Double Happiness: Wisdom from Two Buddhist Teachers

M. Ricard and S. BoorsteinAugust 10, 2016HappinessPerSpectives

Buddhist teachers Matthieu Ricard and Sylvia Boorstein share two PerSpectives essays on KidSpirit’s summer theme.

To imagine happiness as the achievement of all your wishes and passions is to confuse the legitimate aspiration to inner fulfillment with a utopia that inevitably leads to frustration. In affirming that “happiness is the satisfaction of our desires” in all their “multiplicity,” “degree,” and “duration,” Kant dismisses it from the outset to the realm of the unachievable. When he insists that happiness is the condition of one for whom “everything goes according to his wish and will,” we have to wonder about the mystery whereby anything might “go” according to our wishes and will. It reminds me of a line I once heard in a gangster movie.

“I want what’s owed to me.”

“What’s owed to you, man?”

“The world, chico, and everything in it.”

Even if, ideally, the satisfaction of all our desires were achievable, it would lead not to happiness but to the creation of new desires or, just as likely, to indifference, disgust, or even depression. Why depression? If we were to convince ourselves that satisfying all our whims would make us happy, the collapse of that delusion would make us doubt the very existence of happiness. If I have more than I could possibly need and I am still not happy, happiness must be impossible. That’s a good example of how far we can go in fooling ourselves about the causes of happiness. The fact is that without inner peace and wisdom, we have nothing we need to be happy. Living on a pendulum between hope and doubt, excitement and boredom, desire and weariness, it’s easy to fritter away our lives, bit by bit, without even noticing, running all over the place and getting nowhere. Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things.

Among all the clumsy, blind, and extreme ways we go about building happiness, one of the most sterile is egocentrism. “When selfish happiness is the only goal in life, life soon becomes goalless,” wrote Romain Rolland. Even if we display every outward sign of happiness, we can never be truly happy if we dissociate ourselves from the happiness of others. This in no way requires us to neglect our own happiness. Our own desire for happiness is as legitimate as anyone else’s. And in order to love others we must learn to love ourselves. It’s not about swooning over the color of our own eyes, our figure, or some personality trait, but about giving due recognition to the desire to live each moment of existence as a moment of meaning and fulfillment. To love oneself is to love life. It is essential to understand that we make ourselves happy in making others happy.

In brief, the goal of life is a deep state of well-being and wisdom at all moments, accompanied by love for every being. True happiness arises from the essential goodness that wholeheartedly desires everyone to find meaning in their lives. It is a love that is always available, without showiness or self-interest. The immutable simplicity of a good heart.

Psychologists have long believed that mildly depressive people are “realistic” in their outlook. Optimists have a tendency to dwell longer on pleasant incidents than on painful situations and to overestimate their past performance and mastery of things.

This implies that the pessimist tends to go around with his eyes wide open and to assess situations more lucidly then the optimist. “Reality may not always be a barrel of laughs, but you have to see things the way they are,” he might say, whereas the optimist is a genial but incurably naïve dreamer. “Life will bring him down to earth soon enough,” we think. It so happens that this is not true; further studies have shown that pessimists’ objective, detached, and wary judgment is inadequate. When it’s a question of real situations drawn from daily life, the optimist’s approach is in fact more realistic and pragmatic than that of the pessimist. If, for example, a cross section of women who drink coffee are shown a report on the increased risk of breast cancer linked to caffeine, or if a cross section of sunbathers are informed that lying out in the sun increases the risk of skin cancer, a week later the optimists have better recall of the report’s details then the pessimists and have taken them more into account in their behavior. Moreover, they concentrate attentively and selectively on the risks that truly concerned them, rather than fretting vainly and ineffectually over everything. In this way, they remain more serene than the pessimists and gather their energies for real threats.

If we observe the way in which people perceive the events of their lives, appreciate the quality of the lived moment, and create their future by overcoming obstacles with an open and creative attitude, we find that the optimists have an undeniable advantage over the pessimists. Many studies show that they do better on exams, in their chosen profession, and in their relationships, live longer and in better health, enjoy a better chance of surviving postoperative shock, and are less prone to depression and suicide. A study was made of more than 900 people admitted to an American hospital in 1960. Their degree of optimism and other psychological traits were evaluated in tests and questionnaires. Forty years later, it turns out that the optimists lived 19% longer on average than the pessimists — some 16 years of added life for an octogenarian. Furthermore, Martin Seligman claims that pessimists are up to eight times more likely to become depressed when things go wrong; they do worse at school, sports, and most jobs than their talent would suggest. It was demonstrated that pessimism exacerbates depression and the other difficulties cited, and not the other way around; when such people are taught specifically to overcome pessimism by changing their outlook, they are markedly less subject to depressive relapse. There are definite reasons for this. Indeed psychologists describe pessimism as an “explanatory style” for the world that engenders “learned helplessness.”

An optimist is somebody who considers his problems to be temporary, controllable, and linked to a specific situation. He will say: “There’s no reason to make a fuss about it; these things don’t last. I’ll figure it out; in any case, I usually do.” The pessimist, on the other hand, thinks that his problems will last (“It’s not the sort of thing that just goes away”), that they jeopardize everything he does, and that they are out of his control (“What do you expect me to do about it?”). He also imagines that he has some basic inner flaw, and tells people: “Whatever I do, it always turns out the same way” and concludes: “I’m just not cut out to be happy.”

The sense of insecurity that afflicts so many people today is closely tied to pessimism. The pessimist is constantly anticipating disaster and falls victim to chronic anxiety and doubt. Morose, irritable, and nervous, he has no confidence in the world or in himself and always expects to be bullied, abandoned, and ignored.

Here is a pessimist’s parable. One fine summer’s day, a driver got a flat in the middle of the countryside. To add insult to injury, he found that he had no jack. The place was practically deserted. There was one solitary house in sight, halfway up the hill. After a minute’s hesitation, the traveler decided to go borrow a jack. As he climbed toward the house, he began to think, “What if the owner won’t lend me a jack? It would be pretty rotten to leave me in a fix.” As he slowly neared the house, he became more and more upset. “I would never do that to a stranger. It would be hateful!” Finally, he knocked on the front door and when the owner opened up, he shouted: “You can keep your jack, you jerk!”

The optimist, however, trusts that it is possible to achieve her goals and that with patience, resolve, and intelligence, she will ultimately do so. The fact is, more often than not, she does.

In everyday life the pessimist starts out with an attitude and refusal, even when it’s totally inappropriate. I remember a Bhutanese official I often had to deal with. Every time I asked him a question, he systematically prefaced his answers with, “no, no, no,” regardless of what he was going to say afterward, which gave our conversations a comic tone.

“Do you think we’ll be able to leave tomorrow morning?”

“No, no, no … be ready to leave at 9 AM.”

If pessimism and suffering were as immutable as fingerprints or eye color, it would be more sensitive to avoid trumpeting the benefits of happiness and optimism. But if optimism is a way of looking at life and happiness a condition that can be cultivated, one might as well get down to work without further delay. As Alain has written: “How marvelous human society would be if everyone added his own wood to the fire instead of crying over the ashes!”

Even if we are born with a certain predisposition to look for the silver lining, and even if the influence of those who raise us nudges our outlook toward pessimism more than optimism, our interpretation of the world can shift later on, and considerably, because our minds are flexible.

But there is an even deeper dimension to optimism, that of realizing the potential for transformation that is in every human being, regardless of his or her condition. It is that potential, in the end, that gives meaning to human life. The ultimate pessimism is in thinking that life in general is not worth living. The ultimate optimism lies in understanding that every passing moment is a treasure, in joy as in adversity. These are not subtle nuances but a fundamental difference in the way of seeing things. This divergence of perspective depends on whether or not we have found within ourselves the fulfillment that alone fuels inner peace.

This excerpt from Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is republished with the permission of Matthieu Ricard.

The first sentence in one of the Dalai Lama’s recent books is “The purpose of life is to be happy.” I was surprised when I first read that. I thought the sentence would end with the words “to serve.” As I have followed the Dalai Lama’s work for decades, his emphasis has always been on working for peace and justice in the world. I then realized that, of course, the whole of his teachings is based on his faith that peace and justice and the desire to serve are all the causes of happiness. I understand his basic premise to be that paying close attention (with one’s intellect as well as with one’s heart) reveals the truth that all human beings share the fundamental wish to feel safe and secure and to care for and celebrate one’s kin and community. Mindfulness, a principle practice that the Buddha taught, is the habit of paying careful, close, ongoing warm attention to all of our life experiences. The Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and Buddhists worldwide share the belief that if the world paid that kind of close attention to everything that is happening everyone would feel a kinship with human beings and share a dedication to rebuilding both the peace of the world and the health of the planet. A shared determination to do this rebuilding with each other, and on behalf of each other, would surely be the greatest happiness.

Here is a story I wrote nearly 20 years ago that illustrates the link between Mindfulness and happiness. It is called “The Powers of Practice,” and it’s in my book, Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake.

My grandson Collin’s sixth-grade teacher invited me to visit her class and talk to her students about the Buddha and meditation. They were completing a social studies unit on India. I was eager to present Mindfulness as non-mysterious, sensible, and useful because, first of all and most importantly, it is. Also, because I am Collin’s grandmother, I wanted to appear “regular.”

“Mindfulness is about paying attention,” I told them. “Think about how useful it is to be able to concentrate here in class. It’s much easier to finish your assignments, isn’t it, if you aren’t distracted by the people around you?”

I saw that all twenty-six students seemed to be smiling, nodding, agreeing. “And,” I continued, “when we pay attention carefully, we make wise decisions. Do you know what wise means?”

More nodding and smiling. “My grandpa wasn’t wise,” one girl said. “He kept on smoking cigarettes after he knew they were bad for him, and he got sick.” Other students joined in with stories of people they knew who were, or weren’t, wise.

“I heard,” one boy said politely, “that people who meditate can tell the future, or know your past, or even guess what you’re thinking right now.”

“That’s true,” I responded. “Some people do learn that skill by meditating, but Mindfulness is about paying attention.”

“I also heard,” the same boy continued, “that people who meditate can walk over hot coals or lie on beds of nails. We saw pictures of that in our book about India.”

“That’s true too,” I answered. “Sometimes people concentrate so hard that they don’t feel pain in the way we usually do. Then they can do those special things that you saw in your book to prove how concentrated they are. Mindfulness is different. Mindfulness is paying attention in an ordinary way.

“Collin said,” he went on, “that you once met a woman who was such a good meditator that she could walk through walls. Did you?”

“I did,” I said, laughing, appreciating how polite and persistent this young man was in pursuing his point. “She was old when I met her. She lived in Calcutta, but some of her students, who were my teachers, brought her to the United States so people here could meet her.”

“Did you talk to her?” he asked.

“I did,” I said.

“Did you see her walk through walls?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said. “I guess I thought that if my teachers said she did, then she did.”

“How did she do it?” he asked. I saw that everyone seemed very interested.

“Well, I’m not exactly sure,” I replied, “but what people said was that she concentrated so carefully that her molecules all dissolved and she could pass through walls and reconstitute herself on the other side.”

Everyone nodded as if that seemed reasonable. The questioner seemed content, and so the conversation continued on to questions about how to concentrate. We did some Mindfulness exercises, some sitting still with eyes closed, some standing and moving. Everyone seemed pleased. I had a good time. Three days later a large envelope arrived in my mail with twenty-six thank-you letters. Twenty-five began, “Dear Sylvia,” one began, “Dear Grandma,” and all of them were very enthusiastic and thoughtful, citing particular parts of my presentation.

“I especially enjoyed when we stood up and did mindfulness moving around.”

“I liked the stories you told about the Buddha.”

“What I‘ve been thinking about is how I can tell that I’m not paying attention when I’m not paying attention.”

One letter said:

Dear Sylvia,

Thank you for coming to visit our class. I enjoyed everything you said. But I’m still thinking about that woman who concentrated so hard she could walk through walls. And I’ve been wondering, what if she got distracted in the middle of walking through the wall? Would she get stuck in the wall forever?

Yours truly,


I loved Robert’s letter. In addition to being charmed by his uncomplicated, non-challenging, but nevertheless sincerely interested curiosity, I was delighted by his image of the perils of distraction. I realized how frequently I get stuck in walls! Mindfulness is paying attention in an ordinary way. I get stuck in walls of lust or yearning, thinking, “If only things were otherwise, then I would be happy.” Or I get stuck in walls of anger and resentment when things don’t go my way. Then, if I’m not careful, I begin to imagine scenarios of ever-so-subtle revenge, which further fatigue my mind and also humiliate me because I am, actually, a nice person.

Every day I bump into “mind walls,” walls that feel solid because the impact is painful. Only if I remember that these walls are the creations of my own mind and that I am continually building them by the stories I re-tell myself can I stop building. Then my mind relaxes and I see clearly. I see that the walls are empty, and then I walk right through them.

I also admired Robert’s determination. He persisted as long as his mind was confused. I imagine that wherever Robert is in his life now, his determination has served him well.

As I read this story now, I think that the most important lines are the ones “I can stop building” and [then] “the mind relaxes and I see clearly.” Seeing things clearly (in Pali, the language that the Buddha spoke) has been translated in modern texts as the word for wisdom. The specific wisdom that the Buddha taught was that happiness depends on being able to accept what painful challenges in life we cannot change while still rousing and committing ourselves to amending those challenges that can be changed. Wisdom and social activism for the good of all can be the cause of peace and justice in the world and ultimately the source of the highest happiness.

Born in France, Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who left a career in cellular genetics to study Buddhism in the Himalayas over 45 years ago. He is an international best-selling author and a prominent speaker on the world stage, celebrated at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the NGH forums at the United Nations, and at TED where his talks on happiness and altruism have been viewed by over six million people. His latest book, A Plea for Animals, will be released in the fall. As a trained scientist and Buddhist monk, he is uniquely positioned in the dialogue between East and West. He lives in Nepal and devotes all the proceedings of his books and activities to 140 humanitarian projects in Tibet, India, and Nepal. You can learn more about Dr. Ricard by visiting his website, You can learn more about his humanitarian projects at Sylvia Boorstein has been teaching Dharma and mindfulness meditation since 1985. She is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, a psychotherapist, wife, mother of four, and grandmother of seven. She is particularly interested in emphasizing daily life as mindfulness practice and including informed citizenship and social activism as integral to spiritual maturation. Her books include: It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness; Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There; Pay Attention for Goodness’s Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness; and Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life. For more information, please visit