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The happiest man in the world?

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 The happiest man in the world?2007-01-22 23:09
19 comments
picture by Flemming Funch

The Independent:
To scientists, he is the world's happiest man. His level of mind control is astonishing and the upbeat impulses in his brain are off the scale.

Now Matthieu Ricard, 60, a French academic-turned-Buddhist monk, is to share his secrets to make the world a happier place. The trick, he reckons, is to put some effort into it. In essence, happiness is a "skill" to be learned.

His advice could not be more timely as tomorrow Britain will reach what, according to a scientific formula, is the most miserable day of the year. Tattered new year resolutions, the faded buzz of Christmas, debt, a lack of motivation and the winter weather conspire to create a peak of misery and gloom.

But studies have shown that the mind can rise above it all to increase almost everyone's happiness. Mr Ricard, who is the French interpreter for Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, took part in trials to show that brain training in the form of meditation can cause an overwhelming change in levels of happiness.

MRI scans showed that he and other long-term meditators - who had completed more than 10,000 hours each - experienced a huge level of "positive emotions" in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with happiness. The right-hand side, which handles negative thoughts, is suppressed.
10,000 hours?!? Hopefully less can do it. I want to be really happy too, for no good reason.


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19 comments

22 Jan 2007 @ 18:18 by GeZi @76.168.91.127 : but Flemming you are nearly there...
Here is what I learned today on BoingBoing:

Danish happiness unravelled?

Surveys say that Danes are the happiest people in Europe, but no one can figure out why. A study suggests that a 15-year-old football triumph and low expectations are responsible:

The Danish football triumph of 1992 has had a lasting impact. This victory arguably provided the biggest boost to the Danish psyche since the protracted history of Danish setbacks began with defeat in England in 1066, followed by the loss of Sweden, Norway, Northern Germany, the Danish West Indies, and Iceland. The satisfaction of the Danes, however, began well before 1992, albeit at a more moderate level. The key factor that explains this and that differentiates Danes from Swedes and Finns seems to be that Danes have consistently low (and indubitably realistic) expectations for the year to come. Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.  



22 Jan 2007 @ 18:47 by bushman : Hmm,
I dont think I like the idea of supressing half my brain, just to feel happy. lol. I mean if you train your mind to be happy, isnt that a false happieness?  


22 Jan 2007 @ 18:59 by Palden @82.250.191.74 : True happiness ?
What would be a "true" happiness ?!  


22 Jan 2007 @ 19:36 by bushman : Hmm
True happiness, from what I know, is trigered by some spontainious event or action that makes you smile. A comfort in knowing something worked out as it should have. Like, Im happy when I see my garden doing well, maybe the feeling I get of not having to worry about it. Being Im a gardener.  


22 Jan 2007 @ 21:26 by Hanae @69.33.46.10 : Two conceptions of Happiness
Very relevant comment here from David Brink on a related question on September 7, 2006:

"The answer to your question depends on the concept of happiness. Two common assumptions about happiness are (a) that happiness is a good (according to hedonism, the only good) and (b) that happiness is subjective. But these two assumptions are in tension.

Consider (b). Some people treat happiness as an essentially subjective condition, akin to contentment. If we accept such a view, several other claims seem to follow. It looks like happiness is a matter of being in a certain subjective state and doesn't depend upon how this state is caused -- its sources or etiology. Its likely that this sort of contentment is dependent on brain chemistry, as any mental state presumably is. For any given individual there may be multiple brain states and processes that would produce contentment, and which brain states and processes produce pleasure may vary among individuals or across species.

But (a) and (b) may conflict. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick famously discusses an Experience Machine.

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desire. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences?

Nozick answers No, claiming that we value being certain kinds of people and doing certin sorts of things and not merely having experiences as if we were such persons or doing such things. He concludes that value cannot consist in psychological states alone, as hedonism, for example, implies. If happiness is understood in subjective terms, such as contentment, it seems to follow that happiness cannot be the only or the most important good.

Alternatively, we might appeal to the tension between (a) and (b) to question (b). If we assume that happiness is an important good, then we might question whether happiness is or must be essentially subjective. Consider the case of the Deluded School Boy who desperately wants to be the most popular boy in school -- it's his all consuming desire. His classmates despise him. A measure of their contempt for him is that, knowing his greatest hope, they contrive to make him think he is the most popular boy in school by electing him Class President, all the while ridiculing him behind his back. Because the hoax is successful, the Deluded School Boy is euphoric. Of course, his euphoria is based on a false belief. Observers, who are aware of the hoax, might deny that he was really happy despite being euphoric or might describe his state as one of false happiness. Were the School Boy to later uncover the hoax, we could understand if he were deny that his euphoria was genuine happiness or if he described that euphoric period as a period of unhappiness or false happiness. To the extent that we can understand these reactions, we can formulate more objective conceptions of happiness that require that genuine happiness be grounded in certain activities and relationships that are worth wanting and pursuing. In this way, assumptions about the value of happiness may make us reconsider the assumption that it is essentially subjective."  



22 Jan 2007 @ 21:28 by ming : Happy Dane
Ha, Gunter, yes, I saw that too, and actually had set it aside for posting tomorrow, because, quite coincidentally I was going to say something about lowered expectations, which they claim to be a secret of the Danes. Or maybe we just need to win the World Cup once in a while.

And what do they mean about a defeat in England in 1066? The last Danish king of England was Hardeknud (Harthacut) who died in 1043. In 1066 the Saxons had just defeated a large Norwegian army, but then got their butt whipped by William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings. ..Ah, a Danish army tried to assist the Saxons in Yorkshire, but got defeated too. Hmmm. But, anyway, William was a Norman, which means he was kind of almost Danish anyway. The dynasty of the Dukes of Normandy was founded a century before by mostly Danish vikings who made a deal with the French king who, in exchange for not attacking Paris, gave them Normandy, where they spoke Danish for many years. Their leader was Rollo (Rolf), who appears to have been Danish, although the Norwegians think he was Norwegian, and he was the great-great-grandfather of William. So, see, either way, nothing for the Danes to be very unhappy about. ;-)  



22 Jan 2007 @ 21:47 by ming : True happiness
What if the more true happiness were the kind that specifically *didn't* depend on outside circumstances? Certainly it could be likely to be the more lasting one. If it were just a result of things temporarily going your way, it can be taken away just as easily. But if you're being happy in the face of any of numerous reasons why not - then you might really have something.

As for the living in a tank, being kept happy by electrodes, well, of course nobody is likely to say they would choose that. But how do you know that you don't already live within some system like that? You know, like The Matrix. A sufficiently well-done virtual reality would make it hard to figure out. But the biggest reason I wouldn't want to choose it is that I'd like to somehow manufacture it myself, rather than somebody else just flicking a switch. Besides, that sounds a little boring, even if I would be happy.  



23 Jan 2007 @ 05:14 by Hanae @68.164.64.83 : True enough

Part of what David Brink was getting at (I say David Brink, here, but it's basically an old question that has been revisited many times - call it Philosophy 101 or whatever - it's in the same order of "why is the sky blue?" – Everybody knows the sky is blue but is hard pressed to explain just why. Basically, David Bring and Bushman are more or less touching the same thing here (maybe Bushman said it best, because the most simply), I'll elaborate a bit:

In some ways, the sense of Happiness/Unhappiness can be looked at as fulfilling a similar function with regard to Mental health as the sensation Pleasure/Pain fulfils with regard to Physical health. It is a "sense" of things and an indicator. (It is not necessarily unhealthy to feel unhappy just as it is not necessarily unhealthy to feel pain when the circumstances warrant it.) Beyond the feeling of well-being (happiness or pleasure) that the positive aspect of such “senses” provide, they essentially both provides feedbacks about one’s interaction with one’s environment. They are a “measure” of things.

So, in the case of Pain/Pleasure, for instance, one could choose to shut down the pain center so as to never suffer physical pain ever again, or stimulate the pleasure center so as to permanently experience a feeling of physical well-being (some people get addicted to pain-killers for that very reason,) but doing so, pleasurable as it might be, is also depriving oneself of a useful feedback in one's interacting with one's environment (And is not always without danger. Take leprosy, for instance. The disease primarily attacks the nervous system, a leper loses all sense of pain and touch. Without the warnings of pain, the body cannot respond in the way in which it is designed to respond when injured.)

People feel pain for a reason. And sometimes people feel unhappy because they have good reasons to feel unhappy – a part of them is telling them something about themselves.

When this happens people can respond in a variety of ways:

- They can identify the cause of their unhappiness (it could be a variety of things, it could be that they are in a relationship that is not all that healthy to them, or they may feel that they are in a dead-end job and that their life is meaningless, or they may be preoccupied with the fate of the world or of their fellowmen - Empathy (from the Greek εμπάθεια, "to suffer with") is commonly defined as one's ability to recognize, perceive and directly experientially feel the emotion of another,) and they can take actions to improve what can be improved in their life or in the life of others.

- Sometimes, they choose instead to make themselves numb to the pain through escapism, like drug use or alcohol consumption, or they can convince themselves that none of their problems really matter, or they can decide to change themselves instead (their perception of things) rather than change their circumstances--- depending on the circumstances, sometimes it can be a good thing, a factor of growth (maybe their life does have meaning after all – it’s all a matter of perspective), but oftentimes, it can be a bad thing, a self-limiting factor (on a personal level, they are not really living to their full potential, they are drowning the inner voice that is telling them that they are not doing what they could be doing for themselves or for others), and in extreme case scenario, it is the kind of situations that sometimes leads to conversion disorders, like psychosomatic paralysis – people who sometimes have repressed their unhappiness – who don’t know that they are unhappy – and they get ill. (A simple splinter in the finger of a leper that is left untreated and unprotected leads to infection. Because there is no sensation of pain, the leper continues to use the wounded finger normally. This normal use causes trauma to the already damaged tissue. The wound becomes septic and the flesh and bone gradually rot and eventually fall off. All this occurs without the slightest sensation of pain within the victim!)

- Sometimes, they’ll treat the unhappiness by resorting instead to medication (anti-depressants) or meditation depending on whether one prefers to modify the physical symptoms of unhappiness (the chemical unbalance) through the use of pills or the “natural way” (so instead of addressing the relationship issue or the job issue or what have you, they do medication or meditation, and, well, you know, they must be a reason why anti-depressant sales have been climbing, or why also more and more people are seeking relief or “happiness” through meditation.)

- Some people decide to withdraw from the cycle of life, and they become monks of one kind or another. Some do it by true vocation (for a variety of reasons,) but there are also those who do it because they have been wounded by life or frustrated by their circumstances or they have decided that this “valley of tears” has nothing to offer them (which sometimes is another form of escapism.) Some seek the ecstasy of the mystics (some succeed and bring back visions from their trance – but this is another story.)

And, well, all of those paths are what they are, paths. And who am I to tell anyone what path to follow. I guess what I am trying to say here is that unhappiness, just as happiness serves a purpose in life. Sometimes it becomes a factor for positive changes (people who are unhappy sometime change the world – instead of changing themselves – sometimes in a good way.) And mental suffering sometimes bring growth, and sometimes (just like for the ecstasy of the mystics) people who suffer, too, bring back visions from their journey. The opposite is also true: happiness, just like unhappiness can have a dysfunctional side too, when either one - happiness or unhappiness - is unwarranted by one’s environment or when one react inappropriately to one’s environment as a result.

Leprosy victims (before leprosy became treatable) were rendered numb to their bodies and to most of the world around them. Unwarranted happiness like unwarranted unhappiness can have the same effect.

Paraphrasing Victor Frankl, I doubt anyone can answer the question of happiness in general terms (he said that about the meaning of life.) For happiness differs from person to person, from day to day, from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not happiness in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s happiness at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of the players. The same hold for human existence.  



23 Jan 2007 @ 05:47 by Hanae @68.164.64.83 : The agony and the ecstasy

Starry Night  



23 Jan 2007 @ 07:59 by Palden @82.253.98.111 : happiness vs freedom
A good time to read "The Grand Inquisitor" by Fedor Dostoyevski about Happiness vs Freedom.  


23 Jan 2007 @ 08:17 by Palden @82.253.98.111 : Docs
For french speaking people, here is a document about the scientific tests done with Mathieu Ricard and other buddhist monks.
And here another about a man who is insensitive to pain even if he can feel it.
They are diffused on ARTE french/german television.  



23 Jan 2007 @ 08:20 by Palden @82.253.98.111 : links
Sorry, it seems that i'm unable to make a correct link here...

((*** Just use curly brackets rather than square. Otherwise you did it perfectly right - Flemming))  



23 Jan 2007 @ 08:36 by jmarc : iNTERESTING THREAD
Not much for me to add though except to say I think my comment at the starry night link still stands. I would like to be the happiest man in the world, but also feel that all other emotions are valid. Anger, fear, sad, happy, are all valid emotions for me. Balance is key.

Palden- you'll want to use your shift key when you type the brackets. Its the top one you should be using.  



23 Jan 2007 @ 12:54 by Hanae @69.33.46.10 : The author of the story posted by Palden

(the one about the man who is insensitive to pain) would probably agree with jmarc.

This a rough translation of some of the most relevant parts:

------------ quote ---------------------------

As a result of a motor bike accident, Alain Bastien has become insensitive to pain. After a first series of experiments, Dr. Danziger realizes that [more precisely] Alain Bastien is aware of pain but that pain does not affect him any more: he has become indifferent to it.

As the exploration [of Alain Sebastien's medical condition] goes on, little by little a deeper reflexion about the meaning and the function of pain in life emerges. [And reveals that pain plays] a more complex role than it would first appear at first sight. As Alain Bastien lost [his ability to feel pain], it would also appear that he has lost [along with it] the capacity to feel emotions and to have slowly isolated himself from the world as a result.

And what if pain was a fundamental [and necessary] property of the livings?

------------------endquote---------------------------  



23 Jan 2007 @ 13:06 by Hanae @69.33.46.10 : Ooops

It should read:

"...it would appear that he lost [along with it] the capacity to feel emotions and that he has slowly isolated (or estranged) himself form the world as a result."  



23 Jan 2007 @ 18:26 by ming : Pain
I read recently about a whole family that couldn't feel pain. Some kind of freak genetic thing. And that was certainly no blessing for them, as they currently would get hurt, break bones and stuff like that, and not even notice. No warning signs is not a good thing.  


26 Jan 2007 @ 22:34 by rdk @24.159.231.238 : pain and happiness
Pain and happiness aren't mutually exclusive. Happiness is a state related to one's interpretation of the events they observe or are part of... pain is either physical or emotional or both. As they say, "pain is a given, suffering is optional".

One can be happy regardless of and not excluding or discounting other emotions; that's the whole point of mindfulness.  



27 Jan 2007 @ 23:57 by Hanae @68.164.62.3 : Absolutely, and...

No one was saying that pain and happiness were mutually exclusive.

People can engage in certain behaviours to induce the release of neurotransmitters (through drugs or chemicals, or the natural way, like meditation or neuro feed-back techniques) causing them to have the sensation of an emotional experience without having to identify and process their feelings.

On the surface, this might seem like a good strategy for dealing with difficult situations. Such behaviours can quickly become addictive and can sometimes serve as false substitutes for true emotional wellness: the total opposite of Mindfulness!!!

Ultimately, it is less the physiological effects of emotions (such as happiness), in and for themselves, than how we deal with them that affects one's overall wellness, yes?  



9 Aug 2007 @ 06:17 by Raphael @137.132.3.12 : haiz
why do we need the overwhelming happiness. those meditators are the ones that isolate themselves from the society. they find happiness for themselves, never for the others. that's just kind of selfishnss  


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