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Book Review: Happiness

It was a fascinating radio interview on NPR with Matthieu Ricard as the guest. Here was this French scientist who had become a Buddhist Monk talking about his life in France. He touched on what it was like working in a lab researching cell division and the forces that ultimately led to his leaving for a life in the Himalayas. Matthieu was engaging, funny and it was easy listening. I was hooked especially when he talked about cultivating happiness since I do a workshop on Cultivating Inner Peace. Eventually the host brought the conversation around to his new book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. You know I had to read it!!

In the introduction Matthieu talks about a debate he had with French intellectuals prior to writing this book and then when the book came out how those “same intellectuals confirmed that they were not interested in happiness and discarded the idea that it could be cultivated as a skill.” I ask you - how could someone not be interested in happiness?

Matthieu says, “Throughout these pages I have sought to explore the relationships between material conditions and the inner conditions that influence happiness.” In telling the story of the monsoon rains leaving a muddy path with only the stones to use to traverse the mud do we see quite clearly the relationship between the material condition and someone’s inner condition. As Matthieu sat near the path some people went across with a miserable countenance, complaining of the water and mud. Others skipped and danced across joyously giving thanks for the rain and the stones across which they could walk. The same outer conditions but quite different inner responses. He does this repeatedly in the book with a variety of stories.

Matthieu states at the end of the introduction that this book is “not for the Buddhist shelves of libraries, but for the heart and mind of anyone who aspires to a little more joie de vivre and to let wisdom and compassion reign in her or his life.” Exuberant enjoyment of life (Joie de vivre) - that’s what I heard in Matthieu’s voice in the NPR interview. It’s also throughout the book although the book has a sense of calm within it – kinda hard to explain! He explores the many definitions and nuances of happiness and suffering. He asks and proves that happiness is a skill that can be learned, enduring for a lifetime. He shows how suffering “is essentially an interior state” like happiness and again proves how it can be reduced in one’s life. He provides exercises and meditations at the end of most chapters, easy for beginners to use and parlay into a daily practice.

To be honest though the first quarter of the book seemed dull. There were some nuggets of wisdom for me but I was having a hard to time staying interested. It got more interesting toward the middle of the book and Chapter 15, The Sociology of Happiness, blew me away. There he presents some startling statistics that support the fact that external circumstances have only a small influence on happiness. It seems from his data that it’s the internal world of each of us that determines our sense of happiness. For example, “Eighty percent of Americans claim to be happy! …Despite the improvement in material conditions, depression is now ten times as prevalent as it was in 1960 and affects an ever younger sector of the population.” Clearly, what Americans say and actually feel are quite different.

Meditation, as a path to happiness is explored, and since approximately 2006 there have been a number of scientific studies showing the benefits of meditation. In some of those studies Matthieu was directly involved. Again, the results now emerging are sometimes unbelievable and researchers seem to get as many new questions as they do results. The best part is that the researchers have found that you don’t have to go live on a mountaintop to get the benefits of meditation! Dig into the book to find out why.

Despite the slow start I do think this book is a worthwhile read. I would put it in the category of self-help and if you believe the research you will definitely want to start cultivating happiness in your own life immediately. Read it here.

Or check out this video below...

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