Category Archives: Spiritual

Russell Brand is still farting – for revolution

Tonight I went to see Russell Brand’s new show, Messiah Complex. Whether he has a true messiah complex, or just a strong opinion about everything, I’m not sure.

On stage, he is flanked by portraits of four great men: Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus Christ. And during the show, we find out what he  has in common with his personal heroes.

Brand’s texts are very sharp. He packages his criticism of society in extremely elaborate and fancy phrases that I can hardly reproduce here. Take a look at his famous interview with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC to get an idea of his ideas of revolution.

Brand believes in socialism and communism. He believes in revolution, though a revolution without a programme. He denounces politicians serving themselves and advertising creating false desires in us, but does not propose a way to an alternative.

That’s of course fine: diagnosing a problem does not mean you’re responsible to find the cure. And as a comedian, he fulfills the role of the fool or the clown that makes us question the world we live in, the planet we destroy, the lack of social justice worldwide.

The dark side of heroes

Admirably, he also discuss some of the things that Gandhi, Guevara and Malcolm X did not get right. He tells how Gandhi refused to give his wife an English medicine, preferring Indian ayurvedic medicins required by the Hindu tradition. She tragically died. When he fell ill himself some weeks later, he did accept the medicine.- In Brand’s interpretation, Gandhi had a mission on earth and more to live for.

But some of Brand’s social critic is a bit too simple. It is true that large global companies and some political systems concentrate power and money in the hands of the few. That is part of the system we live. But is it the systematic intention of people that go to work every day to exploit others or to accumulate wealth and power to the detriment of others? I don’t believe so. Large organisation also provide jobs, a livelihood and meaning to so many people that just want to live their lives. Many of us are better off than all generations before us.

Fart for revolution

Some of the elements are shallow. Call me conservative: some jokes about sex with cats are funny, but if it goes on and on it doesn’t contribute to the story. Denouncing all evils is worthwhile. But parts of his remarks, packed in fancy sentences, are mere provocation, the equivalent of farting for revolution. Brand’s attracting the attention by saying “look, I just farted, now listen to me”, as if he never grew older than four.

The message: find your heroes

In any case, the combination between high and low registers works. There’s something in the show for people who just want to have a laugh. Brand has great charisma, warmth and style. He is a personality on stage. And there’s a strong message: everybody needs to have heroes, even if they’re not perfect. Nothing is black or white. And even from those who have their dark side, there’s is a lesson to learn. Mistakes that our heroes have made don’t mean we can’t be inspired by them to change for the better. The same applies to himself – from a drug addict to comedian revolutionary.

Maybe Russell Brand is the messiah.

Russell Brand


On waiting for traffic lights… and the ways to happiness

London, Friday night. A street crossing somewhere near Liverpool Street, in the direction of Shoreditch (where the hipsters live). It’s raining a bit. I’m wearing a heavy backpack in which I carry my life of a week. All other people cross the red light. I marvel at them, take my time wait for the traffic light to turn green first.

I just got back from a five-day course on the economics of happiness. I spent the week at Schumacher College, a ‘community college’/university in Devon, South-West England. Schumacher College is a special place. Students, teachers, volunteers and temporary guests are jointly responsible for the community. They take turns taking care of the kitchen, the garden and the day opening.

Living at the college is an intense experience. A lot of learning takes place through continuous reflection and discussions at the breakfast table. The sense of community and the feeling of being in touch with nature is a massive contrast with the abundance of grumpy Tube travelers and the ubiquity of commercial chains and ads in London.

During the week, I learnt a lot about happiness research: from measuring happiness to genetics and happiness at work to new economics. But in this post, I’d like to face the biggest question there is:

What makes us happy?

We often speak about the secret of happiness or the key to happiness. I don’t think there’s anything secret about it. And there are many, many keys that open the doors to happiness. In most cases, we do know what makes us happy. Following our intuitive knowledge should do the trick.

five ways

The Five Ways to Well-Being as developed by the new economics foundation

Still, irrational beings as we are, we sometimes act against what makes us happy. Or we need help to distinguish our needs from mere desires (hint: we need connections with human beings. We don’t ‘need’ a 100 gram chocolate bar on Sunday evening. That’s desire). To help us understand what it is that makes us happy, Nic Marks and the new economics foundation have created an overview of five ways to well-being. Marks was one of our teachers of the week. He also worked on the Happy Planet Index and currently is at Happiness Works to bring well-being to the work environment.

These five ways offer a framework to understand our needs and can be used as invitation to engage in activities that make us happy. Though there’s research behind them, they shouldn’t be seen as scientifically sealed and approved suggestions. The five ways are:

  1. Connect… connect with other people, friends, family or people in your community
  2. Be Active… live an active life, via sports or being outdoors
  3. Take Notice… be aware and appreciate the environment around you
  4. Keep Learning… discover new things and develop new interests
  5. Give… give a gift, do something nice for someone, or say thank you

How about you try to integrate these in your daily life?

Don’t expect they’ll lead you to direct happiness. But it’s likely they’ll produce happiness as a side-effect!

Happiness as a balance between contentment and dreams

In my view, Take Notice is probably the most important one. One of the most interesting moments of my week was a breakfast chat with Satish Kumar, an Indian monk whose words are a fountain of wisdom. He spoke about contentment – full awareness and gratitude for everything you experience. This is certainly an important advice.

At the same time, dreams and objectives can also be helpful to give us guidance and to bring us further in life. I think we need to balance contentment with some degree of ambition. If we’re content with everything, is it still possible to achieve a higher ideal?

Nevertheless, almost all of us in today’s hectic society can learn from Satish. Let’s try to stop for a moment and dedicate full attention to the place where we are. Slowing down, looking around. It doesn’t hurt to spend a minute and a half at a traffic light in London.

Gratefulness brings happiness. Stop, look and go.

In the life of Benidictine monk David Steindl-Rast, happiness is a very, very simple thing. Gratefulness brings happiness. Stop, look and go. That’s all. Why say more? Just stop, look and go.

PS: Thanks to Julio for sharing.

Matthieu Ricard’s plea for altruism

bonheurs coverOn my way to the shopping street for my Saturday groceries, I stop by in the press corner with the aim to buy stamps. I scan the shelf of magazines and see the familiar face of Matthieu Ricard stare at me from the cover of Bonheur(s) magazine.

Normally, I am wary of these kind of pseudo-psychological magazines produced for the happiness market. Every vague word that is not evidence-based triggers a critical counter-reaction. But, admittedly, this blog operates in the same market, so I figured I can always buy it for research purposes. In any case, it’s worthwhile to hear more of Ricard’s wisdom.

Matthieu Ricard is a former biochemist who become a Buddhist monk. He has been labelled the happiest man alive, and has a website featuring a ‘smile of the week’. In 2003, he wrote Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill, which he presented at TED in 2004. To summarise his talk, Ricard argues that ‘mind training’ and meditation can help us transform our brains. He questions why human beings spend 15 years in education, and lots of hours to keep fit and beautiful, but don’t seem willing to invest time in their well-being. Through this training, we can rewire our brain and nurture our receptiveness for happiness (or better, well-being).


A plea for Altruism

His interviewed in Bonheur(s) magazine is dedicated to the hefty 928-page volume on altruism he just published. His new book Advocacy for altruism spots the traces of altruism in neuroscientific research and the spiritual traditions of Buddhism.

Ricard argues that we all have an interest to be altruistic with our neighbours and future generations: “Altruism will help passing from a merchant’s world based on the principle of efficiency to a world of mutual help, from competition to cooperation“. To achieve that world, says Ricard, human beings must transform themselves to become truly altruistic. Like well-being, this is something we can train ourselves for. To do so, we need  the support of good masters like the Dalai Lama for whom altruism is a first nature. Ricard himself has been guided by Buddhist spiritual masters since the 1970s.

He ends the interview with a plea for altruism as a radical change in attitude that can contribute to solve the problems of our times – materialism, consumerism, narcissism, and even climate change. Ricard here refers to a study by the American psychologist Tim Kasser, whose longitudinal research demonstrated that people with strong materialistic tendencies and higher levels of wealth developed weaker social ties, a worse health record and lower levels of happiness.

What is altruism anyway?

Does this make Ricard’s plea for altruism convincing? Though the general principle and a concept sound appealing, there is one problem: what is altruism? If I decide to be altruistic from tomorrow onwards, what do I do? Could I function as an altruist in a generally consumerist and egoistic society? Can I really fight consumerism and climate change by thinking about my neighbours?

This notwithstanding, I believe Ricard has a bunch of valid points. Le bonheur, c’est les autres (happiness is other people). Many studies have shown how other people matter. But that will be the topic for a later post. To give a little pointer: ask the internet about Michael Norton’s work on money, giving and happiness.