Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
By Matthieu Ricard
Published January 5, 2007
By Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316167253

Review by Leland R. Beaumont

After receiving his doctorate in molecular biology, Frenchman Matthieu Ricard chose to leave his privileged life for the ascetic life of a Buddhist monk. Since then he has been called the happiest person in the world. In this book he describes paths toward happiness drawn from ancient traditions and modern science.

Happiness is a general term encompassing many different experiences. It is important to distinguish pleasure—a fleeting emotion often based on outer circumstances—from contentment—an optimal and long-lasting state of being with an enlightened state of mind—the enduring form of happiness discussed in this book.

Ignorance in the form of ego involvement—described here as attachment to the illusion of the self—is the primary obstacle to happiness. A calm mind, attained through mediation, is essential to lifting the veil, seeing past the illusion, and allowing compassion to flourish. Exercises throughout the book help the conscientious reader practice these mental disciplines and move toward optimal states of being.

I imagine detaching the self by visualizing it as a spoiled three year old child. Think of taking a bratty toddler shopping. He might nag you to buy every toy in sight, make cruel and nasty comments about the appearance or behavior of other shoppers, impatiently ask to go home right now, annoy you with constant whining and misbehavior, and start crying at the least inconvenience. But you are not that child; you can use good judgment, act responsibly, calm the child, and move away from those behaviors. Similarly, the self—that bratty ego—can also be displaced, ignored, and silenced, because it has no substance.

Rigorous scientific examination, using EEG, fMRI, and other techniques confirm that monks who have extensively practiced various meditation techniques have achieved remarkably high levels of positive emotional experiences, mental coherence, and peace of mind. Ricard integrates ancient traditions with modern scientific thought to provide a coherent and reliable message.

A variety of mental disciplines are described, including a general technique for dispelling destructive emotions, and specific remedies to extinguish desire, hatred, and envy. Environmental, biological, and sociological factors affecting well-being are described, and many of these are within our control. The role of humility, optimism, perspectives on time, flow, ethics, and death are all explored in their own chapters.

Although the techniques are derived from the Buddhist traditions, they are presented here as entirely secular skills. The book is exceptionally well written, deep, and entirely accessible to the Western reader. This is not a how-to book full of quick fixes and platitudes. The simple paths described here require commitment, discipline, and practice. They may well change your life.