The link between happiness and meditation

starfish with ocean

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[1].

“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.”[2] – 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[3]. 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.

Dr Davidson preparing Matthieu Ricard for brain scans. Photo courtesy of http://richardjdavidson.com/

Dr Davidson preparing Matthieu Ricard for brain scans. Photo courtesy of http://richardjdavidson.com/

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”[4]

 

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).”[5]

Also in 2008, Carmody and Baer carried out research where 174 adults were given the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course[6]. 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:

http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/questionnaires.aspx

 


[1] http://bigthink.com/videos/five-steps-to-a-happier-life

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shawn-achor/happiness-tips-research-chronic-illness_b_1798183.html

[3] Lutz et al, 2004: http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16369.long  

[4] 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.

[5] 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

[6] 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. 

16 Comments on “The link between happiness and meditation

  1. Assuming that the usefulness of such research is how it can be applied by us mere mortals, a number of questions come to mind:
    – Is this causation or correlation?
    – Do we know if long term meditators who are wired for happiness, were equally so before they became meditators?
    – Do we know if it is the meditating that wired their brains that way, rather than some other aspect of their lives?
    – Is the %age of meditators with “happiness” higher than in the normal population? Among the eight monks it was, pretty clearly, but that is a small sample size.
    – How is “happiness” defined? Can I be happy without gamma waves?

    • as someone who meditated to satori 37 years ago (I rarely do it now – rare refresher if I feel buzzed – usually when unable to sleep due to eating too many calories) my everyday state is perfect contentment – I’m always intrigued with people around me complaining about everything – I wish I could them this perfect moon …

      but I was probably leaning this way as a child – the personality model I associated with myself was ‘monk’

      the only time I really felt depressed in living memory was last year when I got a virus with nasty sore throat and vocal cord nodule leaving me speechless for about 6 weeks – only then I felt how health determines your feelings, and if your health is bad, it’s pretty hard to feel good – so look after that first …

  2. Hi James
    Great questions, I might ask some of the authors of the studies to get answers. My understanding is as follows:

    – Is this causation or correlation?
    Most studies report a correlation, and they say the nature and magnitude of the correlation suggests that A is a predictor of B. Both the Lutz 2004 study and 2012 Baer study refer to correlations for long-term meditators of the brain activity and meditation. The 2008 Carmody study of the effects of short-term meditation shows that statistically, increased mindfulness is what accounts for correlation of mindfulness training with MBSR and wellbeing measures. From the studies I’ve seen, further research is suggested to drill down to causation.
    A lot of research on meditation currently finds correlations, but the causation is not yet clear – for instance we know that courses in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy prevent relapse into depression, but we still don’t know exactly which element of that therapy is responsible for this result. It is still part of the NHS suite of services offered in this area, as it seems to work.
    (Although from my own humble philosophical point of view, causation is an illusion anyway – it’s just a good hypotheses until one day something happens that turns it on its head).

    – Do we know if long term meditators who are wired for happiness, were equally so before they became meditators?
    Good point and no, we don’t know how they were wired before they became the long-term meditators. Longitudinal studies over long time periods are suggested for this by most of these studies.

    – Do we know if it is the meditating that wired their brains that way, rather than some other aspect of their lives?
    We can only see the brain activity & structure while resting or meditating – so as with your first question, it’s a correlation and we don’t know about the causation – see excerpt here from Lutz et al 2004, the first study from Dr Richard Davidon;s team:
    “It remains for future studies to show that these EEG signatures are caused by long-term training itself and not by individual differences before the training, although the positive correlation that we found with hours of training and other randomized controlled trials suggest that these are training-related effects”

    – Is the %age of meditators with “happiness” higher than in the normal population? Among the eight monks it was, pretty clearly, but that is a small sample size.
    The sample size in the 2012 Carmody study that looks at self-reports of a 156 people is larger. I suppose you can always get bigger sample sizes, the question is what is statistically satisfactory…

    – How is “happiness” defined?
    I’ll ask the experts :) As far as I’ve read, it’s not one thing, it has multiple components of positive experience and runs across a spectrum..a range.. but watch out for my next post on the topic where I Q&A Amit Amin, a specialist on positive psychology.

    Can I be happy without gamma waves?
    – YES! :)

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  10. WShat an arrogance? Meditation must be repackaged as “Mindfulness…etc” to look as its Western outfit. However it is this very trap of ephemeral character that keeps us bound to pains of this world one wants to get rid of. Get over the “Ego” and it is the first step forward for happiness.

    Have a look at:
    http://opsudrania.blogspot.in/

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