In my last blog post, I wrote about Matthieu Richard, who was named “the world’s happiest man” after a 2004 study showed that his brain-waves that correlate to happiness were off the charts. Soon after that, he wrote a book called “Happiness” (which he has confided that he wanted to name “Suffering”) and traveled the world teaching and supporting others who have sought to cultivate happiness in their lives.
In this post, I will share a few more take-aways from his life and teaching.
The number one secret to happiness is: there is no secret. In fact, the the path to happiness has been discovered and taught by a number of great teachers throughout the ages. The good news is that we can stop searching for a hidden truth that might magically make us happy. Following from that, we can be cautious around anyone claiming to have a quick and easy answer to our unhappiness. While a few great teachers have offered wise guidance for happiness, countless fraudsters have preyed on the human need for lasting joy.
Next, there is no simple list. Or, if there is a list, it’s not the list that matters as much as our work in implementing it. The Buddha offered 4 Noble Truths, including the truth of suffering and the path to overcoming suffering. That path itself was a list of 8 aspects of life to get into balance. In Classical Greek thought, there were 4 virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. In Christianity, the 3 theological virtues are Hope, Faith, and Charity.
Any one of these lists can form a basis for cultivating happiness. And all of them have worked for millions of people over many many centuries. But the list itself isn’t the path. The path is the work in day-to-day life in implementing these ideals.
A lifetime Project
One of the biggest misconceptions about happiness is that it is something you can achieve quickly. Instead, it is wise to see it as a life-long pursuit. A certain amount of our happiness is genetic: it is tied to our dispositions. Some people are naturally more light-hearted or outgoing. Others carry a pensive and melancholic mood through life.
The largest, and perhaps most difficult, part of this life-long project is coming to know—and accept—yourself. All of us are blind in some ways to who we really are. We have a persona, an image, and we have a story we carry. Those stories always carry a lot of truth, but they also conceal aspects of our personality. Perhaps we are insecure and judgmental of others, but we tell ourselves that we are special and superior. Then, when other people avoid us, we tell ourselves that this is because those people are inferior in some way or another. Then we can tell ourselves things like, “it’s lonely at the top.” This kind of story can protect our feelings, but it comes at the cost of self-awareness and, perhaps, making needed changes.
Here, meditation with good teachers or regular therapy or counseling sessions can help immensely. Having a good counselor or teacher can give you the opportunity to share your concerns and voice desires such as greater community. They can help us see what parts of our self-story are helping us and which parts might be causing problems.
In this process of self-discovery, as well as in all of our daily interactions with people, it is incredibly helpful to cultivate an attitude of compassion. Palena R. Neale Ph.D., PCC, a women’s leadership coach and lecturer, stresses the importance of self-compassion. Rather than jumping to our story, Neale suggests that we acknowledge any failures or mistakes in our life with a sense of kindness and care.
She also highlights the other side of self-compassion, a bit of fierceness. This is the attitude that brings energy toward making the changes needed to overcome those set-backs. Instead of just bland acceptance of bad behavior—what some call “idiot compassion” because it does nothing to fix underlying problems—when we see these difficulties within ourselves, true self-compassion requires us to work hard toward change.
Can we Just Focus on Ourselves?
One of the topics Ricard addressed in recent interviews was the fact that many people believe they just need to focus on themselves—that nothing else matters in the end. Noting the importance of our family, community, and society, Ricard says this belief is completely wrong. Instead, he counsels a sense of humility in regards to oneself and the people around us. If we cultivate an attitude of wishing for the happiness of others, we will ourselves feel a greater sense of well-being.
Focusing on ourselves is an important part of our journey to happiness, but it cannot be the whole journey. Think back to some of the times you have been most happy. Are there smiling faces around you? Is some of your happiness at those times dependent upon being part of a happy gathering? Was that happiness itself dependent on others—a family member, someone in your community, even someone far away?
The more we see ourselves as intimately interconnected with the world around us, the more we can let go of what Buddhists call “fixed views” of ourselves and others. This “us” was shaped by a complex and often troubled world. We’re not perfect, and neither is anyone else.
But we can try to be better—just a little bit each day.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.