As a book on meditation, Mathieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is the best of both worlds, presenting both a spiritual and a scientific perspective. Ricard left a promising career in biology and genetics to become a Buddhist monk, so he uniquely understands both perspectives and is fascinated by the scientific study of the brain and how meditation affects, on a biological level, the way we think. Happiness is at once a guide to how meditation can improve our lives and help us to become happier and a thorough description of why it works, written in language accessible to any reader.
In the first few chapters, Ricard opens the book with discussion of happiness in general: is happiness the purpose of life? What does it mean to be happy, and how do we recognize happiness when we have it? Can we actively cultivate happiness in our lives? Concluding that happiness is possible and that cultivating it is worthwhile, Ricard then considers the problem of suffering. How can we be happy when we suffer; further, how can compassionate beings be truly happy when faced with the suffering of others? Ricard tackles this question, presenting stories of those who have suffered true hardship and examining the root causes of suffering. While we cannot control the events that happen to us, we can always control our responses to those events, and here is the real key to being happy under any circumstance. Over several chapters, Ricard discusses how we can use meditation in order to overcome ego, negative thoughts, and disturbing emotions, the obstacles within ourselves that prevent us from being happy no matter what occurs.
Ricard speaks from his own and his teachers’ experience that when we can lessen the influence of the ego and negative thoughts and emotions, we feel more freedom and happiness in our lives. He then goes on to discuss happiness from the perspective of sociology, psychology, and psychiatry, citing laboratory studies of experienced meditators whose brains have been shown to function differently than ordinary people’s brains. Meditation over long periods literally changes brain chemistry, leading to great benefits in quality of life. Ricard as both a scientist and a talented writer, in these chapters and throughout the book, is able to describe a variety of scientific studies and their results in terms a layman can understand and appreciate.
In the later chapters, Ricard examines positive attributes like altruism, humility, and optimism, and describes how cultivating these attitudes can help us to be happier. He cites evidence that those who are kind, humble, and optimistic tend to be happier than those who are not. By modifying our behavior to act more altruistically in daily life, or by being aware of pessimistic thought patterns as they arise, we can begin to make progress toward increasing happiness.
In the book’s final chapters, Ricard addresses several difficult issues: appreciating versus wasting time, ethics and the dichotomy of good and evil, and how to be happy in the presence of death. Ricard’s wisdom truly shines in these chapters; his advice is inspirational, practical and uplifting. The concluding chapter rounds out the book by describing the challenges and great rewards of following a spiritual path. Ricard promises that with regular practice and dedication, we can each not only live happier lives but become kinder, wiser, and more compassionate. Developing these qualities can lead us, as it led Ricard, to a life of great meaning, freedom, and joy.