A Study on Happiness
By Tom Olson
How do you define, or better yet, attain happiness? To some it is the attainment of particular material items, while to others it’s the complete opposite, the giving of material items. Happiness it’s self varies from person to person as it truly is a subjective matter. One thing that is for certain is that we as human beings strive to make ourselves happy on a consistent basis. A question that has been brought up throughout history is can a person learn to increase their happiness? Much like one learns to type, or drive.
At the June 2008 meeting of the National Advisory Council for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine this subject was breached, as it was a project that one Dr. Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison took on with earnest. In his opening remarks, Dr. Davidson said that happiness is a state, a trait, and a skill. It’s health enhancing and life improving. In his remarks, he explained that thanks to the brain’s neuroplasticity (the adaptability and ability to change within the brain) we are able to train it to seek states of happiness, just as we can train our muscles and brain to work together in physical activities like juggling, martial arts, playing a musical instrument, or dancing. He also explained that there is evidence that virtuous qualities also appear to be linked to happiness- such as compassion, loving kindness, and clarity of attention.
In Dr. Davidson’s first study in 2004, he studied monks with at least 10,000 hours of meditation practice utilizing an EEG (electroencephalogram, a test that studies the brains electrical activity through electrodes placed on the scalp) to observe the monks during periods of meditation and during periods of neutral state. The monk’s results were compared with a control group who had only 1 week of experience practicing meditation.
The monk group showed dramatic difference from neutral state and meditative state. Dr. Davidson said “the shifts were very dramatic and pronounced, and are not entirely explained by muscle activity”. Further he explained that the pattern of activity seen in the monks is generally seen during focused attention and other kinds of specific perceptual tasks. Normally though, these levels of activity are only seen in less than one second, while those meditating were displaying it for minutes at a time.
In another study, Dr. Davidson subjected the monks, and another control group, to different emotional sounds while in a restful and meditative state. They did this while utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe the brains activity. The sounds were ones that either had positive emotional content (a baby laughing for example), negative content (a woman screaming in distress), or neutral content (background noise in a restaurant).
They found that while meditating the subjects, when exposed to the sounds, had increased activity in several regions of the brain important to feeling and emotions. However the experts had quite a stronger response than the novices, especially when they heard the negative sounds. The researchers then concluded that meditation may actually increase one’s empathy, and tendencies toward compassion and kindness.
Happiness is probably one of the most studied emotions that there is. Interestingly enough, most great philosophers believe that happiness is not something you can buy, it’s the ability to buy it. Happiness is not the fact that you are making yourself happy through a particular action but by making another happy, you are making yourself happy. As the Dalai Lama once said “Happiness is not a goal, it is a byproduct.” Mark Twain once said “The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer someone else up.” Meditation empowers us to focus on positive emotions and feelings. It teaches us to feel and express positive emotions more readily.
Dr. Davidson’s study is a small step that modern man is taking to understand the wisdom of those who have gone before. The ancient tried and true methods, when taught properly, empower human beings to think clearer, be more focused, increase their memory, and reinforce positive emotions with positive actions. These are the building blocks toward a positive attitude, an inner peace, and the ever sought after result of happiness.
Happiness, as shown in Dr. Davidson’s study and by the great philosophers, can be achieved by practicing an activity or skill that will boost the energy being sent to the areas of the brain that handle activity related to compassion, empathy, and peace. Meditation is only just now being studied and understood, but this study has proven that proper meditation can lead one to positive emotions and happiness.
CAM AT THE NIH. FOCUS ON COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, Vol. XV, Number 3: October 2008. “Of Meditation, Monks, and Music: Dr. Davidson Speaks on Systematic Mind-Body Training.”