happiness is a skill, not an emotion

Buddha’s core teaching, the Dhammapada, opens as follows:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.

The central thesis of Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness (2006) is that happiness is not an emotion, but a skill that can be learned and developed. It is, he says, ‘a way of interpreting the world’.

Matthieu Ricard has a PhD in biology from the Pasteur Institute and spent the last thirty-odd years as a Buddhist monk, and the last decade as the French interpreter to the Dalai Lama. He is one of a group of scientists who have been collaborating with the Dalai Lama to explore the commonalities between the teachings of Buddhism and the findings of modern science as to how emotions emerge in the mind and can be managed.

In Happiness. A guide to developing life’s most important skill, Ricard describes how happiness can seem so elusive in our Western society. Pleasure, he says, is exhausted by usage. Authentic happiness is not linked to an activity but stems from a profound emotional balance, which can be achieved by attaining selflessness.

Ricard then moves into familiar Buddhist territory, explaining how the ego is a construct that tends to shape our emotional response, needlessly fuelling the suffering we feel and inflict on others:

Most of the time it is not outward events but our own mind and negative emotions that make us unable to maintain our inner stability and drag us down. (…) Nothing is right outside because nothing is right inside.

To counteract these habits of a lifetime we need to train ourselves to recognise the onset of negative emotions, understand that the emotion is but a thought, devoid of intrinsic existence, and allow it to dissipate ‘so as to avoid the chain reaction it would normally unleash’.

The concept of intercepting a negative thought also figures centrally in Daniel Goleman‘s Emotional Intelligence (1995). Goleman approaches it from a neurobiological standpoint, focusing on the functioning of the amygdala as ‘our emotional sentinel, able to hijack the brain’. Like Ricard, Goleman concludes that we have a brief window of opportunity for disarming this ‘neural tripwire’ and for maintaining our emotional equilibrium.

Ricard’s points have been made before, such as in Destructive Emotions (2003), the dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman. Ricard’s achievement is to have translated seemingly complex but incredibly useful insights about the functioning of the mind into ‘a good read’ for a broader audience.