matthieu ricard: happiness is compatible with sadness10 Sep 2017
another idea covered by matthieu ricard in his on being interview was about the nature of happiness. and the particular thought that had me shook was the idea that happiness can actually encompass sadness. it’s a fairly complex intellectual journey to get to that conclusion, but essentially it involves a reframing of what happiness is. below is an extended excerpt of a big piece of ricard’s explanation, but for me the key parts are these.
"... people sometimes imagine that constant happiness will be a kind of euphoria or endless succession of pleasant experiences." not only does that not make sense, but it wouldn’t even be possible. many people have an unexamined definition of happiness. but we’re told/encouraged to seek it endlessly. endless pleasure isn’t actually even pleasure. anyone who has tried to have sex immediately after having an orgasm knows this to be true. you actually need recovery time.
"[happiness can] Encompass every mental state except those who are just opposite, which is like despair, hatred, precisely the mental factors that will destroy inner peace, inner strength, inner freedom." that means happiness can include things that contribute to inner peace, strength, and freedom but aren’t pleasurable. this actually makes a ton of sense to me and makes things like enlightenment, nirvana, and the love of christianity all feel realistic. maybe heaven isn’t a place where there is endless pleasure, but a place where happiness (as defined in ricard’s framework) is achieved by all.
ps - i’m super hungover from uhuru. this is awful. =\
Ms. Tippett: … we also live in this culture where the word “happiness” gets completely watered down. And so I want to just talk about how you define happiness, because we have to put a lot of preconceptions aside.
Mr. Ricard: Yeah, it is very important, because that’s why, also, this word is so vague.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it’s a problem.
Mr. Ricard: That you can use it — “buy this toothpaste, and you’ll be happy” and — OK, good luck. So I think we should clearly see what are the inner conditions that foster a genuine sense of flourishing, of fulfillment, that the quality of every instant of your life has a certain quality that you appreciate fully. So you see, it’s very different from — people sometimes imagine that constant happiness will be a kind of euphoria or endless succession of pleasant experiences. But that’s more like a recipe for exhaustion than happiness.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Mr. Ricard: And also, if you look at the parameters, this is very different. Pleasure depends very much on circumstances, what triggers it. Then it’s a sensation, in a way. So sensations change from pleasurable to neutral and to unpleasurable. I mean even the most pleasurable thing — you eat something very delicious. Once, it’s delicious. Two, three times, OK. And then ten times, you get nauseous. You are very cold and shivering. You come near a bonfire, such a delight. But then, after a few minutes, you start — OK, then you move back. It’s too hot. The most beautiful music, you hear it five times, 24 hours, it’s a nightmare. And also, it’s something that basically doesn’t radiate to others. You can experience pleasure at the cost of others’ suffering. So it’s very vulnerable to the change of outer circumstances. It doesn’t help you to face the outer circumstances better.
Now if we think of happiness as a way of being, a way of being that gives you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life, that pervades all the emotional states, including sadness. If we think of sadness as incompatible with pleasure, but it’s compatible with what? With altruism, with inner strength, with inner freedom, with sense of direction and meaning in life — those aren’t sad things. But if you don’t fall in despair, still you maintain that wholeness and that sense of purpose and meaning.
Ms. Tippett: So happiness also, the way you describe it, it’s something that can encompass sadness and grief.
Mr. Ricard: Can what?
Ms. Tippett: Encompass, contain these things.
Mr. Ricard: Encompass every mental state except those who are just opposite, which is like despair, hatred, precisely the mental factors that will destroy inner peace, inner strength, inner freedom. If you are under the grip of hatred, you are not free. You are the slave of your own thoughts. So that’s not freedom. Therefore, this is opposite to genuine flourishing and happiness. So we have to distinguish mental factors which contribute to that way of being, the cluster of qualities like altruistic love, inner freedom, and so forth from those who undermine that, which is like jealousy, obsessive desire, hatred, arrogance. We call that “mental toxins,” because they poison our happiness and also make us relate to others in a poisonous way. So that’s something that you can cultivate, unlike pleasure. You don’t cultivate pleasure, but happiness in that sense is a skill.
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