Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk and a best-selling author. Occasionally he’s called “the happiest man alive.”Wikimedia Commons
• Matthieu Ricard was born into an intellectual French family; his mother was an abstract painter and his father a philosopher.
• After earning a doctorate in molecular genetics at the Pasteur Institute, he moved to the Himalayas and became a Buddhist monk.
• In addition to 50 years of practicing as a monk, Ricard is a best-selling author, a close associate of the Dalai Llama, and a collaborator on cutting-edge scientific research.
• Ricard has been given the title “the happiest man in the world.”
If happiness is a form of success, you might look to Matthieu Ricard. Neuroscientists found that the Tibetan Buddhist monk and best-selling author has some of the highest levels of positive emotions of anyone they’ve ever studied. Hence the media started calling him “the happiest man alive.” He doesn’t buy it, but he can’t shake the title.
“Maybe when I die there will be on my tomb: ‘Here lies the happiest man in the world,'” he joked.
On this episode of “Success! How I Did It,” a different view of how to make it. Business Insider’s senior strategy reporter Richard Feloni spoke with Ricard while he was promoting his new book, “Beyond the Self,” which he wrote with neuroscientist Wolf Singer.
For the past 50 years, Ricard has lived in Nepal, often with no electricity or running water, and yet monkhood has hardly meant isolation up in the Himalayas. He’s become a best-selling author and given not one but two viral TED Talks. He’s also found his way into the Dalai Lama’s inner circle.
But to Ricard, none of that is a measure of success. He spoke with Feloni about all that and more.
Listen to the full episode:
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Following is a transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
From French intellectual society to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery
A young Matthieu Ricard studying under spiritual master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.Matthieu Ricard
Feloni: The name of this podcast is “Success! How I Did It,” and you’re perhaps the only guest who would object to being called “successful.”
Ricard: Maybe not! I mean, it all depends on the definition of success. Is it simply becoming the richest, most powerful, most famous, most beautiful, most everything?
Success, personally, I feel, is an attempt of personal flourishing. That means fulfilling the deepest aspiration you might have in life. And then when you have gained some kind of inner strength, freedom, and, you know, you have the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life, then you’ll feel less vulnerable, then the success is actually translated into serving society, serving others. So to transform yourself to serve others, if you can bring that to an optimal point, then, for me, that’s what you call “success.”
Feloni: You were born in France in 1946 to a famous writer and a painter, and they were involved in intellectual society. You got to meet people, like the composer Igor Stravinsky and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. What was that like? Were seeds planted to become who you are today?
Ricard: Well, in a way, it was eye-opening. It was more retrospectively, because there was a kind of, you know, fascination. You look at those persons, they are eminent in their own field, but even though there were extraordinary genius in their own way. But that would not correlate, obviously, with the basic human quality that is the thing to really appreciate in someone else.
So you could have, if you take a hundred philosophers, a hundred gardeners, a hundred musicians, a hundred scientists – you find, more or less, the same distribution of very good people. And people who, you know, don’t feel very well to be with. And sometimes obnoxious people. And you say: “Are they a role model not just because of their specialty but as a human being?” And the answer is no. Then you wonder, “Well, then who could be a role model, who could have this coherence between their knowledge, their skills, their wisdom, and the way they are?”
So there was the big difference when I met great men and women of wisdom – suddenly, you know, there was a complete coherence between themselves and their teachings, or what they are supposed to represent, which was like wisdom and compassion, because they were embodying it every single moment. You cannot, you know, say, “Oh, this is a great spiritual master. What a pity so nervous, angry, jealous.” It doesn’t work! [Laughs]
Feloni: Yeah, it seems to be kind of a mature insight that you had as a young person into this idea of success and meaning. What were you like as a kid growing up?
Ricard: Well, I mean, I was, you know, basically like any other kid. Yes, I had some kind of interest in a lot of things, like birdwatching, astronomy, sailing, skiing, music. I played a lot of classical music. So, yes, I had that lively youth as teenager. At the same time, you know, this is the age where you know what you don’t want your life to be like. I mean, it’s boring, meaningless, sort of the sense of, yes, failure in the sense of not accomplishing anything worth it. But you don’t really know what really could be the way to have a fulfilled life.
Feloni: What was your first exposure to Buddhism, and what did it answer for you?
Ricard: So when I was teenager, I was sort of broadly interested in what we call “spirituality,” but it’s only when I traveled I just knew, in 1967, and thanks to having seen some documentaries on all the great masters and met them – that suddenly I realized “OK, here are men and women of great wisdom of great compassion, who exemplify, you know, freedom and bringing human quality to the optimal state.” So that, that brought me a sense of, “OK, here are masters, are people I know. I can walk with them through their guidance, a kind of path to become a better human being.
Feloni: Was embracing Buddhism almost a rebellion against the kind of thought and philosophy that you were exposed to at that time?
Ricard: No, I never felt the idea of rebellion, or people say, “Oh, you left, you know, the life in Paris, you left Pasteur Institute.” When you do – which I do often now, walking in the mountains in the Himalayas – when you leave a valley, you come to a mountain pass and you come to discover from the top of the pass a beautiful valley with some lakes and forest, you know. So you suddenly discover something very inspiring. You are not thinking, “I’m rejecting, abandoning the valley” – which you had been crossing, that also had some qualities.
So simply, it’s a new phase of life, new, a new landscape. And so, yes, so it’s more like discovering something new and feeling very enthusiastic about it, rather than just sort of a negative idea of giving up, rejecting, abandoning.
Feloni: And you decided to finish your studies before moving to the Himalayas. Before you made that move, were there any doubts in your mind?
Ricard: No, I think it was a good timeline. I guess if I had left too early, somehow it was like, you know, making a mess of all the efforts my parents had made. They were not very wealthy to give me an education. So it would have looked like sort of breaking something.
It also gave me time to mature that decision clearly. I never had any hesitation. It’s like, you ask if a fruit or pear that is maturing on the tree if it ever has hesitation. But at some point you don’t have to pull and break the branch to get the fruit. It’s just … touch it, and it falls in your hands. So when something is ready. I just feel so fortunate that at 26 I could leave and spend those now 50 years with those great masters. I mean, I would not want to change any of that. And I congratulate myself at all times that I was able to do that.
Returning home, and stumbling into fame by writing a book with his dad
Feloni: So you’re able to study these masters in the rest of your 20s, and you became a monk when you were age 30. Not too long after that you’re able to go back home and visit. What was it like going from this completely different lifestyle back home to France?
Ricard: I won’t say cultural shock, but things had changed. There were new big towers in Paris, and I remember going to a radio or something. It was one of the main ones. And I said, “Oh, you’re on FM now?” And they sort of looked at me as if to say, “Where’s he coming from, this guy?” “We are on the FM for the last 10 years.”
Feloni: And then you and your father, you collaborated on the book “The Monk and the Philosopher,” and this is a dialogue between you and your father exploring concepts of Buddhism and how they relate to other ways of looking at the world. What was that experience like?
Ricard: So he came for 10 days and we went to a resort. We made a list of topics, and then it was a very lovely sort of 10 days where we just recorded. Nobody else was with us. We were walking in the forest, recording.
And then so his main point was he noticed that Buddhism became quite popular in the West, and he was wondering why, as a philosopher. And you realized that, you know, from his perspective, the Greek philosopher has three goals: What can I know? How to govern the city? And how to live my life? And he said “What can I know?” is mostly science getting the answers. “How should I govern the govern the city?” You know, democracy, of course – it is to be used properly, but still compared to any other, anything else, is the best system.
And then, “How should I lead my life?” He felt that most of Western philosophers had given up that. And they were starting to bring a lot of big philosophical sort of systems, which didn’t tell you anything about how to become a good human being. So he had the insight that Buddhism was bringing some answer for our modern time which was very … a sign of being very open minded for someone like him.
And actually through our discussion he became quite convinced that it was the case. Of course, he didn’t buy into the other aspect of Buddhism, about the nature of consciousness, about all kinds of things, that it’s just a little bit more like “Buddhist business.” But as a way of being, as an art of life, he was quite very positive about that. So it was wonderful for me, and I think he said to someone before dying that it’s something that, that really mattered to him at the end of his life.
Feloni: So this was not only a great experience between you and your father, but the book became a best-seller in France. So this changed your life.
Ricard: Yes, well, sometimes I jokingly said, “It’s either the beginning of a completely new opportunity, or the beginning of my troubles.” Because from a very, very quiet life, living on a shoestring – I was living on, like, $50 a month, but of course perfectly well in a little hermitage with no electricity, no heating, no running water. But I can’t remember any uncomfort. It was such a beautiful time of my life, those seven years there. But certainly it was a big change, because from one day to the other you became recognizable in the street – because we did, I don’t know, 15 TV [appearances].
And also it shows you, somehow, if people are defining the terms of “success,” how artificial this is! Because you, you didn’t change over one week. I’m just the same guy. Nobody was at all caring anything about me. So you don’t get a big head because you know very well it’s because you have been on TV and radio, not because you became sensational overnight. So that, I think, was a good lesson. I always take it with a grain of salt.
But also I thought, How could this be used in a positive way? So there were two things. One was to share ideas which are very dear to me. And I think there many wonderful ideas in Buddhist philosophy that can be applied to humanity.
The second thing is, because of the books and starting to do things here and there, I saw some resources coming my way. So I thought, Well, I don’t need them basically, I have no land, no house, no car, so why not do something useful with that as well? Philanthropists joined us, and we decided to create an organization called Karuna Shechen. And now we’re helping about 300,000 people in India, Nepal, and eastern Tibet with health, social services, education.
So it is wonderful. At the same time it gave a life which become a little bit hectic. I mean, 80 boarding passes in a year. So, I thought, “OK, 20 years, ’97, 2017, maybe it’s time to – just as I left Pasteur Institute, to explore, not give up – but you know, somehow explore a new way of, for the last few years of, I might be alive or not. I don’t know.
Feloni: And the Dalai Lama himself, he takes this approach, where he uses his public profile to share teachings of compassion and altruism with people even if they’re nonbelievers. And so you work with him closely. You’re his French translator. What was it like when you first met him?
Working with the Dalai Lama, and getting called ‘the happiest man in the world’
Ricard’s a vegan, and an animal-rights activist.Matthieu Ricard
Ricard: So, my second teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, was a teacher to the Dalai Lama. Since I was close to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the two to three monks that were always with him, so then I became quite intimate with His Holiness, and he was always extremely kind with me. So then it happens once: I happened to be in Paris when he was there. And normally, interpreting would go, he was in Tibet, and someone would translate in English, a third person in French. So he saw me he said, “OK, you translate,” because by then I spoke Tibetan. So then, like, out of the blue, I became his French interpreter, and I have been since then, with great gratitude.
It’s an immense teaching to be with him because he’s the perfect example of someone with absolutely the same in private and in public. When we see so many things today, you know these days of scandals, of people’s secret, terrible life. He’s totally the same. He will be the same with the lady who cleans the floor in the hotel and with the head of state he’s going to see an hour later. It’s a human being. This is a common humanity. Really doesn’t make any difference. He’s as concerned with the cleaning lady and the head of state. So that’s an incredible lesson.
Feloni: In the year 2000, this is when you became involved with studying the neurological effects of meditation. That’s something that the Dalai Lama himself is really involved in. What was that like, being involved in these studies where you’re hooking up these things to your head?
Ricard: So, you know, Dalai Lama said if he had not been Dalai Lama, he would have been an engineer or a scientist. He always had this interest for … it’s part of the idea of exploring reality. So knowing that, some wonderful scientists, like the neuroscientist Francisco Varela said, “Well, why don’t we help the Dalai Lama to meet great scientists, and maybe there is mutual benefit?” So this Mind and Life Institute began like that, I think, almost 30 years ago.
And in 2000 there was a meeting in Dharamsala, in India, on destructive emotion, and there, there were all the great scientists. So they asked me to come and present the Buddhist perspective on emotion. Which is kind of funny to do that in front of the Dalai Lama, but, you know, I got used to it.
So then the Dalai Lama said, “Oh, it’s very good, all what we do and discuss those five days, but what can we contribute to society in a secular way that could be, you know, spread into schools, in society, in companies, something that can really help people for flourish?” So then there was a brainstorming, and the idea of bringing very good scientist with long-term meditators to do serious research on meditation.
So because I was a scientist in training, and I was there, I say, “OK, I’m happy to participate in that.” I went to Madison, Wisconsin, and that’s the first time I started to go in MRI’s, and now I think I have been in possibly more in MRI’s that anyone I know, over 100 hours.
Ricard participating in a study at the University of Wisconsin to explore the effects of meditation on the brain.Matthieu Ricard
So it’s really a very lively sort of collaboration, because we sort of designed the protocol together. You know, you study meditation – but what meditation, what kind of meditation? How long you need to get into that state. How long takes to get out of it. So that they need to know that in order to establish the way they you look in your brain. Many of those scientists made a point to include someone like me as the coauthor of the scientific paper to show that it’s not just a guinea pig but really participating to the conception of the research, and interpretation of the research. It’s a wonderful collaboration.
Feloni: So something that you want to pass on to people is giving them this ability to change themselves through practice.
Ricard: One thing I would love to share is, definitely, that we vastly underestimate the power of transformation of mind. We spend so much energy and dedication to improve outer condition – which should be, you know, we should remedy poverty, social injustice, inequalities, fight for freedom and so forth, but we don’t spend – far, far from it – spend the same amount of dedication to become a better human being by cultivating qualities, whether it’s altruism, compassion, resilience, emotional intelligence, all those really crucial qualities for a good life and what you would call “success” – what I would call “success” – those are skills, and you can enhance them by becoming more familiar again and again and again with them.
Meditation is one way of doing it, which is bringing to mind again and again compassion and dealing with thoughts more intelligently and so forth. So that’s something we should not underestimate.
Feloni: You’ve had several best-selling books. You’ve had a very popular TED Talk – a couple actually. Something that the Western media always loves to tag you with is “happiest man in the world.” This is kind of like the MO – no matter how much you try to object against it.
Ricard: And there was some initial trigger, that we were working on the effect of compassion – it was not even ‘”happiness” – on the brain. And it is true that as the first guinea pig and then many others followed after me. But there was a quite … unusual, amplitude of gamma waves in the brain, never described in neuroscience of a magnitude that was unheard of, when meditators engaged in this unconditional compassion to all beings.
So there was a thousandfold increase. So and then compassion and loving kindness are related to, well, being. You know, if you are altruistic, you are more likely to be happy – that is, than if you are selfish.
So then there was a documentary made by the Australian television ABC, and at one point they came to Nepal and sort of followed me. And then at the end they said, “Maybe this is the happiest person in the world.” So it went away for three years, and suddenly a journalist for The Independent in England made the cover story, first page: “Mr. Happy has been blah, blah, blah.” So instead of just vanishing as a funny thing, like it just went viral, and that’s just it. I made this disclaimer but nobody is interested in disclaimers.
I guess people find it, like, “Well it’s a neat idea, it’s so good! No, not the one who jumps highest or run fastest,” but it doesn’t take a long time to realize that it is … it cannot be! It’s impossible to say that, because how could you know about 7 billion human beings? How some you don’t know that somewhere in the mountains, in somewhere in Africa, there is an old lady that is incredibly happy. I have no idea!
Feloni: Reporters – they can’t let go of a good headline.
Ricard: I’ve got the BBC calling me at midnight: “What does it feel like?” And I say, “Well, you can be the happiest woman or man in the world if you look for happiness in the right place, and happiness is a skill. So please, do cultivate it, by all means.”
First, I apologized to my scientist friends because they might think I spread the rumor, very embarrassing. But one of my teachers said – because it came again and again – we were in Korea and again the newspaper brought that story. So he said, “Let it be, you know, don’t go against it. And then you use it for spreading good ideas about compassion, about solidarity, about transforming your mind. So why not.” It’s a kind of platform. And maybe when I die, there will be on my tomb: “Here Lies The Happiest Person In The World.” It’s better than to be called the “Unhappiest One.” But again, it’s kind of a sweet joke.
The power of mediation, and other steps to help with your own ‘personal flourishing’
Ricard is an accomplished photographer.Matthieu Ricard
Feloni: Yeah. And if that’s how you’re measuring your success, by how many people you can reach, how much good you can do.
Ricard: Well, there are two kinds of success. One is how much you can better a good person, and that my part is still, still a lot to travel, to what Buddhism calls “awakening,” a sort of inner perfection. But at least I have the deep confidence that I am in the right direction, thanks to my teachers. So success is measuring how much endeavor, progress I feel I make, and have a lot to do, but I’m so sort of grateful that I’m able to progress step by step. So that’s for me the inner success, personal success.
And then I would measure outer success of, how much good you can do in the world. You know, in a modest way, in my case. But if I can do something either through spreading ideas or, you know, having started with friends and collaborators the humanitarian projects, some way I’m sort of, it becomes sort of beyond me, when I hear that we help 200,000 people every year. So I didn’t really help them with hands – on, something happened, it was a catalyst and somehow I was part of that so, I just rejoice. And so I think that’s a … rejoicing in the things you have been doing in your life and also the blessing that you got in your life. That’s, I think, a good measure of success.
Feloni: A lot of the people we interview are business people. They measure success by how much money they bring to themselves or to their company, as well as kind of always pursuing a new business project. Can you have both?
Ricard: Well, it depends. If you if you look for fulfillment, happiness, and flourishing – it’s well known that just betting on being richer, more powerful, more famous, and all that is, like, hoping to win the lottery. Those are known to be – OK, achievements – but those are well known that they are not core components of happiness and flourishing. This is well known! So is not rocket science, all the psychology will tell you that.
You know, it’s called the Easterlin paradox. If you are above the poverty line, you have a reasonably decent life in terms of material. If you double, triple, quadruple, your income, your happiness stays flat. So it helps you to do other things – and it’s good if you do use these resources to help others, for sure – but in terms of well-being, don’t expect too much from that. It doesn’t bring it.
And even about money, I like very much the study that was done by social psychologist in Canada, and she studied the effect of, on people’s happiness to be giving, from $20 a month to big amounts if you can. And she studied in 27 countries and she measured, compared with those who never give anything, their level of well-being. And what she found is, people who give regularly means they have a component of generosity in mind. They are about 30% happier than those who don’t. So she published a paper in Science, which is the top scientific journal, saying, “Money doesn’t buy happiness unless given to others.” So that’s, for me, a measure of success, because what can you do for you with 2 billion that you cannot do with 1? Zero! But for others, you can do twice as much.
Feloni: Can you give an example of meeting someone who the public by all accounts would say is very successful, but when you met them they wouldn’t meet your definition of success?
Ricard: Well, I mean we meet that all the time! People who have all the trappings of success and you find out that they are, they are so much in pain and difficulty. The Dalai Lama told a very funny story that he was invited to stay in one of those – I don’t know billionaire, whatever – home and you know everything was so perfect, lots of servants. Huge swimming pools. And then in the morning he was brushing his teeth in the bathroom, and he is curious so he opened a little cabinet and he saw a lot of sleeping pills, antidepressants, and he said, he close it down and he said “well it doesn’t seem that they are too happy.”
So anyway, you know, I think there are of course wealthy powerful people who found meaning in their life but usually it comes when they really use their power, use their resources to be of service of others.
Feloni: On Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, meditation is popular – “mindfulness” is a buzzword. But for a lot of these people they want to use these skills to kind of be more competitive or take down other companies or other entrepreneurs, other investors. What does that seem like to you?
Ricard: So they might start like that, but interestingly I have a friend who has studied 100 CEOs who took up meditation and brought it in their company. In the beginning they were all hesitating for two reasons: They thought it would become softer, and then that it’s a waste of time. But then they thought, OK, maybe not, maybe they become more, people become more attentive, so they can be more productive, and we can squeeze them, more out of them. So there were some of them as well like that.
But when they actually did it, they found two things that didn’t actually expect. One, it brought them much better human relationships with their collaborators, with their subordinates, with everyone. And that’s a huge thing. We know that the company that is good working prospers better. What this means is a company is good working – it’s a good human environment! It’s not just that they get higher pay and everyone behaves like shark to what each other. It’s like, basically, it’s good to work there because people feel good with each other.
And then the second thing they notice, it gives them better judgment, because instead of having their nose on the problem and the immediate, and has to be solved now, and then you can’t wait – they had more space, they could look at from a different direction, and sometimes the best thing is to do nothing for one or two days and see how things are. So this was two unexpected quality.
So it is a constant sort of worry that mindfulness would be misused. And I think if you say caring mindfulness there’s very less likelihood that it would be misused, because there might be mindful psychopath or snipers but there’s no caring psychopath and no caring snipers. So that already keeps away those who want to use it for that kind of negative purposes.
Feloni: And if some of our listeners who’ve never meditated before wanted to try it, what would you recommend?
Ricard: Well, there are many good books. I mean, I have written one, not just for the sake of writing a book, but because everybody was asking that question, so I did a manual called “Why Meditate?” But try it, because we need to demystify meditation. There’s nothing mysterious – you don’t need to be sitting, trying to empty your mind with incense around you and a mango tree. It’s really – take the loving kindness meditation. We all have unconditional love for a child, for someone dear. But it would last 10, 15 seconds, one minute, then we’d do something else, we go to about our work.
But suppose you take that very beautiful strong warm feeling and instead of letting it disappear for 15 seconds you cultivate it for five, 10 minutes, by reviving it. Coming back if you are distracted, keeping the clarity, the vividity – the vividness of that. So that’s just mind training that is meditation. So there’s nothing mysterious. It’s just, like, you exercise for the piano, you exercise your mind for kindness, for mindfulness, for inner peace, for resilience – all that can be trained as skills. And neuroscience tells you again and again.
Feloni: Thank you very much, Matthieu.