How meditation can help your brain toward increased happiness

Female meditator sitting on the grass increasing her happinessAs modern-age human beings we often get so caught up in the busy-ness of daily life that we are more or less unconscious of the actual experiences that we move through moment by moment. Our minds are constantly active and jumping all over the place. And since this kind of “mind-wandering” has been found to decrease happiness, there is good reason to consider what we can do to stop the mind from wandering. Taking up the practice of meditation is one thing that will be of benefit in this regard (and in many other), as a recent scientific research study has been able to demonstrate.

Unlike other animals, human beings seem to spend a lot of time thinking about other things than what they are actually doing: contemplating events that may be happening somewhere else, or that happened in the past, or that may happen in the future, or may never happen at all…

Many spiritual traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the “here-and-now” moment, and provide meditation practices designed to reduce mind-wandering. According to these traditions a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. And recent scientific research [Ref. 1] suggests that these traditions are right.

Less mind-wandering, more happiness

The research involved over two thousand volunteers, between ages 18 to 88, who at random intervals throughout their day rated their degree of happiness, what they were doing, and whether they were thinking about something else while doing it. The collected data showed that people’s minds were wandering about 47% of the time on average – people spent almost half of their time not being present to what they were actually doing!

The research data also revealed that mind-wandering was strongly connected with unhappiness, regardless of what activity the participants were engaged in. It furthermore showed that only about 5% of a person’s happiness was determined by what he/she was doing, whereas about 11% of a person’s happiness depended on the degree of mind-wandering. In other words, the degree of mind-wandering was a more important indicator of how happy they were, than the activity itself.

In a different study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [2], functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure activity in the brain’s so called “default node network,” an area associated with mind-wandering, to find out how such activity correlated to meditation experience. Researchers compared a group of experienced meditators with a group who were novices in meditation, and found that the experienced meditators had less activity in the default mode network while meditating, and correspondingly reported less mind-wandering, than the novice group.

It was also discovered that the experienced meditators showed increased connectivity between brain regions, compared to the novice group. These brain regions (posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) are associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control, and interestingly this increased connectivity was present not only during meditation, but also during non-meditation. So, it appears that the experienced meditators have a permanently altered default node network; they pay attention a lot more in life.

Simply put, what this research indicates is that meditation practice may be able to help you rewire your brain for experiencing more happiness. If you are interested in learning how to meditate, and finding out for yourself what the practice of meditation has to offer, please, visit the Integrating Awareness Meditation course page for more information!

References:

  1. Killingsworth, M.A., Gilbert, D.T., 2010, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind”, Science, 330(6006), 932.
  2. Brewera, J.A., Worhunskya, P.D., Grayb, J.R., Tangc Y., Weberd, J., Kobera, H., 2011, “Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity”, PNAS, 108(50), 20254-20259.