The Happiest Man in the World


Matthieu Ricard isn’t your ordinary person. An ex-geneticist who earned his PhD at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1972, he renounced the academic life and spent more than three decades training his mind so that we can better understand how to cultivate happiness.

And the results from the latest study of Ricard’s brain are staggering.

Looking at the intrinsic brain activity while meditating on compassion, scientists at the University of Wisconsin have observed the highest levels of gamma waves ever recorded in the neuroscience literature from Ricard’s brain. The study also looked at brain activity of over 100 advanced meditators, many of whom had more than 50,000 rounds of meditation experience. But none were able to reach the level produced by Ricard.

Gamma waves play a vital role in cognitive functioning. Their propagation through the brain acts as a type of neuronal synchronizer, binding together distributed networks and focusing them towards an object of attention. Scientist have proposed that gamma waves are able to resolve the ‘binding problem’ of neuroscience – how sensory information processed in sensory-specific areas of the brain are unified into a single conscious experience. Their role in consciousness is so critical, that if gamma waves stop emitting from an area of the brain called the thalamus, conscious awareness is lost and the person slips into a deep coma.

For Ricard, this implies that he is able to focus and coordinate the endogenous signals of his brain towards a single concept, percept or conscious experience. Whether concentrating on compassion or happiness, it is hard to imagine that in such a state anything but the object of focus is able to enter Ricard’s awareness.

The study also found an extreme asymmetry between brain activity originating from his left prefrontal cortex compared to his right. This asymmetry has been shown to correlate with positive emotions, while it’s counterpart – stronger activity in the right prefrontal cortex – is related to negative emotions. Putting this finding together with the high levels of gamma waves, it suggests that Ricard is able to generate such a focused state of compassion that his brain responds by producing an extreme level of positive emotions.

Despite these results, Ricard says that he is not unique. He teaches that similar levels of compassion can be obtained by anyone willing to take the time and effort. Ricard attributes his incredible abilities to neuroplasticity due to meditation training and is working with scientists around the globe to show how the brain changes its structure and function in response to meditation.

While Ricard’s place as the world’s happiest man is fascinating, the bigger take away from the University of Wisconsin study is that long-term experience with meditation is not necessary to induce neuroplasticity. The scientists found that as little as twenty minutes a day for three weeks can start to reshape the patterns of the brain and increase levels of positive emotions.

The question is – what are you going to do with the next twenty minutes of your day?

Square Breathing

In the caffeine infused madness of the work day, it’s easy to forget to stop and take a moment to breathe. Here is a simple one minute technique to reset your mind and fuel creativity.

The Square Breath

  1. Sit in a quiet environment (or at your desk if you can’t get away)
  2. Inhale while slowly counting to four
  3. Hold your breath for the same count of four
Exhale, again slowing counting to four
  5. Hold your lungs empty for a count of four
  6. Repeat as many times as you like

In essence, you want to create a square with your breath. As you do this, try to focus as much attention as possible on the act of breathing. Afterwards, thank yourself for taking a minute to reorient yourself to your body and the present.

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Combinatorial Knowledge and Reading in Spheres

Girl reading

Knowledge expresses itself as a fusion of pre-existing ideas. Much like a 26 character alphabet allows us to write the sonnets of Shakespeare or the lyrics to Stupid Hoe (thanks Nicki Minaj…), our own thinking involves permutations of basic elements into fascinating combinations.

We are experts in synthesizing our exposure and experiences in the world into new forms of expression – true artists realize this and embrace it as part of the creative process. Picasso said ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. This wasn’t a proclamation of intellectual theft, but rather an acknowledgement that ideas develop through collisions with one another.

This is the essence of our remix culture and a trending motif behind art and science as we enter the 21st century.

Once acknowledged, how can we capitalize on this feature of our mind in order to facilitate growth?

A strategy that I’ve developed recently (and recommend here) is to outline tiered reading structures that embrace the synthetic nature of our thoughts to streamline creative insight.

This reading structure involves defining key spheres of knowledge that you’re interested in. Then, you devote a portion of your reading time each day to exposing yourself to something in each sphere. This allows your mind to blend the ideas and words together, and give new perspectives to your life and the world around you.

For me as a cognitive neuroscientist working on spatial cognition, I’ve identified the following three areas –

The specialized sphere. This is where I list readings that are specific to my work. It mainly involves peer-reviewed articles covering novel research experiments in spatial cognition and neuro-imaging. Anything that deals with methodology and the operationalization of spatial concepts in cognitive psychology.

The adjacent sphere. This is where I list any readings that are not directly related to my topic of interest, but that are related ideas or meta-structures for my thinking. Books on network theory, general systems philosophy, embodied cognition all find home here. The point of this sphere is to give some adjacent context to my specialized readings, allowing the ideas within to find new synthetic frames to develop. Steven Johnson in his book Where Ideas Come From has an excellent discussion on the necessity of adjacency in the emergence of ideas.

The remote (but interesting) sphere. This is my bucket list of books. Novels, ideas, anything that I want to be exposed to before I die. Currently, it’s filled with books on sci-fi civilizations, the secrets of happiness, stock market & investing and novels about parallel universes. The key here is to follow your interests, acknowledging that highly importance and influential ideas often emerge by following hunches, interests and everything that you love.

The amazing thing about this reading strategy isn’t that creativity is accelerated (although it is), but that you start to see just how connected and networked every idea is in our world.

Eudaemonia and the Happiness of Reasons

For much of history, the idea of happiness was construed as a thing to be obtained – a platonic ideal to be sought through a life in accordance with various philosophical views.

Happiness was to be pursued, rather than experienced.

This view reached is pinnacle in western culture, when Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that happiness (for them, hedonism) could be understood quantitatively through a Hedonic Calculus that maximized the hedonism obtained from actions. People could derive the experiences that are likely to lead to happiness and engineer their lives towards seeking them.

Pause for a second and think about this. How good are you at predicting happiness?

For most of us, we are startlingly unable to accurately predict what will make us happy. This has led Daniel Gilbert, a renown Harvard psychologist, to propose that happiness shouldn’t be pursued. Rather, it should be stumbled upon.

Sure, we may be able to approximate the likelihood of us experiencing an event in a happy state, but this is little more than a post-hoc attempt to predict the future based on past experiences. This goes again the role of novelty in happiness: the idea that we are biologically wired to seek growth and new experiences in our world.
So perhaps a better question to ask is: how can you engineer your life to increase the likelihood of stumbling on happiness?

The answer comes in almost direct opposition to Bentham’s and Mill’s Hedonic Calculus. It’s called eudaemonic well-being and is one of the most important concepts in modern psychology.

The core tenant of eudaemonic well-being is summarized nicely in Neitzsche’s aphorism He who has a why can survive any how.

Through structuring your life around meaningful goals, purpose and personal desire, we are able to reframe almost any experience into a positive interpretation – experiences are seen as being necessary to achieve our goal. While Neitzsche structured his aphorism to emphasize how purpose can help people persist in the face of adversity, it has the corresponding effect of generating experiences that lead to greater happiness.

Each moment of our life is seem as being a progression, a necessary stepping stone to further growth and self actualization.

Research in positive psychology has supported this view, showing that people who organize their life around developing eudaemonic well-being (that is, have both long and short term life goals) are more autonomous, healthy and perhaps most important, happy.