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Today is the International Day of Happiness, so to celebrate let’s have a look at how mindfulness makes people happy, by literally changing the physical structure of the brain. First though, a question: are you happiest when you mind is wandering, or when you are focused on the task at hand?

A study at Harvard looked into just that, investigating the mind wandering habits of over 15,000 people1. Participants were buzzed on their phones at random times and asked if they were focused on their current activity or whether their mind was wandering, and if it was, whether their thoughts were pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

The results showed that people’s minds wander – a lot! Forty-seven percent of the time in fact. People were the least happy when they were thinking unpleasant thoughts, but reported that they were the most happy when their minds were not wandering at all – even happier than when they were thinking pleasant thoughts!

This is strong evidence for the main precept of mindfulness – that people are happier when they are focused on the present moment. This mindful state is developed in two ways; through formal mindfulness practices or “meditations,” or through

informal practice, which simply involves being focused on the present as you go about your normal routine. But how can this simple activity make you happier?

The Happy Brain

One key brain area involved in happiness is the left prefrontal cortex, located just behind the left side of your forehead. Activity in this area increases when you’re watching a funny film, reminiscing on good times, and even when someone smiles at you2. When neuroscientists want to study happiness in the brain, this where they look.

To see whether mindfulness affects this area, Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin brought in an experienced meditation practitioner, Mattieu Ricard, who was later dubbed “The world’s happiest man.” When Ricard was hooked up to an EEG scanner and told to start meditating, his “gamma” oscillations – indicating deep concentration – were so far beyond normal readings that Davidson thought his scanner was malfunctioning!

Encouraged by this positive result, Davidson and Ricard repeated the test with a larger group of meditators, compared to a control group of students who had never meditated. When they did, they found that activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the meditators was dramatically higher than in the students.3

Crucially, the meditators’ brain activity correlated with how many hours’ practice they had completed – more meditation practice meant more brain activity. This is a common finding in mindfulness research, even in inexperienced practitioners. For example, a 2008 study of an eight-week mindfulness course found that “the extent of home practice of formal meditation exercises is significantly correlated with wellbeing.” 4

We often think of happiness as something that just happens, a response to what life throws at us; but this research suggests that happiness is a skill, something we can get more of through training.

Thoughts Affect Mood

Mindfulness also helps us become more resilient to unpleasant emotions. There’s a feedback loop between your thoughts and your emotions. For example if we ruminate on a past failure, we start to feel sad, this makes us think more negative and self-defeating thoughts, which make us even more sad. It’s a downward spiral that we might not even be aware of.

Through mindfulness practice we can become more aware of these thought patterns, and we can see how they influence our emotions. Then, when we notice ourselves in a negative thought loop, we can more easily bring our attention back to the present moment, halting the downward spiral we were on.

For example in one study, people who attended a one-month mindfulness course experienced large increases in positive mood, accompanied by significant decreases in ruminative thoughts and behaviour. The researchers found that the improvements in mood were partially caused by the decreased rumination. 5

We do a lot of different things in a normal day. Whether we’re commuting, eating or talking with colleagues, our mind has a tendency to start wandering, and if we get stuck in a negative loop it can have a powerful effect on how we feel. Mindfulness acts as a sort of buffer, protecting us against the thought loops that can bring our mood down.

How much do you need to do?

Some of the participants in Davidson’s study had over 10,000 hours of meditation practice. But you don’t need to wait that long to see results. Some studies have shown benefits after just 20 minutes a day for four days. Overall, research into mindfulness shows a consistent dose-response trend – that is, the more mindfulness practice you do, the better your results tend to be.
However, mindfulness is quite similar to exercise in that, despite the known benefits, it is a difficult habit to maintain. We specialise in mindfulness training programs for organisations, that are designed to enhance engagement. We use a unique combination of live training and gamified technology to increase adherence to mindfulness practice so that it becomes embedded as a way of life.

Contact us at info@mind-lab.com or call us on 07392 220 784 to find out more about how mindfulness and wellbeing can help your business.


References

[1] Killingsworth, M. A. & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science. 330(6006), p932.

[2] Urry et al. (2004). Making a Life Worth Living. Neural Correlates of Well-Being. Psychological Science, 15(6), 367-372.

[3] Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., Lutz, A., Shaefer, H. S., Levinson, D. B & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. PNAS, 104(27), 11483–11488.

[4] Carmody, J & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioural Medicine. 31(1), 23-33.

[5] Shamini Jain, M. S. et al. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annal of Behavioural Medicine. 33(1), 11-21.