Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard happiest man known to science

Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk, says meditation fundamentally rewires the brain towards joy, and research suggests he’s right

As he grins serenely and his burgundy robes billow in the Himalayan wind, it is not difficult to see why scientists declared Dr Matthieu Ricard the happiest man they had tested.

The monk, molecular geneticist and confidant of the Dalai Lama, is passionately setting out why meditation can alter the brain and improve people’s happiness in the same way that lifting weights puts on muscle.

“It’s a wonderful area of research because it shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree, but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are,” the Frenchman said.

Ricard, a globe-trotting polymath who left everything behind to become a Tibetan Buddhist in a Himalayan hermitage, says anyone can be happy if they only train their brain.

Professor Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist, wired up Ricard’s skull with 256 sensors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison four years ago as part of research on hundreds of advanced practitioners of meditation. The scans showed that when meditating on compassion, Ricard’s brain produced a level of gamma waves – those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory – “never reported before in the neuroscience literature”, he said.

The scans showed excessive activity in his brain’s left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, giving him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity, researchers believe.

Research into the phenomenon, known as “neuroplasticity“, is in its infancy and Ricard has been at the forefront of groundbreaking experiments along with other leading scientists.

“We’ve found remarkable results with long-term practitioners who did 50,000 rounds of meditation, but also with three weeks of 20 minutes a day, which of course is more applicable to our modern times,” Davidson said.

The 66-year-old, who recently accompanied other Tibetan monks at a festival in Nepal’s Himalayan region of Upper Dolpa, has become a globally respected Buddhist and is one of the religion’s leading Western scholars.

Ricard grew up among the Paris intellectual elite as the son of celebrated French libertarian philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and abstract watercolour painter Yahne Le Toumelin.

“At lunch we’d have three Nobel Prize winners eating with us. It was fantastic … Some of them were wonderful but some could be difficult.”

By the time he got his PhD in cell genetics from the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1972 he had become disillusioned with the dinner party debates and had already begun to journey to Darjeeling in India.

He moved to India to study Buddhism and emerged 26 years later as something of celebrity thanks to The Monk And The Philosopher, a dialogue on the meaning of life he wrote with his father.

Ricard donates all proceeds of his books to 110 humanitarian projects which have built schools for 21,000 children and provide health care for 100,000 patients a year.