As much as I enjoy the writings of Matthieu Ricard, in part because of his combination of a science background and his vocation as a Buddhist monk, I wish his 2006 book was titled other than Happiness. Perhaps his English-language publisher insisted on the title. The original French, published in 2003, is Plaidoyer pour le bonheur, literally, Plea for Happiness, which is more palatable. Instead of his jolly portrait on the French cover, one could almost cringe at the prospect of a yellow smiley on the English. But it is safely plain.
The word happiness has been much abused, as Heidegger prophetically noted in his Discourse on Thinking in 1959, referring to modern science and technology:
Through this atomic business a new era of happiness is envisioned. Nuclear science, too, does not stand idly by. It publicly proclaims this era of happiness. Thus in July of this year at Lake Constance, eighteen Nobel Prize winners stated in a proclamation: “Science [and that is modern natural science] is a road to a happier human life.”
But Ricard knows these nuances. He is careful to distinguish well-being and euphoria, pleasure and happiness, and, especially, the experience of suffering versus objective suffering.
It bears emphasizing, and Ricard mentions this though not emphatically, that modern Westerners bring upon themselves degrees, scenarios, and experiences of suffering that are contrived by their perceptions and do not amount to physical and socio-economic suffering that is objective.
As with many books informed by Tibetan Buddhism, Ricard follows neurology and psychology closely, especially experiments on meditators. He decides that optimism and pessimism, the use of time, perceptions of self, others, and the universe, are all factors in deciding what happiness is.
Ricard mentions that 15 per cent of Americans experience loneliness.
Anyone who cuts himself off from others and the universe, trapped in the bubble of his own ego, feels alone in the middle of a crowd. But those who understand the interdependence of all phenomena are not lonely; the hermit, for example, feels in harmony with the entire universe.
Ricard identifies ethics as a key to happiness, not the modern view of ethics as in what to do that is right or wrong, good or evil, but ethics in terms of what to be as a person, a human being. This trajectory takes us directly to the question of what is death, and how we can approach death not as the cessation of things we do but the completion of what we are. The author quotes “the Tibetan hermit and wandering bard Shabkar” and concludes with a testimony of his own life.
Some premises are not fully explored, but the book is a popularization, after all. There are existential and what Ricard would consider “pessimistic” sentiments that need expression in this debate. Religious faith can curtail human situations and simply present a given palette of “beyond happiness and suffering” (to cite a subheading in the book). Happiness and suffering are not absolutes of human good and evil, and the enormous task of life is to reconcile them with “mere” contentment or equanimity.