The world's happiest man is Matthieu Ricard, a 66-year-old Tibetan monk and geneticist.
We have no word on the world’s happiest woman. If you know her, grateful that you might tell us, so we may name her here.
But the discovery that the world’s happiest man is a Buddhist monk is a broad and roomy thing. We're intrigued by the enormity of the questions raised by this finding and feel compelled to stab at answering some of them, however tentatively.
What happened is that neuroscientist Richard Davidson wired up Matthieu Ricard's skull with 256 sensors to measure the monk’s meditative brain activity. This was part of a larger experiment where scientists scanned the brain waves of several Buddhist monks as the monks meditated.
Here’s how the Agence France Presse reported things:
"The scans showed that when meditating on compassion Ricard's brain produced a level of gamma waves - those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory – ‘never reported before in the neuroscience literature,’ Davidson said.
"The scans also showed excessive activity in Ricard’s left prefrontal cortex compared to the right, giving him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity."
Sorry, can we disrupt this trainwreck of a thought? Don't you wonder what's meant when they say someone has "an abnormally large capacity" for happiness? One may suppose that if you were an inmate at Turkey’s Diyarbarkir Prison in the 1980s and were about to be immersed in the ritual excrement bath before having your genitals savaged by the warden’s specially-trained German Shepherd, your capacity for happiness, no matter how abnormally large, would be feeling a bit shriveled.
But to suggest our capacity for happiness is to be inferred by wave activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, is absurd. This is why so much of neuroscience seems like reductionist junk and quackery.
Let me say clearly: there can be no limit to human happiness.
"When meditating on compassion" – this is another phrase in the news story about Matthieu Ricard that piques my curiosity. I’m left to conclude that this likely refers to the Theravada practice of Mettā, which is the cultivation of loving-kindness. You receive suffering, you send happiness.
And I wonder what is meant by gamma waves being "linked to consciousness…" How are they linked and what is meant by consciousness in this context, exactly? This is such a mine field, I almost typed "mindfield".
Someone once said consciousness is like the Trinity; if it is explained so that you understand it, it hasn't been explained correctly. In the case of neuroscience it seems consciousness means any state other than being asleep, comatose or dead. A pretty low standard, wouldn’t you say? Consciousness is a slippery thing, but other definitions at least imply a level of intentionality. As psychologist George Miller said 40 years ago it’s a term that covers everything from phenomenalism to panpsychism: "'Consciousness' is a word worn smooth by a million tongues. Depending upon the figure of speech chosen it is a state of being, a substance, a process, a place, an epiphenomenon, an emergent aspect of matter, or the only true reality."
Now in the AFP story, Ricard says that meditating is like lifting weights or exercising for the mind. He said anyone can be happy by simply training their brain.
"Try sincerely to check, to investigate," Ricard said. "That’s what Buddhism has been trying to unravel — the mechanism of happiness and suffering. It is a science of the mind."
"It's a wonderful area of research because it shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are," the monk told AFP.
These are fascinating statements, begging to be deciphered: anyone can be a seriously happy man. I wondered about the interchangeability of brain and mind in Ricard’s usage but then realized that for him (unlike the neuroscientists) consciousness is not seated in the brain. Although consciousness can be apprehended by mind – no mind. In other words, as soon as you think you have it, you don’t. Consciousness vibrates with infinite energy, everywhere. Consciousness infuses all. And what the scientists measure is not consciousness. What they measure are brain waves.
Ricard, incidentally, grew up among the Paris intellectual elite as the son of celebrated French libertarian philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and abstract watercolor painter Yahne Le Toumelin. So I’m predisposed to like the guy. A prominent monk in Kathmandu's Shechen Monastery, Ricard divides his time between isolated meditation, scientific research and accompanying the Dalai Lama on trips to French-speaking countries. Plus, he has written a book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill which I have not read and so cannot properly recommend.
I am very grateful to Matthieu Ricard for submitting to a brain scan and for leaving me to ponder again the nature of happiness. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe we can think our way to happiness. Happiness is an experience not an idea. Winds of consciousness may billow the sails of our mind but the winds are not summoned by the power of intellect.
It has a lot to do with intention. Let us observe, though, that happiness is not the exclusive domain of Buddhists, who are killing and terrorizing Muslims in Myanmar at the moment, expressing ethnic intolerance – some of which is being instigated by those in maroon. No happiness there.
But, I defer to the Buddhists who have it right in the mathematical sense that I am a new person, recreated in each moment. So there is no self to fix on, and what makes me happy now may not make me happy later. My happiness, if it is to endure even for an instant, cannot be attached to anything. Only by virtue of intention and detachment do I experience the ever-present happiness which permeates everything and which is available to us all – in limitless supply.
It is in doing nothing that I see everything is done.
(Top Image: A Seriously Happy Man 11x15 watercolour by David Roberts; Bagan 15x11 watercolour by David Roberts; Rangoon Colonial 15x11 watercolour by David Roberts.)