Stacy’s Book Note on Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Reading the book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill* was life-changing for me. I used to believe that happiness is a state of being, an emotional state, or a mood that you worked toward attaining. I used to think of happiness as a goal.

Matthieu Ricard is a cellular genetics scientist turned Buddhist monk who has helped advance the study of contemplative practices. In his book, he analyzes then redefines happiness as a skill, one that that needs to be consciously practiced every day.

Such skill-building requires understanding that happiness is not the absence of suffering, but a cultivation of the mind to maintain a sense of inner peace in spite of suffering:

“It’s worth repeating that one can suffer physically or mentally — by feeling sad, for instance — without losing the sense of fulfillment that is founded on inner peace and selflessness. There are two levels of experience here, which can be compared respectively to the waves and the depths of the ocean. A storm may be raging at the surface, but the depths remain calm. The wise man always remains connected to the depths. On the other hand, he who knows only the surface and is unaware of the depths is lost when he is buffered by the waves of suffering.”

So how do you practice happiness? How do you cultivate this skill? Ricard, of course, recommends mediation as a way of training the mind. In his book, he offers a variety of exercises to help you engage in this process.

I’ve found, however, that many busy women and parents find meditation challenging. So, I’d like to highlight another method (a different sort of meditation) he suggests in his book.

A guide to developing happiness for busy people

Ricard recommends we nurture an “enhanced awareness of the formation of thoughts.” I interpreted this as a two-step process, with the second step having three options:

  1. Acknowledge the negative emotions that naturally arise when something bad happens:

    First, we have to focus our mind our mind on the raw power of inner suffering…. When a painful emotion strikes us, the most urgent thing is to look at it head-on and to identify the immediate thoughts that triggered and fanning it.

    He offers an analogy: If someone punches you, it hurts, so acknowledge the pain. I see this as simple as saying, “Ouch, that hurt.” or “This really doesn’t feel good,” rather than attempting to plow ahead ignoring the pain.

  2. Identify the mental activity stemming from the negative emotions that keeps us suffering (e.g. hanging on to hurt feelings of being punched long after the physical pain has subsided) and then overcome them through “familiarization work”:

    The three principal ways are antidotes, liberation, and utilization. The first consists of applying a specific antidote to each negative emotion. The second allows us to unravel, or “liberate” the emotion by looking straight at it and letting it dissolve as it arises. The third uses the raw power of an emotion as a catalyst for inner change.

An example of an antidote might be “habituating your mind to altruistic love” (maybe feeling compassion for victims) in order to eliminate feelings of hatred (say for their oppressor). An example of liberation might be recognizing the anger you feel for someone who hurt you as “a high fever. It is a temporary condition and you don’t need to identify with it.” Finally, an example of utilization might be to recognize and use the positive facets of anger: “Anger arouses us to action and often allows us to overcome obstacles. It also contains aspects of clarity, focus, and effectiveness that are not harmful in and of themselves.”

This book note does not do this book justice. I hope you’ll take a peek at it at your local book store or maybe purchase it online from IndieBound or Amazon.

How do you manage your thoughts and negative emotions or cultivate a happy mind? I’d love to hear from you.

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*Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links” where I receive a small commission from any purchases at no cost to you. Some of these funds will be donated to organizations supporting women and girls.