How Meditation Can Make You Feel Happier

By Mary Jaksch

There’s an ongoing debate about whether meditation actually makes us feel happier.
Is happiness really a side effect of meditation?

The answer lies in the emotional thermostat

We all have an emotional thermostat. There is an emotional ‘set-point’ around which our daily mood swings. For some people, the setting is low and they experience mostly darker moods. Others have a higher set-point that allows them to experience sunnier moods.

I’m lucky because my set-point is in the ‘happy’ range.
Where is your set-point?

Of course there are moments when we register emotions that are outside our natural range. Maybe we get thrown into a life crisis and the world turns dark. Or maybe we fall in love and our spirit soars. But sooner or later we will return to our emotional set-point.

how confident are you

The question is: can meditation make us happier? I mean: not happier for the moment – but long-term. That is, can we alter the set-point of our emotional thermostat through meditation? Spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, maintain that meditation can make us happier. But is that really true?

I want to introduce you to some research that has been done as a collaboration of scientists and meditation masters. In 2001, a conference took place called “Transformations of Mind, Brain and Emotion: Neurobiological and Bio-Behavioral Research on Meditation”. Amongst the participants were Richard Davidson, professor for psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his Holiness the Dalai Lama. Davidson said:

Our scientific lives have been deeply affected by these interactions with His Holiness…This dialog has motivated us to vigorously pursue research on contemplative practice because we believe it can be beneficial. We hope eventually to take techniques involved in various kinds of meditation out of their Buddhist context and apply them to secular training that may improve mental and physical health.

The Dalai Lama concurred:

All human beings have an innate desire to overcome suffering, to find happiness. Training the mind to think differently, through meditation, is one important way to avoid suffering and be happy…Science shows us that there are practices that can make a difference between a happy life and a miserable life.

However, the Dalai Lama warned that “…the real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation.”

Present at this meeting was also Fr. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian priest and founder of the Centering Prayer Movement. He said,

We are talking about spirituality, which is the interior aspect of religion, and on this we are at one with our Buddhist brothers and sisters. Scientists will find mystics are not so stupid after all, and we will find scientists are on a spiritual journey, too, whether they realize it or not.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted an interesting experiment. They taught one group of students how to practice mindfulness meditation and paired it with a control group that didn’t do any meditation.

Let me remind you. Mindfulness meditation means sitting quietly with attention to the present moment. Everything – thoughts, emotions, sensory experience – is accepted in soft awareness without judgement. It’s a form of meditation that deepens the awareness of the present moment, and develops skills of focused attention.

Back to the experiment: The group of students who learned to meditate did a 7-hour workshop and then had to practice for an hour each day. This went on for a couple of months. A control group did not practice meditation at all.

The results showed a strong biological impact of meditation.

  • The meditation group showed an increase of brain activity in the left-side part of the frontal region, which is associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.
  • These students also showed a better immune function than the control group. I.e. the body was more resilient.

The interesting point is that the changes I describe above were tracked after the experiment had finished. They show that lasting changes are possible through meditation.

Yes, meditation can make us happier because it can change the set point of our emotional thermostat.

What are your thoughts on this? Please share in the comments.

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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