April 14, 2007

The man whose left pre-frontal cortex -- the center for positive emotion -- soared off the charts.

It's Matthieu Ricard:
A little smile plays at the edges of his mouth, his eyes look into the middle distance, serene, detached....

We confuse happiness with pleasurable experiences, with sensations, elation, the new car, the winning goal, he says. But the good news is that happiness can be learned. "You just need a little change in your mind. Change your mind, change your brain, change your life. Anyone can be the happiest person in the world. It just takes a little wisdom, a little perseverance and looking for happiness in the right place."
Here's his book: Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill.
Turn the clock back 40 years and 20-year-old Ricard was tipped as one of the most promising biologists of his generation, beginning a PhD under Nobel prizewinner Francis Jacob at the Institut Pasteur. His mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, was an artist, a friend of André Breton and Leonora Carrington, his father Jean-François Revel a leading philosopher. When he was 16, he had lunch with Stravinsky. With a career, an apartment, friends, skiing holidays, was he happy?

"Not especially. I didn't undergo intense heart-breaking suffering other than the usual of teenagers, disappointments, relationships. But I was a regular Parisian teenager who didn't know what to do or where to go in life. I knew what I didn't want - I didn't want a boring life - but I didn't know what I wanted at all."
He became a Buddhist monk:
He exchanged the life of a scientist in Paris for that of a hermit in the mountains, eating a simple diet of vegetables, spending months at a time in solitary contemplation....

"I remember a year ago I was sitting in my hermitage, I thought: 'OK, if I could make three wishes, what would I have?' Then I started laughing because what would I want? A big stereo - what would I do with it? A big car? I have minimal things, the tools I need for writing, and photography (he has published five books of photographs) but there's nothing I really need or want. I have two pairs of shoes. I only use one. If you know how to be content, it's like holding a treasure in the palm of your hand."
He realized what he wanted was: more free time.

"Free time" -- an interesting concept. You always do something with your time. You would have more free time if you saw yourself as free when you are doing whatever it is that you do. The question is, how did you get into the predicament of doing so many things that when you do them you do not feel free?


Palladian said...

"He became a Buddhist monk:
He exchanged the life of a scientist in Paris for that of a hermit in the mountains, eating a simple diet of vegetables, spending months at a time in solitary contemplation...."

So instead of potentially helping humanity by pursuing a scientific career that may have led him to something like an effective treatment for terminal cancers or designing a new drug that would cure the scourge of upper-crust Parisians- ennui, he instead opted for an extremely self-centered life sitting on a mountain eating vegetables and contemplating a tree. A perfect summation of the brain addled self-indulgence of a typical (French!) child of the sixties.

But hey, who needs that silly science! Instead of the boring products of a lifetime spent in the service of that bourgeois and unsatisfying vocation, we have a new self-help book! Oh and five books of photography.

Ann Althouse said...

Palladian: Wow! You're really hard on Monsieur Heuresement! He is letting the scientists study his brain and contributing to Happiness Studies. Doesn't that count? Why is curing cancer always the one thing we're supposed to care about? Everyone still dies. Isn't teaching people how to be happy doing good too?

Zeb Quinn said...

Less is more.

Gary Kirk said...

"...but there's nothing I really need or want."

I have had a point in my life when I didn't need or want anything because I was just struggling to regain me. But as I gradually reentered the society of consumption I found that how others perceived my happiness or my "well-being" was by what I had not what I felt.

He lives in within a society of non-consumers who have staked their life on less is more. Westerners on the other hand practice the art of "shop till you drop". And those who can't keep up with that maxim, financially or doctrinally, risk feeling failure, personally and emotionally.

Just me thinking. You don't have to buy it.

Meade said...

"Openness, genuine altruistic love, compassion, inner strength, some sort of inner peace..."

Palladian said...

"Why is curing cancer always the one thing we're supposed to care about? Everyone still dies. Isn't teaching people how to be happy doing good too?"

Well, my uncle just died of cancer in February, so I tend to think about it a lot.

Joan said...

Everyone still dies.

Undoubtedly, but if you can alleviate someone's suffering along the way, that's a good thing.

I'm not quite as ready to rag on Ricard as Palladian is, but I'm very sympathetic to his (Palladian's) viewpoint. It's all well and good to "tune in, drop out, and turn on" -- but that only works if you have absolutely no responsibilities to anyone but yourself.

Frankly, I find that kind of solitary existence the most difficult path and the most unlikely to lead towards happiness and a sense of fulfillment. I dispute Gary's assertion that everyone in the West has bought into the consumption=happiness equation; many, many people besides me have already figured out that having stuff doesn't make us happy, it's being a part of things. (That's a paraphrase of a quote I heard once on Northern Exposure, which the quirky DJ character was quoting from someone I've never been able to track down.)

Obviously there are (at least) two types of people, because no one would dispute that there is a group of people like Ricard who can find happiness by running away from all the responsibilities that being a part of a family, a workplace, a society entails. When I think about it that way, who wouldn't be happy with a life of very few outwardly-imposed responsibilities?

It would make a nice interlude for me, but not a lifestyle. I'd be crawling the walls after about a week, and wanting to get back to work and into the swing of things.

You know that we wouldn't be having this discussion at all if the guy didn't have famous parents. Those five (now six!) books would never have been published, either. So even though he has supposedly turned away from all that societal hoo-ha, it appears as if he's still willing to take advantage of it.

nina said...

Doing minimal damage to the planet is a contribution, right?
Contributions are various. Through art (he does photography). Through the love of another. Through the purchase of a TV, if that's where your heart lies (and what a good thing it is for those who are old, feeble, no longer capable of participating in the way they once did)!
I hate it when people define one path and only one path toward leading a rich and productive life. How rigid are we in our thinking anyway?

SteveWe said...

Some interesting comments to comment on here.

Palladian, how is it "brain addled self-indulgence" to become a Buddhist monk? What other life choices do *you* define as brain addled?

Joan, what part of the post or news article implied that M. Ricard's activities included "tune in, drop out, turn on?" There seems to be a very clear differentiation between M. Ricard and Dr. Timothy Leary.

No one gets out of here alive. How you spend your life is really no one's business, or judgment, other than your own. You may feel that I should spend my time curing cancer or helping the poor. On the other hand, I may not feel that I have a dog in either fight. I might think that my personal growth is more important to me than your uncle's cancer.

If you've met your responsibilities to your minor children, then *all* other responsibilities are voluntary. You have a right to sit on a mountain contemplating a tree. Anyone who says otherwise might consider doing just that in order to get some perspective on the difference between saying "should" about someone and accepting that free-will is everyone's bottom line.

Hillary Rettig/www.LifelongActivist.com said...

"The question is, how did you get into the predicament of doing so many things that when you do them you do not feel free?"

A Big Question, and it deserves A Big Answer. But here's my short answer:

1) Corporations brainwash us into believing we need a lot of stuff to be happy/successful/etc. We must work long hours to afford the stuff, and then spend most of our non-work time (and most of our money) buying and maintaining it - or just "vegging out" due to exhaustion. This cycle is supported, of course, by the fact that capitalism erodes authentic forms of community and relating.

2) Many people, even if they seek to escape the dynamic I just described, are ignorant of the principles of time management - a topic I teach. They don't know how to value time - aren't even aware that they have choices on how to use their time. They think that what I call the Average American Consumerist Lifestyle is not just normal but inevitable.

One thing I teach is that time management isn't about stuffing as much as possible into your schedule but eliminating as much as possible from your schedule so you have time to get the important stuff done.

blake said...

"Doing minimal damage to the planet is a contribution, right?"

Making suicide the greatest contribution?

blake said...

"Corportaions brainwash us..."

Boy, do I remember that! They dragged me out of my house and strapped me to a chair. After injecting me with various hallucinogens and beating me with a hose, they strapped electrodes to me and zapped me while showing me pictures of Makita Power Tools and hot chicks with Prada bags.

Hillary Rettig/www.LifelongActivist.com said...

Witty, but wrong. Corporations aren't spending billions a year on marketing and advertising (not to mention lobbying) because it doesn't work. Oh, and btw, a fair amount of that budget goes to convincing *kids.*

Michael K said...

""Why is curing cancer always the one thing we're supposed to care about? "

Have you ever read Flow ? We studied that back in 1994 when I was spending a year working on how to improve quality in medical care.

It's pretty interesting if you are thinking about happiness. If you haven't read it, maybe you should.

David said...

"Free tim"e (which I have a lot of in aging retirement) can be guilt inducing. So I need time to deal with the guilt.