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 itself 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?
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. Happiness is 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, Kung Fu, 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 brain’s 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 and Qigong 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 and Qigong are 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.”

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