The Monk and The Academic: How to be Happy

by , under Current Affairs, Emerging Church, Environment, Technology

happy Interesting piece in The Times yesterday about the meeting of two of the happiest men in the world. Well, one of them – the monk Matthieu Ricard –  is apparently the happiest (on average, surely – I doubt he’s ever been happier than me when United won the Champions League in the last minute of extra time) and the other – Richard Layard –  is a leading academic on happiness, which may not mean he’s such a good practitioner. What I found interesting was the summary table that the piece ended with, boiling down the essence of both men’s wisdom on how to be happy: For the monk, the golden rules were:

Learn to meditate / Cultivate altruism / Practise mindfulness / Make space in your life for spirituality / Find a genuine spiritual teacher

For the academic, they were:

Be socially connected / Be physically active / Take notice of your surroundings and savour them / Keep learning / Give regularly

The similarities are striking. Happiness is partly about being content within the Self (meditation, exercise, learning) partly about being in touch with the ‘big Other’ (engaging in a spirituality, being mindful of our environment) and partly about engaging with ‘the other’ that we meet day to day (altruism, generosity, social connection). It’s perhaps because I’m reading this through the lens of my own forthcoming book, but, these three axes of self, God and other are the framework on which I’ve written – launching from Jesus’ summary of the Law: love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. Question is then, why are we the unhappiest people yet to have lived?


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  1. Clare

    “Question is then, why are we the unhappiest people yet to have lived?” – Relationship with life forms would seem to be the common factor in the above list. Not something that’s encouraged within nasty capitalism.

  2. Acetate Monkey

    I wonder if it’s something to do with fear? From an evolutionary point of view fear seems to be about having enough. Either having enough external resources (berries, money) or internal resources (strength to kill tigers, ability to assert ourselves). If we don’t have enough (or suspect we don’t) then we need connections to make up our shortfall. Without being connected to others we wander lonely through life potentially annihilated by everything. Not a nice place to be and one that creates anxiety and depression.

  3. Clare

    Acetate Monkey: I agree. And capitalism plays on that fear as well as directing us to inanimate objects as the ‘solution’.

  4. Acetate Monkey

    In contrast to not having enough, and the sucking in of various ‘inanimate objects’, happiness seems to have openness as a common strand. Either the willingness to admit we haven’t ‘arrived’ (willingness to learn from spiritual teachers, education, mindfulness etc.) or proactive giving (altruism). These contrast to the shrivelling closure of our fists to preserve what we have and the diminishment of our horizons. When the fear of inadequacy is faced up to and embraced then we are free to engage in the relationships which capitalism dismisses instead of filling the vacuum with more inanimate objects.

    Is it really that simple? Dicken’s Scrooge is an obvious embodiment of the concept, but somehow the saccharin glow of the Muppet’s Christmas Carol never translates into real life. I wonder why?

  5. Acetate Monkey

    Forgive the misplaced apostrophe in Dickens. Lynn Truss would not approve!

  6. Clare

    I also think that the prevalence of mental illness these days is indicative of a fundamental malaise which isn’t being widely acknowledged; i.e, a capitalist system fails us all to some extent in terms of happiness. In my experience, even those who haven’t escaped classification as mentally ill don’t often seem to spot and/or acknowledge the deeper reasons for their unhappiness. Granted – I perceive society as encouraging them to fiddle about at the fringes of the problem, taking meds and trying to eat a bit more salmon etc. But I think I would sort of echo Acetate Monkey’s question: how do we get people to realise that things could be so much happier and healthier whether those individuals are deemed to be ill or not?