Are you the happiest person in the world?

By Matthieu Ricard on November 20, 2009

This is really a joke. Of course, it is better than being called the unhappiest person in the world, but this assertion is absolutely not based on scientific findings.

Some years ago, the Australian television network ABC made a documentary on happiness, in which I participated. At some point, the commentator announced: ‟Here is perhaps the happiest person in the world.” Things remained quiet for a while, but a few years later the English newspaper The Independent published a cover story about me entitled ‘The happiest person in the world.' From then on, things spun out of control.

The journalist had based his story on the fact that I had been participating for several years in some research in neuroscience labs in the USA, in particular that of Richard Davidson at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. It was found that when long-term meditators engaged in meditation on compassion, the activity in some areas of the brain increased to a magnitude that had never before been described in neuroscience. Some of these activated brain areas were known to be related to positive emotions. More than fifteen experienced meditators showed similar results, but I happened to be one of the first to participate in the experiment. That's all.

When the story was published in various newspapers, I tried to make a disclaimer, but quite in vain. I apologized to my scientist friends, and now I try to take this assertion with philosophy and amusement. When asked about it, I usually reply that anyone can be the happiest man or woman in the world, provided he or she looks for happiness in the right place. Authentic happiness can only come from the long-term cultivation of wisdom, altruism, and compassion, and from the complete eradication of mental toxins, such as hatred, attachment, and ignorance.