- Interview -
«Inner progress is a source
of joy »
PHILOSOPHER, author of a large number of essays and managing editor for “Le Monde des religions” from 2004 to 2013, Frédéric Lenoir had his latest BOOK La Puissance de la joie published by Fayard in 2015.
When you were a child, you had no interest in school other than when it came to philosophy?
That’s correct, and it was thanks to my dad that I discovered this discipline.. At the age of 13, he gave me The Banquet by Plato. It was a revelation. The text answered all those existential questions that I was asking myself... What is love? What are the core values? How does one succeed in life? What is the purpose of being on earth? Reading this was a very powerful experience which instilled in me the idea that it is important to discuss philosophical questions with kids in primary school. I succeeded in implementing this project last year by running “philosophy workshops” for kids from 4 to 11 years old. It was a fantastic experience about which I wrote an essay entitled: Philosopher et méditer avec les enfants published by Albin Michel.
Philosophy has led you to wonder about spirituality, although your religious education did not make any particular impression on you…
Indeed, I began by reading the Greeks who spoke about values, ethics, the quest for a better, more orderly life: in a word, for wisdom. That initially drew me to eastern spirituality because existential questions naturally lead to India and Buddhism. Subsequently, guided by the question that has been on my mind since childhood – “what are we doing on earth and how can we live a better life?” – I became more open to world religions.
Did you come up with answers?
Instead I found means of describing the problem better and better and understanding that reading books was not enough. At some point, we have to align our lives with our inner selves and with the ideas we advocate. As far as I’m concerned, I meditate, I have been going on retreats for the past 30 years; and as I am a thinker who needs nature, I left Paris to go and live in Corsica.
Has this spiritual search made you happy?
Yes, pretty much. Spinoza defines joy as the shift from lesser to greater perfection. He thinks that each time we improve ourselves and take a major step forward, we encounter joy, like some sort of reward. Personally, this idea of progressing in terms of my inner life, within my knowledge and understanding of the world, makes me happy. Every time I manage to overcome a problem without getting annoyed, thanks to meditation which helps me keep my emotions in check, I am happy.
Why is a child naturally happy, while adults have to work hard on themselves to achieve this state?
Children are totally spontaneous and do not yet have too large an ego. They welcome life as it comes and any little something can make them joyful. At around 17, when they have reached the age of reason, they start losing this joy due to a greater concern for the self related to the development of the ego and the mind. They discover the fear of being rejected, of experiencing a sense of missing out and of not succeeding, all of which makes them lose the fluidity of their relationship with life. To recover childhood innocence, adults need to do a lot of work on their emotions, their fears, their angers and their griefs.
Are there joys that are lasting and others linked to the moment?
Yes, there are those that are deeply embedded in ourselves, which are the result of a way of life that suits us. They are connected to the blossoming of our nature and our gifts. An artist is happy because he creates, an intellectual because he understands concepts. This type of joy creates interior lightness of spirit because we are comfortable in the universe, in a lifestyle that suits us; and we have made the right professional and emotional choices. There are also intermittent joys, related to meetings, to activities and to events. To receive them, one has to be attentive, aware of one’s body, oneself, of others and of the world. If we take a walk through a magnificent landscape yet only focus on thinking about our problems, we will not grasp any joy. If we lift our heads, if we look at the light and beauty, we are inundated with joy.
Are certain people more receptive to joy?
Absolutely, some of us are even genetically endowed with a happy temperament which leads us to take life with lightness and optimism. Others are born anxious, worried, pessimistic and less inclined to receive joy. This can be explained scientifically. The genes that transmit dopamine and serotonin (chemical substances which cause well-being) are not of equal size in each individual. The longer they are, the more naturally a person is happy. The good news is that by working on ourselves, by letting go and by adapting our behavior, we can improve our ability to live in a happy manner and even modify the length of our genes!
How do you position happiness in relation to joy?
Happiness is a state of being that I would associate with serenity and peace; while there is a very intense emotion and a power in joy, an ability to uplift and transport us. In addition, we may have moments of joy despite not being happy in our lives. Certain people with serious illnesses say this. Their vulnerability puts them into a state that is conducive to meeting others, to receiving help, to sharing confidences. It facilitates the opening of new doors, which results in understanding of things to which others do not have access, caught up in the invasiveness of daily life that makes them less available
Is our world conducive to joy?
Everything depends on our place on the planet! During my travels, I have often noticed that in so-called traditional or poor countries, notably in Asia, Africa or South America, there is more joy than in the West, because people take life as it is. But for us it has to correspond to our desires which are considerable, thus leading to dissatisfaction. It is therefore harder to be joyous in the Western world, if we do not work on self-improvement in order to understand that life is the source of many joys, when we are capable of perceiving them, harvesting them and savoring them.
Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters
– Cœur de cristal (Crystal Heart), Robert Laffont Publishing, October 2014. Pocket Collector,
– Nina, with Simonetta Greggio, Stock Publishing,
May 2013. Le Livre de Poche, June 2014
Essays and documents:
– Philosopher et méditer avec les enfants, Albin Michel, October 2016
– La Puissance de la joie (The Power of Joy),Fayard, October 2015
– François, le printemps de l’Evangile (Pope Francis and the Gospel Spring), March 2014.
Le Livre de Poche, March 2015.
– Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide, Melville House, April 2015
(original French version published in October 2013).