A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill


By Matthieu Ricard

Other Daniel Goleman

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In this groundbreaking book, Matthieu Ricard makes a passionate case for happiness as a goal that deserves as least as much energy as any other in our lives.

Wealth? Fitness? Career success? How can we possibly place these above true and lasting well-being? Drawing from works of fiction and poetry, Western philosophy, Buddhist beliefs, scientific research, and personal experience, Ricard weaves an inspirational and forward-looking account of how we can begin to rethink our realities in a fast-moving modern world. With its revelatory lessons and exercises, Happiness is an eloquent and stimulating guide to a happier life.



The Monk and the Philosopher (with Jean-François Revel)

The Quantum and the Lotus (with Trinh Xuan Thuan)

Buddhist Himalayas (with Olivier and Danielle Föllmi)

Journey to Enlightenment

Monk Dancers of Tibet

Tibet: A Compassionate Eye

Copyright © 2003, NiL éditions, Paris

Translation copyright © 2006 by Jesse Browner

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Little, Brown and Company

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First eBook Edition: December 2008

ISBN: 978-0-316-05475-1

Book design by Renato Stanisic



Every man wants to be happy, but in order to be so he needs first to understand what happiness is.


An American friend of mine, a successful photography editor, once told me about a conversation she'd had with a group of friends after they'd finished their final college exams and were wondering what to do with their lives. When she'd said, "I want to be happy," there was an embarrassed silence, and then one of her friends had asked: "How could someone as smart as you want nothing more than to be happy?" My friend answered: "I didn't say how I want to be happy. There are so many ways to find happiness: start a family, have kids, build a career, seek adventure, help others, find inner peace. . . . Whatever I end up doing, I want my life to be a truly happy one."

The word happiness, writes Henri Bergson, "is commonly used to designate something intricate and ambiguous, one of those ideas which humanity has intentionally left vague, so that each individual might interpret it in his own way."1 From a practical point of view, leaving the definition of happiness vague wouldn't matter if we were talking about some inconsequential feeling. But the truth is altogether different, since we're actually talking about a way of being that defines the quality of every moment of our lives. So what exactly is happiness?

Sociologists define happiness as "the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life-as-a-whole positively. In other words, how much the person likes the life he or she leads."2 This definition, however, does not distinguish between profound satisfaction and the mere appreciation of the outer conditions of our lives. For some, happiness is just "a momentary, fleeting impression, whose intensity and duration vary according to the availability of the resources that make it possible."3 Such happiness must by nature be elusive and dependent on circumstances that are quite often beyond our control. For the philosopher Robert Misrahi, on the other hand, happiness is "the radiation of joy over one's entire existence or over the most vibrant part of one's active past, one's actual present, and one's conceivable future."4 Maybe it is a more enduring condition. According to André Comte-Sponville, "By 'happiness' we mean any span of time in which joy would seem immediately possible."5

Is happiness a skill that, once acquired, endures through the ups and downs of life? There are a thousand ways of thinking about happiness, and countless philosophers have offered their own. For Saint Augustine, happiness is "a rejoicing in the truth." For Immanuel Kant, happiness must be rational and devoid of any personal taint, while for Marx it is about growth through work. "What constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute," Aristotle wrote, "and the popular account of it is not the same as that given by the philosophers."

Has the word happiness itself been so overused that people have given up on it, turned off by the illusions and platitudes it evokes? For some people, talking about the search for happiness seems almost in bad taste. Protected by their armor of intellectual complacency, they sneer at it as they would at a sentimental novel.

How did such a devaluation come about? Is it a reflection of the artificial happiness offered by the media? Is it a result of the failed efforts we use to find genuine happiness? Are we supposed to come to terms with unhappiness rather than make a genuine and intelligent attempt to untangle happiness from suffering?

What about the simple happiness we get from a child's smile or a nice cup of tea after a walk in the woods? As rich and comforting as such genuine glimpses of happiness might be, they are too circumstantial to shed light on our lives as a whole. Happiness can't be limited to a few pleasant sensations, to some intense pleasure, to an eruption of joy or a fleeting sense of serenity, to a cheery day or a magic moment that sneaks up on us in the labyrinth of our existence. Such diverse facets are not enough in themselves to build an accurate image of the profound and lasting fulfillment that characterizes true happiness.

By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.


Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply. . . . What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss—absolute bliss!—as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?


Ask any number of people to describe a moment of "perfect" happiness. Some will talk about moments of deep peace experienced in a harmonious natural setting, of a forest dappled in sunshine, of a mountain summit looking out across a vast horizon, of the shores of a tranquil lake, of a night walk through snow under a starry sky, and so on. Others will refer to a long-awaited event: an exam they've aced, a sporting victory, meeting someone they've longed to meet, the birth of a child. Still others will speak of a moment of peaceful intimacy with their family or a loved one, or of having made someone else happy.

The common factor to all of these experiences would seem to be the momentary disappearance of inner conflicts. The person feels in harmony with the world and with herself. Someone enjoying such an experience, such as walking through a serene wilderness, has no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.

For just a few moments, thoughts of the past are suppressed, the mind is not burdened with plans for the future, and the present moment is liberated from all mental constructs. This moment of respite, from which all sense of emotional urgency has vanished, is experienced as one of profound peace. For someone who has achieved a goal, completed a task, or won a victory, the tension they have long carried with them relaxes. The ensuing sense of release is felt as a deep calm, free of all expectation and fear.

But this experience is just a passing glimpse brought on by a particular set of circumstances. We call it a magic moment, a state of grace. And yet the difference between these flashes of happiness seized on the fly and the immutable peacefulness of the sage, for instance, is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of a needle and the limitless expanses of outer space. The two conditions differ in dimension, duration, and depth.

Even so, we can learn something from these fleeting moments, these lulls in our ceaseless struggles; they can give us a sense of what true plenitude might be and help us to recognize the conditions that favor it.


I remember one afternoon as I was sitting on the steps of our monastery in Nepal. The monsoon storms had turned the courtyard into an expanse of muddy water and we had set out a path of bricks to serve as stepping-stones. A friend of mine came to the edge of the water, surveyed the scene with a look of disgust, and complained about every single brick as she made her way across. When she got to me, she rolled her eyes and said, "Yuck! What if I'd fallen into that filthy muck? Everything's so dirty in this country!" Since I knew her well, I prudently nodded, hoping to offer her some comfort through my mute sympathy. A few minutes later, Raphaèle, another friend of mine, came to the path through the swamp. "Hup, hup, hup!" she sang as she hopped, reaching dry land with the cry "What fun!" Her eyes sparkling with joy, she added: "The great thing about the monsoon is that there's no dust." Two people, two ways of looking at things; six billion human beings, six billion worlds.

On a more somber note, Raphaèle once told me of a meeting she'd had on her first visit to Tibet, in 1986, with a man who had had an appalling time during the Chinese invasion. "He invited me to sit down on a bench and served me some tea he kept in a large thermos. It was his first time talking to a Westerner. We laughed a lot; he was really adorable. Children kept coming by to stare at us in astonishment, and he showered me with questions. Then he told me how he'd been jailed for twelve years by the Chinese invaders and condemned to cut stone for a dam being built in the Drak Yerpa valley. The dam was completely useless, since the riverbed was almost always dry! All his friends dropped dead of hunger and exhaustion around him, one by one. Despite the horror of his story, there wasn't the slightest trace of hatred in his words or the least bit of resentment in his eyes, which beamed with kindness. As I fell asleep that night, I wondered how a man who had suffered so much could seem so happy."

Anyone who enjoys inner peace is no more broken by failure than he is inflated by success. He is able to fully live his experiences in the context of a vast and profound serenity, since he understands that experiences are ephemeral and that it is useless to cling to them. There will be no "hard fall" when things turn bad and he is confronted with adversity. He does not sink into depression, since his happiness rests on a solid foundation. One year before her death at Auschwitz, the remarkable Etty Hillesum, a young Dutchwoman, affirmed: "When you have an interior life, it certainly doesn't matter what side of the prison fence you're on. . . . I've already died a thousand times in a thousand concentration camps. I know everything. There is no new information to trouble me. One way or another, I already know everything. And yet, I find this life beautiful and rich in meaning. At every moment."7

Once at an open meeting in Hong Kong, a young man rose from the audience to ask me: "Can you give me one reason why I should go on living?" This book is a humble response to that question, for happiness is above all a love of life. To have lost all reason for living is to open up an abyss of suffering. As influential as external conditions may be, suffering, like well-being, is essentially an interior state. Understanding that is the key prerequisite to a life worth living. What mental conditions will sap our joie de vivre, and which will nourish it?

Changing the way we see the world does not imply naive optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counterbalance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frustration that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves "I'm happy! I'm happy!" over and over again as it would be to repaint a wall in ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.


What do we mean by reality? In Buddhism the word connotes the true nature of things, unmodified by the mental constructs we superimpose upon them. Such concepts open up a gap between our perception and reality, and create a never-ending conflict with the world. "We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us," wrote Rabindranath Tagore.8 We take for permanent that which is ephemeral and for happiness that which is but a source of suffering: the desire for wealth, for power, for fame, and for nagging pleasures.

By knowledge we mean not the mastery of masses of information and learning but an understanding of the true nature of things. Out of habit, we perceive the exterior world as a series of distinct, autonomous entities to which we attribute characteristics that we believe belong inherently to them. Our day-to-day experience tells us that things are "good" or "bad." The "I" that perceives them seems to us to be equally concrete and real. This error, which Buddhism calls ignorance, gives rise to powerful reflexes of attachment and aversion that generally lead to suffering. As Etty Hillesum says so tersely: "That great obstacle is always the representation and never the reality."9 The world of ignorance and suffering—called samsara in Sanskrit—is not a fundamental condition of existence but a mental universe based on our mistaken conception of reality.

The world of appearances is created by the coming together of an infinite number of ever-changing causes and conditions. Like a rainbow that forms when the sun shines across a curtain of rain and then vanishes when any factor contributing to its formation disappears, phenomena exist in an essentially interdependent mode and have no autonomous and enduring existence. Everything is relation; nothing exists in and of itself, immune to the forces of cause and effect. Once this essential concept is understood and internalized, the erroneous perception of the world gives way to a correct understanding of the nature of things and beings: this is insight. Insight is not a mere philosophical construct; it emerges from a basic approach that allows us gradually to shed our mental blindness and the disturbing emotions it produces and hence the principal causes of our suffering.

Every being has the potential for perfection, just as every sesame seed is permeated with oil. Ignorance, in this context, means being unaware of that potential, like the beggar who is unaware of the treasure buried beneath his shack. Actualizing our true nature, coming into possession of that hidden wealth, allows us to live a life full of meaning. It is the surest way to find serenity and let genuine altruism flourish.

There exists a way of being that underlies and suffuses all emotional states, that embraces all the joys and sorrows that come to us. A happiness so deep that, as Georges Bernanos wrote, "nothing can change it, like the vast reserve of calm water beneath a storm."10 The Sanskrit word for this state of being is sukha.

Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions. It is also the wisdom that allows us to see the world as it is, without veils or distortions. It is, finally, the joy of moving toward inner freedom and the loving-kindness that radiates toward others.



One must practice the things which produce happiness, since if that is present we have everything and if it is absent we do everything in order to have it.


Who wants to suffer? Who wakes up in the morning thinking: "I wish I could suffer all day"? We all strive, consciously or unconsciously, competently or clumsily, passionately or calmly, adventurously or routinely, to be happier and suffer less. Yet we so often confuse genuine happiness with merely seeking enjoyable emotions.

Every day of our lives, we find a thousand different ways to live intensely, forge bonds of friendship and love, enrich ourselves, protect those we love, and keep those who would harm us at arm's length. We devote our time and energies to these tasks, hoping they will provide us and others with a sense of fulfillment and well-being.

However we go about looking for it, and whether we call it joy or duty, passion or contentment, isn't happiness the goal of all goals? Aristotle called it the only goal "we always choose for its own sake and never as a means to something else." Anyone who says otherwise doesn't really know what he wants; he is simply seeking happiness under another name.

Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard professor and one of the world's leading researchers in mental imagery, once told me that when he wakes up in the morning it is not the desire to be happy that gets him out of bed but the sense of duty, the sense of responsibility for his family, for the team he leads, for his work, for humanity. He maintained that happiness is not among his considerations. And yet when we think about it, the satisfaction of accomplishing what we consider to be worthy goals through a long-term effort strewn with obstacles undeniably reflects certain aspects of true happiness, sukha. It is what allows a sense of harmony within ourselves. In doing his "duty"—and even if he believes that suffering and hardship "build character"—such a man is clearly not seeking to cultivate his own unhappiness or that of humankind.

The tragedy lies in our frequent misidentification of the ways to achieve that well-being. Ignorance perverts our desire to improve ourselves. As the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa explains: "When we talk of ignorance, it has nothing to do with stupidity. In a way, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is an intelligence that works exclusively in one direction. That is, we react exclusively to our own projections instead of simply seeing what is there."1

Ignorance, in the Buddhist lexicon, is an inability to recognize the true nature of things and of the law of cause and effect that governs happiness and suffering. Supporters of ethnic cleansing, for instance, claim that they want to build the best of all possible worlds, and some appear to be deeply convinced of the rightness of their abomination. As paradoxical and unhealthy as it may seem, those who satisfy their selfish impulses by sowing death and destruction expect their actions to bring them a certain degree of gratification. Malevolence, delusion, contempt, and arrogance can never be means of achieving genuine happiness; and yet, even as they veer wildly astray, those who are cruel, obsessed, self-righteous, or conceited are still blindly pursuing happiness while being completely unaware of its true nature. Likewise, someone who commits suicide in order to end unbearable anguish is desperately reaching out for happiness.

How do we dispel this basic ignorance? The only way is through honesty and sincere introspection. There are two ways we can undertake this: analysis and contemplation. Analysis consists of a candid and systematic evaluation of every aspect of our own suffering and of the suffering we inflict on others. It involves understanding which thoughts, words, and actions inevitably lead to pain and which contribute to well-being. Of course, such an approach requires that we first come to see that something is not quite right with our way of being and acting. We then need to feel a burning desire to change.

The contemplative approach consists of rising above the whirlpool of our thoughts for a moment and looking calmly within, as if at an interior landscape, to find the embodiment of our deepest aspirations. For some this may be a life lived intensely at every moment, sampling the many delicacies of pleasure. For others it may be the attainment of goals: a family, social success, leisure, or, more modestly, a life without undue suffering. But these formulations are incomplete. If we go even deeper into ourselves, we may come to find that our primary aspiration, that which underlies all the others, is for some satisfaction powerful enough to nourish our love of life. This is the wish: "May every moment of my life and of the lives of others be one of wisdom, flourishing, and inner peace!"


Talking about drugs, a Parisian teenager once told me: "If you don't crash a little between doses, you don't appreciate the difference as much. I accept the really tough times for the moments of euphoria. Since I can't get rid of my pain, I prefer to embrace it. I have no interest in developing inner happiness; it's too hard and takes too long. I'd rather have instant happiness, even if it isn't real and even if it gets a little weaker every time I go for it." Hence the emphasis on sensation and momentary pleasures, and the dismissal of the search for deep and lasting serenity as utopian. And yet, while "lousy" or unhappy intervals give life a little more variety, they are never sought out for their own sake, but merely for the contrast they provide, the promise of change they hold out.

For the writer Dominique Noguez, misery is more interesting than happiness because it has a "vividness, an extremely seductive, Luciferian intensity. It has the additional attraction . . . of not being an end in itself, but of always leaving something to anticipate (happiness, that is)."2 What a foolish merry-go-round: Here, just a bit more pain before your happiness! Like the madman who beats himself over the head with a hammer so that he can feel better when he stops. In short, lasting happiness is boring because it is always the same, while suffering is more exciting because it is always different. We may appreciate such contrasts for the variety and color they give life, but who wants to swap moments of joy for moments of suffering?

On the other hand, it would seem more resourceful, perhaps wise, to use suffering as a vehicle of transformation that allows us to open ourselves with compassion to those who suffer as we do, or even more than we do. It is in that sense, and that sense alone, that we should understand the Roman philosopher Seneca when he says: "Suffering may hurt, but it is not an evil." It is not an evil when, unable to avoid it, we turn it to profit to learn and to change, while recognizing that it is never a good thing in and of itself.

On the contrary, "the desire for happiness is essential to man. It is the motivator of all our acts. The most venerable, clearly understood, enlightened, and reliable constant in the world is not only that we want to be happy, but that we want only to be so. Our very nature requires it of us," wrote Saint Augustine in On the Happy Life. That desire inspires our every act, our every word, and our every thought so naturally that we are totally unaware of it, like the oxygen we breathe all our lives without thinking about it.


To imagine happiness as the achievement of all our wishes and passions is to confuse the legitimate aspiration to inner fulfillment with a utopia that inevitably leads to frustration. In affirming that "happiness is the satisfaction of all our desires" in all their "multiplicity," "degree," and "duration,"3 Kant dismisses it from the outset to the realm of the unachievable. When he insists that happiness is the condition of one for whom "everything goes according to his wish and will,"4 we have to wonder about the mystery whereby anything might "go" according to our wishes and will. It reminds me of a line I once heard in a gangster movie.

"I want what's owed to me."

"What's owed to you, man?"

"The world, chico, and everything in it."

Even if, ideally, the satisfaction of all our desires were achievable, it would lead not to happiness but to the creation of new desires or, just as likely, to indifference, disgust, or even depression. Why depression? If we were to convince ourselves that satisfying all our whims would make us happy, the collapse of that delusion would make us doubt the very existence of happiness. If I have more than I could possibly need and I am still not happy, happiness must be impossible. That's a good example of how far we can go in fooling ourselves about the causes of happiness. The fact is that without inner peace and wisdom, we have nothing we need to be happy. Living on a pendulum between hope and doubt, excitement and boredom, desire and weariness, it's easy to fritter away our lives, bit by bit, without even noticing, running all over the place and getting nowhere. Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things.


Among all the clumsy, blind, and extreme ways we go about building happiness, one of the most sterile is egocentrism. "When selfish happiness is the only goal in life, life soon becomes goalless," wrote Romain Rolland.5 Even if we display every outward sign of happiness, we can never be truly happy if we dissociate ourselves from the happiness of others. This in no way requires us to neglect our own happiness. Our own desire for happiness is as legitimate as anyone else's. And in order to love others, we must learn to love ourselves. It's not about swooning over the color of our own eyes, our figure, or some personality trait, but about giving due recognition to the desire to live each moment of existence as a moment of meaning and fulfillment. To love oneself is to love life. It is essential to understand that we make ourselves happy in making others happy.

In brief, the goal of life is a deep state of well-being and wisdom at all moments, accompanied by love for every being. True happiness arises from the essential goodness that wholeheartedly desires everyone to find meaning in their lives. It is a love that is always available, without showiness or self-interest. The immutable simplicity of a good heart.


Examining the causes of happiness

Take a quiet moment alone and try to find out what really makes you happy. Is your happiness derived mainly from outer circumstances? How much of it is due to your state of mind and the way you experience the world? If happiness comes from outer circumstances, check how stable or fragile they are. If it is due to a state of mind, consider how you can further cultivate it.





On Sale
Jun 29, 2021
Page Count
304 pages

Matthieu Ricard

About the Author

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, an author, translator, and photographer. He has lived, studied, and worked in the Himalayan region for over forty years. The son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin, Matthieu was born in France in 1946 and grew up among the personalities and ideas of Paris’ intellectual and artistic circles. He earned a Ph.D. degree in cell genetics at the renowned Institut Pasteur under the Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob.

In 1967, he traveled to India to meet great spiritual masters from Tibet. After completing his doctoral thesis in 1972, he decided to concentrate on Buddhist studies and practice. Since then, he has lived in India, Bhutan, and Nepal and studied with some of the greatest teachers of that tradition. He is the author of several books including The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with his father; The Quantum and the Lotus, a dialogue with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan; Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill; and Why Meditate? His books have been translated into over twenty languages.

Learn more about this author