The happiest man in the world does not own a house or car, or earn any money, and he spends three months each winter alone in a tiny Nepalese hermitage without home comforts or even any heating. Matthieu Ricard does, however, carry in his simple fabric bag a laptop in a padded case, and when our conversation is interrupted by the wail of a loud Himalayan chant, the 69-year-old Frenchman reaches into the depths of his saffron robes to pull out a smartphone, which he quickly silences.
A lot of people might consider the key to happiness is getting rid of their technology, I suggest to Ricard. He is a molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk who, for almost a decade, has enjoyed (or laboured under) the title of the most content human on the planet.
“I have [a phone] because once I drove for three days and spent one day travelling on horseback in Tibet, only to find that the people I had gone to see were not there,” he says with a grin. He also keeps his phone charged for safety reasons, having initially been given it in case his isolated mountaintop retreat was approached by Maoist rebels.
Ricard is a little embarrassed by the “happiest man” title. He says it was first coined, perhaps inevitably, in a British newspaper headline, and calls it “a total exaggeration”. But it does reflect the result of a striking piece of researchpublished by neuroscientists in the 1990s which found that, while undergoing meditation, Ricard’s brain showed a degree of stimulation in areas associated with positive emotions and impulses that was previously unrecorded in scientific literature.
Meditating for a long period of time, the University of Wisconsin research suggested, had the potential capacity to alter the brain, a finding which was interpreted more widely as an ability to train oneself in happiness.
But while he is frequently described as a “happiness guru” – publishing a book shortly afterwards called Happinesscan’t have hurt – Ricard says he was merely the first of many long-term meditators (after 60,000+ hours of meditation) studied who showed similar results.
“My friends tease me about it, you know, ‘here comes mister happy!’ That’s OK. I’m not unhappy, for sure.” Alongside the robe, shaved head and close relationship with the Dalai Lama, Ricard, who has a manner that it is difficult to resist describing as twinkly, also has a nice line in self-deprecation.
He has, at the moment, abandoned his mountain top to tour the world. He has been talking about a new book on altruism, and an app designed to teach meditation, and his last pitstop in Argentina entailed 17 interviews in two days. He resisted the app at first (“they are a bit New Age-y, you feel like falling asleep when you hear those apps”), but finally agreed to something “very traditional” based on Buddhist tradition.
The rest of Ricard’s time is spent running a small humanitarian NGO from his monastery in Nepal, to which all the revenue from his book sales and speaker fees is donated.
The obvious question to be asked of Ricard is what there is to be so happy about when a devastating earthquake in Nepal has led to the deaths of thousands. Because evolution, he says, has equipped us to focus on danger and drama “we have this overwhelming feeling of this wicked world”. He says: “The banality of goodness is overlooked. Of course there was a moment [after the earthquake] when everyone ran for their life. But immediately afterwards, there was calm, discipline, helping. They do it in solidarity.”
He insists he sees signs of the perfectibility of humanity everywhere, claiming that globally violence rates are falling, and that signs of grassroots solidarity are everywhere. There is, he argues, “something in the air”.
He is well attuned to cynicism in any event, especially from “Parisian intellectuals”; his late father, the distinguished philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, was one such, which may or may not be of relevance. But he is also by training and instinct a scientist, having begun studying Buddhism in the late 1960s at the same time as he was completing a PhD at the Pasteur Institute, in Paris. “It wasn’t like slamming any doors,” he says of his decision to leave the scientific life for the contemplative one. “It is that you cross a mountain pass and the next valley is so beautiful you want to settle there. It’s more like that.”
He chooses to participate in studies on meditation to back up his thesis that altruism can make humans better people, and in so doing can nudge society, bit by bit, towards something better.
I wonder how that message goes down at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at which Ricard has become an almost annual fixture, an event which one might conclude had been designed to drive the greatest optimist to despair. The happy monk doesn’t see it that way. Even among the masters of the financial universe, Ricard sees signs that encourage him. “I think if we can raise our voice and bring those ideas in every possible walk of life, whether in the hermitage, or when I was invited to speak at the UN about gross national happiness – why not?”
Meanwhile, he says, ongoing neurological studies suggest that you do not need to own a pair of sandals and have a Himalayan view to develop your capacity for positivity and compassion. Four weeks of “caring mindfulness” meditation for 20 minutes a day was also shown to alter the brain and enhance the immune system, he says. The lesson? “Anyone can be the happiest man or woman in the world if you look for happiness in the right place.”