaborates. His gaze is steady and he speaks in a gruff French accent. “Scientists study a combination of factors, the brain, the movements of the muscles in the face, the ability to remain calm, and so on. Those things, when taken together, can indicate a more optimal healthy mind.”

Be this as it may, I am sceptical about the happiest man in the world. Partly it is the notion of a celebrity Buddhist monk, which I find rather disingenuous (memories of the Dalai Lama appearing on advertisements for Apple come to mind). Partly there is something suspicious about people writing books about how happy they are.

But most of all it is the fact that I spent several years practising Tibetan Buddhism, and ended up rather disillusioned. I became unconvinced by the disproportionate focus on mental development at the expense of other aspects of life. The Dalai Lama, although believed to be the embodiment of the Compassion Deity, said in a 2004 interview that he shoots at birds from the roof of his monastery; he also admitted to having “a bad temper”. Additionally, he is involved in factional infighting, a pervasive element of Tibetan history. My conclusion, therefore, was that although Buddhism can improve your wellbeing to a certain extent, the complete transcendence of human frailty is impossible.

Feeling obliged to strive towards it is a burden. As Edith Wharton put it “if only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time”.

“I’m not saying everybody has to take on Tibetan beliefs,” the monk says. “If concert pianists were the only ones allowed to play the piano, millions of people would be deprived of the pleasure of music. I am suggesting that the idea of secular spirituality, which the Dalai Lama has been promoting for many years, is an important one.

“I do not think you will attain enlightenment through secular spirituality, but at least you will become a happier person.”

This may be true. However, I know from my time in Buddhism that while many practitioners may look happier, all too often they are repressing their emotions. I saw a monk snap once. He assaulted a member of the public with a pair of woks. Science may have found that Ricard experiences great levels of happiness, but what about the dark mysteries of the unconscious?

Neuroscientists have found “that advanced monks have extremely lucid insights into what is going on in their minds”, he says. “For example, in experiments where meditators must recall their emotions after watching a horror movie, they are able to write three pages describing what they experienced, but normal people can only write two lines.”

Monks watching a horror movie? He shrugs and purses his lips in a distinctly Gallic fashion. “It was an experiment.”

Having established that Ricard does not expect everyone to share his beliefs, I am starting to warm towards him. There are no forced smiles or the excessive displays of physical affection common to many Western Buddhist converts. He isn’t putting on an act; he wears his robes lightly. Nevertheless, there seems to be a discrepancy between his secular advice and his deeply religious life. I turn to Lord Layard, director of the wellbeing programme at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance.

“I was particularly struck at the end of the 1970s by evidence that although people were getting richer, they were not growing any happier,” he says. “That is why I have been putting a huge emphasis on schooling. If we could be taught at an early age to observe and manage our emotions, people would become calm in themselves and more able to give to others. I’m not starting from a monastery, I’m starting from an interest in public policy. But the overall vision of a good society is very similar.”

Ricard, who has been murmuring his agreement, takes up the baton again. “Many schools are starting to incorporate silence into the day,” he says. “Of course elaborate meditation is inappropriate for children. But a simple daily meditation on altruism, for example, can change the whole character and mood of the school.”

“You see,” Layard says, “I think our common ground is more important than our differences. It is the responsibility of government to create a society where we have the space and support to be happy. Meditation and altruism can help to fill this space, enhancing our happiness as individuals. The philosophies of East and West do not need to be mutually exclusive. We can both learn from one another, and combine our approaches to good effect.”

My cynicism begins to recede. Perhaps this unlikely pair have hit on something. Clearly the world would be a better place if governments geared social policy more towards happiness; and if meditation has been proven to make us happier, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to incorporate those parts that are in tune with secular society?

They are gesturing towards a vision of how Eastern and Western philosophies of happiness might one day harmonise to the common good. The outside-in approach of Bentham, combined with the inside-out philosophy of the Buddha, might work together very well as long as repression and superstition are left at the door.

The Venerable Matthieu Ricard’s philosophy of happiness

Learn to meditate.

Cultivate altruism.

Practise mindfulness.

Make space in your life for spirituality.

Find a genuine spiritual teacher.

Lord Layard’s philosophy of happiness

Be socially connected.

Be physically active.

Take notice of your surroundings and savour them.

Keep learning.

Give regularly.

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