The link between happiness and meditation
The world’s most famous Happiness expert on meditation
Shawn Achor is arguably the world’s most famous expert on “happiness”. With 12 years spent researching the subject at Harvard University, one the top 20 TED talks, and a bestseller that argues how happiness fuels success rather than vice versa, he can tell us a thing or two about what makes us happy. And among the 5 things that he consistently claims we should to do be happier, is meditation.
“Take two minutes each day to stop what you’re doing and watch your breath go in and out. This exercise trains your brain to do one thing at a time. Research suggests that a multitasking brain has a harder time falling asleep, is more stressed, and has lower energy. By taking time to relax the brain has a chance to undo the negative effects of trying to manage everything at once.” – Shawn Achor
Shawn argues that meditation makes us happy because it reduces the stress and anxiety that is caused by hectic, multi-tasking lives; scientific studies have shown meditation to improve focus and reduce stress. This is a fairly good reason to make it one of the top 5 activities he recommends for becoming happier. However there is even more direct, compelling research that links meditation to positive emotions. We look at some of these below.
Long-term meditators have brains that are wired for positive emotions
The seminal piece of neuroscientific research that opened people’s eyes to the link between meditation and happiness, was published in 2004 in PNAS. It all began when the Dalai Lama invited Dr Richard Davidson, cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to interview monks about their mental and emotional lives back in 1992. Fast forward ten years, and Davidson was placing 128 electrodes on the head of Matthieu Ricard, the French biochemist turned Buddhist monk close to the Dalai Lama. When Ricard was asked to meditate on unconditional loving kindness (also known as compassion meditation, a particular strand of Buddhist meditation), the brain scans showed unusually high gamma waves, which only arise with intensely focussed thought at levels beyond the day-to-day experience of most people. (He was subsequently named the happiest man in the world).
When the above experiment was repeated with more meditators (8 monks with between 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditative practice, and a control group of non-meditating university students), results were similar: not only did the monks produce 30 times more gamma waves than the control group, but much larger areas of their brains were activated during meditation, especially in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.
It is already featured on this site as one of Bidushi’s inspirations, but in case you haven’t seen it, watch Matthieu Ricard’s famous TED talk referring to this research. And a funny interview by Robert Chalmer of the Independent as he asks Ricard about the satisfaction of laptop rage.
For those who are interested in the actual brain scan images, the Daily Mail (!!) has some telling pictures from the study right here.
The 2004 study by Lutz et al looked at the brains of long-term meditators while they practiced “loving kindness” meditation, which is a particular type of Buddhist meditation where the meditator mentally creates a state of unconditional compassion towards themselves and the world. Subsequent research has shown that long-term practitioners of mindfulness meditation are also generally happier than non-meditators. In a study by Baer, R. et al 2012, measures of psychological wellbeing, mindfulness and self-compassion of 77 long-term mindfulness meditators are compared with 79 non-meditators. The results showed a significant correlation between the traits of mindfulness, self-compassion and wellbeing for the meditators, compared to non-meditators. The authors summarise:
“Results showed that the significant association between duration of regular meditation practice and psychological wellbeing was completely accounted for by a combination of mindfulness and self-compassion scores”
Short-term meditation can also lead to more positive emotions
Many of the studies that look at effects of meditation on negative affects such as stress, depression, pain, tend to find that as well as alleviating these affects meditation also increases positive states of mind. But some studies have looked specifically into whether meditating for even a short term can affect our state of wellbeing.
In 2008 Fredrickson, B. et al published results of a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which of 139 working adults, half were trained in compassion meditation. “Results showed that this meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms).”
Also in 2008, Carmody and Baer carried out research where 174 adults were given the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. The objectives were to find out 1/ whether participation in MBSR lead to changes in measures of mindfulness, 2/ if changes in mindfulness occured, whether the extent of home practice of mindfulness meditation was related to changes in mindfulness and changes in wellbeing measures, and 3/ if the above relationship was found, whether increased mindfulness is the factor that explains the correlation between hours of practice and changes in mindfulness and wellbeing.
The results of the research gave affirmative answers to all 3 questions.
1/ levels of mindfulness increased significantly from pre to post MBSR for all participants
2/ the extent of home practice of formal meditation exercises (body scan, yoga, sitting) is significantly correlated with degree of change in most facets of mindfulness (all but describing ), and several measures of symptoms and well-being
3/ finally, increases in mindfulness is the factor that explains the positive correlation of hours of mindfulness meditation and improvements in psychological wellbeing
So even if most of us have brains that are not yet producing gamma waves like the monks, it appears that we can start developing more positive states of mind even with a starting practice of meditation.
How happy are you?
Finally, in case you don’t quite know how happy you really are, and are curious to find out, here are a few hundred tests you can take online that will tell you exactly what you need to know:
 Lutz et al, 2004: http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16369.long
 Baer, R. A., E. L. B. Lykins, et al. (2012). “Mindfulness and self-compassion as predictors of psychological wellbeing in long-term meditators and matched nonmeditators.” Journal of Positive Psychology 7(3): 230-238.
 Fredrickson, B., et al, 2008, Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 95(5), Nov 2008, 1045-1062. doi: 10.1037/a0013262 See here: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2008-14857-004
 Carmody J, Baer RA. Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2008;31:23–33.