The happiness skill: How to develop your most neglected ability

Achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love.

Matthieu Ricard

Learning that about the happiness skill was life changing for me. Before reading the book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill*, I thought happiness was either a state of being, an emotional state or a mood, that you worked toward to attain. In other words, I used to think of happiness as a goal.

Matthieu Ricard turned that upside down. A trained cellular genetics scientist, he became a Buddhist monk, advancing the study of contemplative practices. In his book, he analyzes and then redefines happiness as a skill.

Most importantly, he explains that the happiness skill is something you can practice 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 can you cultivate this skill?

Not surprisingly, Ricard 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, however, find meditation to be challenging. So, I’d like to highlight another method, a different sort of meditation that he suggests in his book.

Happiness skill building 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.

Your turn

How do you manage your thoughts and negative emotions or cultivate a happy mind?

Knitting notes

I practiced my happiness skill as I finished off a tomato hat gift!

An older version of this book note was first published in May 2015.

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