Think about all the people you know for a moment; do some of them seem happier than others? With the huge variations and uniqueness of all the personalities you know, you are bound to know some people who seem to go through life with a sunnier disposition! What’s the crack with this, did some people get lucky and get born with more happiness? And is there anything we can do about it?
Are some people born happier? Let’s look at the ‘Happiness Set Point Theory’
Shauna Shapiro is an internationally recognized expert in mindfulness and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University. In Shauna’s TedX Talk on mindfulness she explains how Happiness Set Point Theory suggests that our happiness set point is something we are born with and largely pre-determined by our genetics. Until recently, it was largely accepted by the field of psychology that there’s not much that can really shift where you fall on the happiness continuum. Events such as winning the lottery or experiencing the loss of a loved one can significantly raise or lower your happiness for a period, but eventually you will return to your set point. Studies have shown even life changing events like an accident resulting in paralysis will cause a significant blip in happiness, but after a year or so happiness levels will return to the baseline again. This theory would explain why some lucky people seem to be happier than others, taking life’s knocks on the chin and easily bouncing back, but it’s a bleak outlook for those who have a tendency to suffer with depression which no amount of good fortune seems to lift….
External events vs Internal Events effect on happiness
So this theory suggests external events and circumstances don’t seem to have any lasting effect on our levels of happiness…but what it doesn’t take into account are changes we can make to our internal landscape…this is where mindfulness comes in…. (check out our Introduction to Mindfulness here)
Through practicing mindfulness, we can train the mind and heart to change our internal landscape…and research shows how this can increase our levels of happiness both in the moment and on a longer term.
To understand this, we need to look at how different emotions effect and activate different parts of the brain. When we experience elevated emotions such as joy, creativity and optimism there is higher activity in the left pre-frontal cortex area of the brain. When we experience lower emotions like depression, anxiety and worry the right side of the pre-frontal cortex is more fired up compared to the left. To find out if mindfulness could really alter the brain's ability to experience more of one set of emotions over another, world-renowned neuroscientist Richie Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took a good look at the mind of a monk….
What can the mind of a monk teach us about happiness?
Richie and his team took a Tibetan llama who was a very experienced meditator and looked at his brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Out of 175 people tested in the same way, he had the highest left to right brain activity ratio, suggesting he experiences more of the elevated emotions which activate this area of the brain. The left to right brain activity ratio increased further when he was actively meditating on compassion… was the monk born happy or could it be that meditation had changed this monk’s brain to make him a happier person?
Richie Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison preparing a Tibetan monk for an fMRI. (Image source: https://news.wisc.edu/content/uploads/2018/07/WLBIB_monk_fMRI08_2590)
So researchers took this further and carried out a randomised control trial with people who have never practiced mindfulness before, and the results were very optimistic for anyone wanting to live a happier life. After 4 months practicing mindfulness meditation (by following the MBSR programme) the subjects showed significant increases in the activity in the left side of the brain; showing their capacity for experiencing elevated emotions increased… Practicing mindfulness makes people experience greater happiness!
Neuroplasticity is further hope we can change our brains to experience greater happiness.
Recent advances in neuroscience have uncovered the brain’s enormous capacity for change which has big ramifications for our quest for happiness! The different areas of the brain are like any other muscle in the body, we can strengthen them with training. The process of changing the physiology of the brain is called neuroplasticity which shows our repeated experiences shape our brain. Richie Davidson says “Happiness can be trained because the very structure of our brain can be modified.” Repeated use of the areas of the brain which fire up when we experience elevated emotions, strengthens the pathways in this area, making them stronger and then it is easier to experience them again. Donald Hebb, one of the most cited psychologists of the last century coined this phrase to explain neuroplasticity: “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. This simple mantra helps remind us of our enormous capacity for change, and the power that practicing mindfulness, compassion and other elevated emotions has to make lasting, physiological changes to our brains.
Cutting Edge Science is catching up with ancient wisdom.
This may be a new advance in the frontiers of neuroscience but the idea that you can train your way of thinking to experience greater happiness is nothing new. Ancient cultures have known about this and practiced these techniques for thousands of years. For Buddhist monks, the idea that mindfulness leads to greater feelings of happiness, joy and compassion is old hat!
The tale of Two Wolves is a Cherokee Indian legend and illustrates the importance of feeding or practicing the positive thoughts and emotions in order to grow that side of us. This is how the story goes:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
In Conclusion….Be Mindful to Be Happy!
So we do have the ability to increase the levels of happiness we experience in our lifetimes after all. Change is possible! In order to do this effectively, we must look to our internal landscape and make changes here, instead of relying on external events and circumstances for our happiness. Mindfulness and the intentional cultivation of elevated emotions like compassion and joy can help us experience inner happiness and repeated practice makes physiological changes to our brains. Feed the happy wolf by practicing happy emotions and the happy wolf will grow strong and win!