Matthieu Ricard was born into an intellectual French
family; his mother was an abstract painter and his father a
After earning a doctorate in molecular genetics at the
Pasteur Institute, he moved to the Himalayas and became a
In addition to 50 years of practicing as a monk, Ricard
is a best-selling author, a close associate of the Dalai Llama,
and a collaborator on cutting-edge scientific
Ricard has been given the title “the happiest man in
If happiness is a form of success, you might look to Matthieu
Ricard. Neuroscientists found that the Tibetan Buddhist monk and
best-selling author has some of the highest levels of positive
emotions of anyone they’ve ever studied. Hence the media started
calling him “the happiest man alive.” He doesn’t buy it, but he
can’t shake the title.
“Maybe when I die there will be on my tomb: ‘Here lies the
happiest man in the world,'” he joked.
On this episode of “Success!
How I Did It,” a different view of how to make it. Business
Insider’s senior strategy reporter Richard Feloni spoke with
Ricard while he was promoting his new book, “Beyond the Self,”
which he wrote with neuroscientist Wolf Singer.
For the past 50 years, Ricard has lived in Nepal, often with no
electricity or running water, and yet monkhood has hardly meant
isolation up in the Himalayas. He’s become a best-selling author
and given not one but two viral TED Talks. He’s also found his
way into the Dalai Lama’s inner circle.
But to Ricard, none of that is a measure of success. He spoke
with Feloni about all that and more.
Listen to the full episode:
Following is a transcript, which has been edited for
From French intellectual society to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery
Feloni: The name of this podcast is “Success!
How I Did It,” and you’re perhaps the only guest who would object
to being called “successful.”
Ricard: Maybe not! I mean, it all depends on the
definition of success. Is it simply becoming the richest, most
powerful, most famous, most beautiful, most everything?
Success, personally, I feel, is an attempt of personal
flourishing. That means fulfilling the deepest aspiration you
might have in life. And then when you have gained some kind of
inner strength, freedom, and, you know, you have the resources to
deal with the ups and downs of life, then you’ll feel less
vulnerable, then the success is actually translated into serving
society, serving others. So to transform yourself to serve
others, if you can bring that to an optimal point, then, for me,
that’s what you call “success.”
Feloni: You were born in France in 1946 to a
famous writer and a painter, and they were involved in
intellectual society. You got to meet people, like the composer
Igor Stravinsky and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. What
was that like? Were seeds planted to become who you are today?
Ricard: Well, in a way, it was eye-opening. It
was more retrospectively, because there was a kind of, you know,
fascination. You look at those persons, they are eminent in their
own field, but even though there were extraordinary genius in
their own way. But that would not correlate, obviously, with the
basic human quality that is the thing to really appreciate in
So you could have, if you take a hundred philosophers, a hundred
gardeners, a hundred musicians, a hundred scientists — you find,
more or less, the same distribution of very good people. And
people who, you know, don’t feel very well to be with. And
sometimes obnoxious people. And you say: “Are they a role model
not just because of their specialty but as a human being?” And
the answer is no. Then you wonder, “Well, then who could be a
role model, who could have this coherence between their
knowledge, their skills, their wisdom, and the way they are?”
So there was the big difference when I met great men and women of
wisdom — suddenly, you know, there was a complete coherence
between themselves and their teachings, or what they are supposed
to represent, which was like wisdom and compassion, because they
were embodying it every single moment. You cannot, you know, say,
“Oh, this is a great spiritual master. What a pity so nervous,
angry, jealous.” It doesn’t work! [Laughs]
Feloni: Yeah, it seems to be kind of a mature
insight that you had as a young person into this idea of success
and meaning. What were you like as a kid growing up?
Ricard: Well, I mean, I was, you know, basically
like any other kid. Yes, I had some kind of interest in a lot of
things, like birdwatching, astronomy, sailing, skiing, music. I
played a lot of classical music. So, yes, I had that lively youth
as teenager. At the same time, you know, this is the age where
you know what you don’t want your life to be like. I mean, it’s
boring, meaningless, sort of the sense of, yes, failure in the
sense of not accomplishing anything worth it. But you don’t
really know what really could be the way to have a fulfilled
Feloni: What was your first exposure to
Buddhism, and what did it answer for you?
Ricard: So when I was teenager, I was sort of
broadly interested in what we call “spirituality,” but it’s only
when I traveled I just knew, in 1967, and thanks to having seen
some documentaries on all the great masters and met them — that
suddenly I realized “OK, here are men and women of great wisdom
of great compassion, who exemplify, you know, freedom and
bringing human quality to the optimal state.” So that, that
brought me a sense of, “OK, here are masters, are people I know.
I can walk with them through their guidance, a kind of path to
become a better human being.
Feloni: Was embracing Buddhism almost a
rebellion against the kind of thought and philosophy that you
were exposed to at that time?
Ricard: No, I never felt the idea of rebellion,
or people say, “Oh, you left, you know, the life in Paris, you
left Pasteur Institute.” When you do — which I do often now,
walking in the mountains in the Himalayas — when you leave a
valley, you come to a mountain pass and you come to discover from
the top of the pass a beautiful valley with some lakes and
forest, you know. So you suddenly discover something very
inspiring. You are not thinking, “I’m rejecting, abandoning the
valley” — which you had been crossing, that also had some
So simply, it’s a new phase of life, new, a new landscape. And
so, yes, so it’s more like discovering something new and feeling
very enthusiastic about it, rather than just sort of a negative
idea of giving up, rejecting, abandoning.
Feloni: And you decided to finish your studies
before moving to the Himalayas. Before you made that move, were
there any doubts in your mind?
Ricard: No, I think it was a good timeline. I
guess if I had left too early, somehow it was like, you know,
making a mess of all the efforts my parents had made. They were
not very wealthy to give me an education. So it would have looked
like sort of breaking something.
It also gave me time to mature that decision clearly. I never had
any hesitation. It’s like, you ask if a fruit or pear that is
maturing on the tree if it ever has hesitation. But at some point
you don’t have to pull and break the branch to get the fruit.
It’s just … touch it, and it falls in your hands. So when
something is ready. I just feel so fortunate that at 26 I could
leave and spend those now 50 years with those great masters. I
mean, I would not want to change any of that. And I congratulate
myself at all times that I was able to do that.
Returning home, and stumbling into fame by writing a book
with his dad
Feloni: So you’re able to study these masters in
the rest of your 20s, and you became a monk when you were age 30.
Not too long after that you’re able to go back home and visit.
What was it like going from this completely different lifestyle
back home to France?
Ricard: I won’t say cultural shock, but things
had changed. There were new big towers in Paris, and I remember
going to a radio or something. It was one of the main ones. And I
said, “Oh, you’re on FM now?” And they sort of looked at me as if
to say, “Where’s he coming from, this guy?” “We are on the FM for
the last 10 years.”
Feloni: And then you and your father, you
collaborated on the book “The Monk and the Philosopher,” and this
is a dialogue between you and your father exploring concepts of
Buddhism and how they relate to other ways of looking at the
world. What was that experience like?
Ricard: So he came for 10 days and we went to a
resort. We made a list of topics, and then it was a very lovely
sort of 10 days where we just recorded. Nobody else was with us.
We were walking in the forest, recording.
And then so his main point was he noticed that Buddhism became
quite popular in the West, and he was wondering why, as a
philosopher. And you realized that, you know, from his
perspective, the Greek philosopher has three goals: What can I
know? How to govern the city? And how to live my life? And he
said “What can I know?” is mostly science getting the answers.
“How should I govern the govern the city?” You know, democracy,
of course — it is to be used properly, but still compared to any
other, anything else, is the best system.
And then, “How should I lead my life?” He felt that most of
Western philosophers had given up that. And they were starting to
bring a lot of big philosophical sort of systems, which didn’t
tell you anything about how to become a good human being. So he
had the insight that Buddhism was bringing some answer for our
modern time which was very … a sign of being very open minded
for someone like him.
And actually through our discussion he became quite convinced
that it was the case. Of course, he didn’t buy into the other
aspect of Buddhism, about the nature of consciousness, about all
kinds of things, that it’s just a little bit more like “Buddhist
business.” But as a way of being, as an art of life, he was quite
very positive about that. So it was wonderful for me, and I think
he said to someone before dying that it’s something that, that
really mattered to him at the end of his life.
Feloni: So this was not only a great experience
between you and your father, but the book became a best-seller in
France. So this changed your life.
Ricard: Yes, well, sometimes I jokingly said,
“It’s either the beginning of a completely new opportunity, or
the beginning of my troubles.” Because from a very, very quiet
life, living on a shoestring — I was living on, like, $50 a
month, but of course perfectly well in a little hermitage with no
electricity, no heating, no running water. But I can’t remember
any uncomfort. It was such a beautiful time of my life, those
seven years there. But certainly it was a big change, because
from one day to the other you became recognizable in the street —
because we did, I don’t know, 15 TV [appearances].
And also it shows you, somehow, if people are defining the terms
of “success,” how artificial this is! Because you, you didn’t
change over one week. I’m just the same guy. Nobody was at all
caring anything about me. So you don’t get a big head because you
know very well it’s because you have been on TV and radio, not
because you became sensational overnight. So that, I think, was a
good lesson. I always take it with a grain of salt.
But also I thought, How could this be used in a positive way? So
there were two things. One was to share ideas which are very dear
to me. And I think there many wonderful ideas in Buddhist
philosophy that can be applied to humanity.
The second thing is, because of the books and starting to do
things here and there, I saw some resources coming my way. So I
thought, Well, I don’t need them basically, I have no land, no
house, no car, so why not do something useful with that as well?
Philanthropists joined us, and we decided to create an
organization called Karuna Shechen. And now we’re helping
about 300,000 people in India, Nepal, and eastern Tibet with
health, social services, education.
So it is wonderful. At the same time it gave a life which become
a little bit hectic. I mean, 80 boarding passes in a year. So, I
thought, “OK, 20 years, ’97, 2017, maybe it’s time to — just as I
left Pasteur Institute, to explore, not give up — but you know,
somehow explore a new way of, for the last few years of, I might
be alive or not. I don’t know.
Feloni: And the Dalai Lama himself, he takes
this approach, where he uses his public profile to share
teachings of compassion and altruism with people even if they’re
nonbelievers. And so you work with him closely. You’re his French
translator. What was it like when you first met him?
Working with the Dalai Lama, and getting called ‘the
happiest man in the world’
Ricard: So, my second teacher, Dilgo Khyentse
Rinpoche, was a teacher to the Dalai Lama. Since I was close to
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the two to three monks that were
always with him, so then I became quite intimate with His
Holiness, and he was always extremely kind with me. So then it
happens once: I happened to be in Paris when he was there. And
normally, interpreting would go, he was in Tibet, and someone
would translate in English, a third person in French. So he saw
me he said, “OK, you translate,” because by then I spoke Tibetan.
So then, like, out of the blue, I became his French interpreter,
and I have been since then, with great gratitude.
It’s an immense teaching to be with him because he’s the perfect
example of someone with absolutely the same in private and in
public. When we see so many things today, you know these days of
scandals, of people’s secret, terrible life. He’s totally the
same. He will be the same with the lady who cleans the floor in
the hotel and with the head of state he’s going to see an hour
later. It’s a human being. This is a common humanity. Really
doesn’t make any difference. He’s as concerned with the cleaning
lady and the head of state. So that’s an incredible lesson.
Feloni: In the year 2000, this is when you
became involved with studying the neurological effects of
meditation. That’s something that the Dalai Lama himself is
really involved in. What was that like, being involved in these
studies where you’re hooking up these things to your head?
Ricard: So, you know, Dalai Lama said if he had
not been Dalai Lama, he would have been an engineer or a
scientist. He always had this interest for … it’s part of the
idea of exploring reality. So knowing that, some wonderful
scientists, like the neuroscientist Francisco Varela said, “Well,
why don’t we help the Dalai Lama to meet great scientists, and
maybe there is mutual benefit?” So this Mind and Life Institute
began like that, I think, almost 30 years ago.
And in 2000 there was a meeting in Dharamsala, in India, on
destructive emotion, and there, there were all the great
scientists. So they asked me to come and present the Buddhist
perspective on emotion. Which is kind of funny to do that in
front of the Dalai Lama, but, you know, I got used to it.
So then the Dalai Lama said, “Oh, it’s very good, all what we do
and discuss those five days, but what can we contribute to
society in a secular way that could be, you know, spread into
schools, in society, in companies, something that can really help
people for flourish?” So then there was a brainstorming, and the
idea of bringing very good scientist with long-term meditators to
do serious research on meditation.
So because I was a scientist in training, and I was there, I say,
“OK, I’m happy to participate in that.” I went to Madison,
Wisconsin, and that’s the first time I started to go in MRI’s,
and now I think I have been in possibly more in MRI’s that anyone
I know, over 100 hours.
So it’s really a very lively sort of collaboration, because we
sort of designed the protocol together. You know, you study
meditation — but what meditation, what kind of meditation? How
long you need to get into that state. How long takes to get out
of it. So that they need to know that in order to establish the
way they you look in your brain. Many of those scientists made a
point to include someone like me as the coauthor of the
scientific paper to show that it’s not just a guinea pig but
really participating to the conception of the research, and
interpretation of the research. It’s a wonderful collaboration.
Feloni: So something that you want to pass on to
people is giving them this ability to change themselves through
Ricard: One thing I would love to share is,
definitely, that we vastly underestimate the power of
transformation of mind. We spend so much energy and dedication to
improve outer condition — which should be, you know, we should
remedy poverty, social injustice, inequalities, fight for freedom
and so forth, but we don’t spend — far, far from it — spend the
same amount of dedication to become a better human being by
cultivating qualities, whether it’s altruism, compassion,
resilience, emotional intelligence, all those really crucial
qualities for a good life and what you would call “success” —
what I would call “success” — those are skills, and you can
enhance them by becoming more familiar again and again and again
Meditation is one way of doing it, which is bringing to mind
again and again compassion and dealing with thoughts more
intelligently and so forth. So that’s something we should not
Feloni: You’ve had several best-selling
books. You’ve had a very popular TED Talk — a couple actually.
Something that the Western media always loves to tag you with is
“happiest man in the world.” This is kind of like the MO — no
matter how much you try to object against it.
Ricard: And there was some initial trigger, that
we were working on the effect of compassion — it was not even
‘”happiness” — on the brain. And it is true that as the first
guinea pig and then many others followed after me. But there was
a quite … unusual, amplitude of gamma waves in the brain, never
described in neuroscience of a magnitude that was unheard of,
when meditators engaged in this unconditional compassion to all
So there was a thousandfold increase. So and then compassion and
loving kindness are related to, well, being. You know, if you are
altruistic, you are more likely to be happy — that is, than if
you are selfish.
So then there was a documentary made by the Australian television
ABC, and at one point they came to Nepal and sort of followed me.
And then at the end they said, “Maybe this is the happiest person
in the world.” So it went away for three years, and suddenly a
journalist for The Independent in England made the cover story,
first page: “Mr. Happy has been blah, blah, blah.” So instead of
just vanishing as a funny thing, like it just went viral, and
that’s just it. I made this disclaimer but nobody is interested
I guess people find it, like, “Well it’s a neat idea, it’s so
good! No, not the one who jumps highest or run fastest,” but it
doesn’t take a long time to realize that it is … it cannot be!
It’s impossible to say that, because how could you know about 7
billion human beings? How some you don’t know that somewhere in
the mountains, in somewhere in Africa, there is an old lady that
is incredibly happy. I have no idea!
Feloni: Reporters — they can’t let go of a good
Ricard: I’ve got the BBC calling me at midnight:
“What does it feel like?” And I say, “Well, you can be the
happiest woman or man in the world if you look for happiness in
the right place, and happiness is a skill. So please, do
cultivate it, by all means.”
First, I apologized to my scientist friends because they might
think I spread the rumor, very embarrassing. But one of my
teachers said — because it came again and again — we were in
Korea and again the newspaper brought that story. So he said,
“Let it be, you know, don’t go against it. And then you use it
for spreading good ideas about compassion, about solidarity,
about transforming your mind. So why not.” It’s a kind of
platform. And maybe when I die, there will be on my tomb: “Here
Lies The Happiest Person In The World.” It’s better than to be
called the “Unhappiest One.” But again, it’s kind of a sweet
The power of mediation, and other steps to help with your own
Feloni: Yeah. And if that’s how you’re measuring
your success, by how many people you can reach, how much good you
Ricard: Well, there are two kinds of success.
One is how much you can better a good person, and that my part is
still, still a lot to travel, to what Buddhism calls “awakening,”
a sort of inner perfection. But at least I have the deep
confidence that I am in the right direction, thanks to my
teachers. So success is measuring how much endeavor, progress I
feel I make, and have a lot to do, but I’m so sort of grateful
that I’m able to progress step by step. So that’s for me the
inner success, personal success.
And then I would measure outer success of, how much good you can
do in the world. You know, in a modest way, in my case. But if I
can do something either through spreading ideas or, you know,
having started with friends and collaborators the humanitarian
projects, some way I’m sort of, it becomes sort of beyond me,
when I hear that we help 200,000 people every year. So I didn’t
really help them with hands — on, something happened, it was a
catalyst and somehow I was part of that so, I just rejoice. And
so I think that’s a … rejoicing in the things you have been
doing in your life and also the blessing that you got in your
life. That’s, I think, a good measure of success.
Feloni: A lot of the people we interview are
business people. They measure success by how much money they
bring to themselves or to their company, as well as kind of
always pursuing a new business project. Can you have both?
Ricard: Well, it depends. If you if you look for
fulfillment, happiness, and flourishing — it’s well known that
just betting on being richer, more powerful, more famous, and all
that is, like, hoping to win the lottery. Those are known to be —
OK, achievements — but those are well known that they are not
core components of happiness and flourishing. This is well known!
So is not rocket science, all the psychology will tell you that.
You know, it’s called the Easterlin paradox. If you are above the
poverty line, you have a reasonably decent life in terms of
material. If you double, triple, quadruple, your income, your
happiness stays flat. So it helps you to do other things — and
it’s good if you do use these resources to help others, for sure
— but in terms of well-being, don’t expect too much from that. It
doesn’t bring it.
And even about money, I like very much the study that was done by
social psychologist in Canada, and she studied the effect of, on
people’s happiness to be giving, from $20 a month to big amounts
if you can. And she studied in 27 countries and she measured,
compared with those who never give anything, their level of
well-being. And what she found is, people who give regularly
means they have a component of generosity in mind. They are about
30% happier than those who don’t. So she published a paper in
Science, which is the top scientific journal, saying, “Money
doesn’t buy happiness unless given to others.” So that’s, for me,
a measure of success, because what can you do for you with 2
billion that you cannot do with 1? Zero! But for others, you can
do twice as much.
Feloni: Can you give an example of meeting
someone who the public by all accounts would say is very
successful, but when you met them they wouldn’t meet your
definition of success?
Ricard: Well, I mean we meet that all the time!
People who have all the trappings of success and you find out
that they are, they are so much in pain and difficulty. The Dalai
Lama told a very funny story that he was invited to stay in one
of those — I don’t know billionaire, whatever — home and you know
everything was so perfect, lots of servants. Huge swimming pools.
And then in the morning he was brushing his teeth in the
bathroom, and he is curious so he opened a little cabinet and he
saw a lot of sleeping pills, antidepressants, and he said, he
close it down and he said “well it doesn’t seem that they are too
So anyway, you know, I think there are of course wealthy powerful
people who found meaning in their life but usually it comes when
they really use their power, use their resources to be of service
Feloni: On Wall Street and in Silicon Valley,
meditation is popular — “mindfulness” is a buzzword. But for a
lot of these people they want to use these skills to kind of be
more competitive or take down other companies or other
entrepreneurs, other investors. What does that seem like to you?
Ricard: So they might start like that, but
interestingly I have a friend who has studied 100 CEOs who took
up meditation and brought it in their company. In the beginning
they were all hesitating for two reasons: They thought it would
become softer, and then that it’s a waste of time. But then they
thought, OK, maybe not, maybe they become more, people become
more attentive, so they can be more productive, and we can
squeeze them, more out of them. So there were some of them as
well like that.
But when they actually did it, they found two things that didn’t
actually expect. One, it brought them much better human
relationships with their collaborators, with their subordinates,
with everyone. And that’s a huge thing. We know that the company
that is good working prospers better. What this means is a
company is good working — it’s a good human environment! It’s not
just that they get higher pay and everyone behaves like shark to
what each other. It’s like, basically, it’s good to work there
because people feel good with each other.
And then the second thing they notice, it gives them better
judgment, because instead of having their nose on the problem and
the immediate, and has to be solved now, and then you can’t wait
— they had more space, they could look at from a different
direction, and sometimes the best thing is to do nothing for one
or two days and see how things are. So this was two unexpected
So it is a constant sort of worry that mindfulness would be
misused. And I think if you say caring mindfulness there’s very
less likelihood that it would be misused, because there might be
mindful psychopath or snipers but there’s no caring psychopath
and no caring snipers. So that already keeps away those who want
to use it for that kind of negative purposes.
Feloni: And if some of our listeners who’ve
never meditated before wanted to try it, what would you
Ricard: Well, there are many good books. I mean,
I have written one, not just for the sake of writing a book, but
because everybody was asking that question, so I did a manual
called “Why Meditate?” But try it, because we need to demystify
meditation. There’s nothing mysterious — you don’t need to be
sitting, trying to empty your mind with incense around you and a
mango tree. It’s really — take the loving kindness meditation. We
all have unconditional love for a child, for someone dear. But it
would last 10, 15 seconds, one minute, then we’d do something
else, we go to about our work.
But suppose you take that very beautiful strong warm feeling and
instead of letting it disappear for 15 seconds you cultivate it
for five, 10 minutes, by reviving it. Coming back if you are
distracted, keeping the clarity, the vividity — the vividness of
that. So that’s just mind training that is meditation. So there’s
nothing mysterious. It’s just, like, you exercise for the piano,
you exercise your mind for kindness, for mindfulness, for inner
peace, for resilience — all that can be trained as skills. And
neuroscience tells you again and again.
Feloni: Thank you very much, Matthieu.