The secrets of a happy life from Matthieu Ricard - the happiest person in the world
Everyone is in the proverbial path of pursuing happiness. Some look for it in money, some in material goods, others in success, yet some others in freedom of choice. But the big question is what is happiness and what is the key to it?
After several WhatsApp conversations and chats with my husband, friends and co-workers, I have tried my best to find the secret of a happy and content life. Not to say that these secrets are hard to find or impossible to achieve, just that they are in such small and simple things that it is incredibly difficult to pinpoint.
At least that is what I learned when I was introduced to Matthieu Ricard eight years ago. A Frenchman and a Buddhist monk, Ricard was touted by the media as the world’s happiest man. He, however, has dismissed this title in several interviews. But the man exudes calm, lives in the Himalayas, and speaks of simple ways to be content – which we often forget about as we struggle to balance life and work.
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While I don’t believe in spiritual gurus, I do believe in the ones who speak of simple things and changes that add value to my life.
This is why I am revisiting and sharing some of Ricard’s secrets. They have helped me through boring days and work, and on days I went looking for happiness in all the wrong places. They might help you too.
“We try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory.”
Whether it is the Twitter angst, the inherent injustice of social structures, or just a terrible boss, the only thing we can truly control is our own exposure or reaction to situations. The wisdom that life is a sum zero of good days and bad, trade-offs and proactive action on things we feel the need to change – they are the only things that are truly in our control. The rest is pointless pontificating.
“I think what everyone should be doing, before it's too late, is committing themselves to what they really want to do with their lives.”
I am not just talking about “quitting your job to following your passion”. I am talking about finding your purpose, your real interests, your life goals, and making them happen.
Often, the easiest thing to do in life is to fall into the weekday-weekend rut – five days of dealing with minor irritants to get to Friday so we can reward ourselves for going to work and doing our job. We end up doing things that often don’t really excite us much, because honestly, what is exciting about a mall visit or a stale screenplay of yet another mindless movie?
Do it if it makes you happy. But if it doesn’t, it is quite all right to not do the things that the whole world is doing. Does traveling make you happy? Save, plan, research, and set goals. Want to volunteer at the local NGO? Stop delaying and start this weekend. Doing nothing and just decompressing makes you feel better about life? There is nothing wrong with it. Instead of incessant complaints about how the work-life structure that someone thought up many years ago is not working for you, find a structure that does. If you can’t, find what makes you truly happy. It may be entirely different from what you have been conditioned to believe or what makes your cubicle mate happy. And recognising that is the first step to contentment.
“Another form of laziness is thinking: ‘That’s not for me; it’s beyond my abilities. I’d rather not get involved with it.’ In other words, you give up the race before you reach the starting line.”
Don’t underestimate the power of foolish bravery, if that is what it sounds like to you. You will not know what you can do till you try your hand at it. Letting go of fear is the first step to new experiences.
“Demanding immediate results is an aspect of unsteadiness of mind or laziness.”
All good things – contentment, success, happiness – take time and practice. The only place where instant gratification truly works is in the likes and loves of social media. As long as you are taking baby steps towards whatever it is that you are trying to achieve, you are all right. Learn to differentiate between a real dead end and moments that feel like one.
“Of course I get irritated. But I usually start laughing quite quickly at the irritation, because it’s so silly.”
From an annoying client to the neighbourhood vegetable vendor who starts his work at the top of his voice at 6 am, most of life’s minor irritants are a good source of laughter. And there is help on the internet to achieve this nirvana even if this sort of dry humour does not come naturally to us. This is perhaps why political memes and stand-up comedians are bigger than they ever have been. When you find a way to laugh at the oddness of simple, straightforward things going wrong, they are easier to deal with.
“Happiness does not come automatically. It is not a gift that good fortune bestows upon us and a reversal of fortune. It depends on us alone. One does not become happy overnight, but with patient labour, day after day. Happiness is constructed, and that requires effort and time. In order to become happy, we have to learn how to change ourselves.”
Like most good things – like mindfulness, time management and persistence to see through the bad times and boring days – happiness takes effort too. It is about making wise choices as far as our own perspective on problems is concerned. It is about understanding the very nature of trade-offs and gaining the ability to differentiate what we can or cannot change. It is a cultivated habit, one that takes months and often years to build.
Do you feel this is nothing you didn’t already know? Well, you’re probably right. Most of the lessons from the good gurus and motivational speakers are almost always about common sense.
And yet, when things don’t go our way, it is not difficult to let go of this perspective. It is important to remember what Peter Drucker, Austrian-born American management consultant, educator and author, said about situations that are not in our control – only the person who has the power to make that decision has the power, not everyone who is affected by it. He/She may not be the best person, the fairest person, or even the sanest person, but our workplaces and often, our public infrastructure and services are built on this premise.
From here, we have only two options – either fight for change or let it go. And as Marshall Goldsmith, American leadership coach puts it, “Change what you can change and make peace with what you can't. Remember this mantra: Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic? If that answer is yes, no matter how challenging it may be, no matter how big that hill may seem, if that answer is yes, you go for it. If the answer is, no, take a deep breath and let it go.”
Happiness does not have to be hard or elusive, least of all when among all your options you choose happiness. Give it a try. You never know when it will become a habit for you as it did for me – on most days at least. After all, I am only human.