A Buddhist monk and a British peer have very different views on the secrets of a contented life. Were they still smiling after East met West?
It is a most unlikely scene. I am in an elegant sitting room in the Royal Society of Arts. Opposite me, sitting uncomfortably side-by-side on a too-low leather sofa, are an English peer and a French Buddhist monk. The contrast is striking. Lord Layard is white-haired, well-dressed and unobtrusive; the Venerable Matthieu Ricard is larger than life in flowing, burgundy robes. Yet despite their differences, these men have a common denominator: both have devoted their lives to the study of happiness.
Layard is the UK’s leading happiness economist. In his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Layard — a devotee of the 18th-century Utilitarian thinker Jer-emy Bentham — argues that governments need to take their responsibilities for our happiness seriously. “We need a wider debate about what lifestyles are conducive to happiness,” he says.
“Far more public funding should be allocated to mental-health services, parenting support networks, and positive-living education in schools. Everyone is concerned with avoiding poverty, ill health, conflict and enslavement. But these things are nothing but versions of unhappiness. So what we’re all really concerned with, although we might be afraid of the simplicity of the term, is happiness.”
Ricard, on the other hand, a celibate monk who lives in a Himalayan hermitage, has a different perspective. He is a proponent of the Buddhist theory that cultural change can start only with the individual. His latest book, The Art of Meditation, which came out last month, focuses on matters of the mind, such as meditation and altruism. Whereas Layard believes that there are seven areas of life — family, work, health, mental attitude and so on — that influence fulfilment and happiness, Ricard believes that the mind trumps all. “If you have inner peace,” he says, “then whatever happens, you are going to be fine.”