“I have also come to understand that although some people are naturally happier than others, their happiness is still vulnerable and incomplete, and that achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love.”
― Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
Can happiness be measured scientifically? And if so, can science tell us anything about how to be happier? We're all familiar with the questionnaires that ask us to rate our levels of happiness or sadness on a scale of 1 to 10, but these are subjective and prone to human error and changing moods. The University of Wisconsin came up with a way to attach electrodes to test subjects and measure gamma waves, which are associated with peak cognitive ability and peak happiness.
The Wisconsin study found one subject whose gamma waves were off the chart- Matthieu Ricard. Ricard, who was born in France, moved to Tibet and studied meditation for most of his adult life and has been deemed "the happiest man in the world", in press stories covering the study. Ricard spent large amounts of time, including a 5 year solo stint- in deep meditation. Meditation has been shown to produce mental and physical health benefits, but can it also make us happier?
This flies totally in the face of Western ideals of happiness, most of which are dependent on material possessions and life achievements. The richest among us are the happiest in the West, at least as they define it. Western happiness is built on the model of the Hedonic Treadmill, where we are always chasing that next jolt of Dopamine that comes with each achievement or success. Once that wears off, we push on to the next thing, rarely appreciating all of the happy things that happened in the past. Eastern happiness has traditionally emphasized spiritual pursuits, as embodied by Tibetan Buddhists. At least this was true until China, Japan, and India caught the materialism bug and began expanding their economies.
Most of us will never be millionaires or celebrities, so much of what society deems as happiness is permanently closed off to us. Neither will we live in Scandinavia, home of the happiest countries according to the World Happiness Survey. Those countries seem to be unique in their brutal climates that have fostered more compassionate and community-minded societies. And forget about traveling to Tibet, because it's remote, expensive, and not the sole home of happiness. Since we're stuck here in the West with a self-help, individualistic model of happiness that depends on money and possessions, perhaps it's time to deeper for lasting, meaningful happiness.
Why, if we all desire to be happy, are so many so miserable? Drug abuse, suicide, depression, and dissatisfaction seem rampant today, even in the face of material wealth our grandparents could only dream of. What gives?
There are three levels of happiness available to us, though many of us get stuck on level one.
The lowest level is pleasure or hedonism, which is fun, easy, fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying. Pleasure is ruled by Dopamine hits in the brain, and too many of us are chasing faster and bigger hits of it in a desperate search for happiness. Most of our economy- money,the internet, entertainment, romance, sex, eating, gambling, and shopping are organized around pleasure, and those things keep us occupied for the bulk of our days but leave a big hole when they become scarce or disappear.
Eventually we yearn for something bigger, which is the second level- contentment or satisfaction. In the second level we look around at our past and assess the progress that we've made. We also look at other people and compare ourselves to them to see how we rank. If we're doing better than most people, we consider ourselves content and happy. Comparing ourselves to our past selves can be very useful if done honestly, but comparing ourselves to others is a ticket to misery. The only upside to social comparison is realizing the possibilities out there that perhaps we hadn't considered. The many downsides lead to envy, resentment, frustration, and even hatred. There will always be people doing better than us, and there will always be people doing worse. We can perhaps learn from their victories or mistakes, but in order to be truly content we need something a little more powerful to keep us from jumping back on the Hedonic Treadmill.
That brings us to the third level of happiness, considered the highest and most spiritual level. The Greeks called it Eudaimonia, and it has to do with following your highest virtues and finding your purpose in life. It is a very spiritual level and hard to define, and spiritual teachers have been seeking to attain this third level for centuries. Eudaimonia, aka Nirvana, Awakening, or Enlightenment, doesn't require possessions or status, and can't be reached by comparing yourself to lesser enlightened people. There are many books written about this level and I can't do it justice in a simple blog post, but I can tell what the happiest man in the world says. (Actually, Ricard refuses to accept that honor, but the press continues to try to foist it on him.)
Ricard has two main recommendations-
1- Take the time every day to slow down and meditate on happy, good thoughts like love, compassion, and beauty. (Happy thoughts don't include hedonistic ideals like money, sex, or power). This is the essence of compassion meditation, which he trained himself over many years to achieve the status that made him famous.
What is compassion meditation? Positive Psychology defines it as:
"Known also as karuna meditation, compassion meditation is deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and guides participants toward compassionate thoughts.
It is a method for connecting with suffering — our own as well as others’ — and for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us.
The premise of this practice is such that if life involves unavoidable suffering, we ought to embrace it and be compassionate toward the suffering of ourselves and others.
The practice encourages us to discover our own humanness and to accept it."
2- Get out of your head and reach out to other people. Strive to be more benevolent and giving and start caring about the well-being of others. This lightens the load of all the stress that we all carry inside, and it also creates a community around us that lifts us to that higher level and helps us find meaning.
We don't have to go to Tibet to be happy, and we certainly don't need to own a BMW or vacation home in the Bahamas. There's a lot more to it obviously. Here is Ricard's famous Ted Talk, now seen by over 10 million people worldwide, where he discusses happiness, his training, and how he got the lab results that made him famous.
"So the whole point of that is not, sort of, to make, like, a circus thing of showing exceptional beings who can jump, or whatever. It's more to say that mind training matters. That this is not just a luxury. This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that's going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet, we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most -- the way our mind functions -- which, again, is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience. " Matthieu Ricard, from his Ted Talk.