Episode #6 of the course Understanding meditation and the science behind it by Colin Pal
In today’s lesson, we’re going to take a look at training happiness. Yes, it can be trained! And it’s done simply by flexing the happiness muscles—well, more like the happiness circuits—of our brain. Research has shown that higher levels of positivity and happiness are correlated with higher levels of activity in the left side of our brain’s prefrontal region. People with higher activation in this area recover more quickly from stress and negative emotional experiences and tend to have a higher baseline of happiness.
How Does Everything Work?
Through meditation and mindfulness exercises taught in positive psychology, we’re able to increase neural activity in our left prefrontal cortex. This does two things that increase happiness: First, it inhibits the activation of the amygdala, and second, it activates a neural circuit called the nucleus accumbens.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons in the limbic brain that is responsible for processing emotions like fear and aggression. By triggering more activity in the left prefrontal region, we inhibit activity in the amygdala. By meditating and paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, we’re not just creating the space to choose a response instead of reacting, but we’re also training our brain to turn down the dial of fear and aggression. This trains our ability to be emotionally resilient and to become more skillful at bouncing back from experiences of fear, anger, and stress.
The second benefit of activating our left prefrontal cortex is triggering the nucleus accumbens. This neural circuit gets triggered whenever we have a positive experience. It releases dopamine, the “feel good” or “reward” chemical, into our body, creating even more of a positive experience. This is why happiness can be contagious and easily be triggered through simple exercises like smiling, giving someone a high-five or hug, doing a random act of kindness, giving someone a genuine praise or compliment, or practicing gratitude and appreciation daily. Try giving someone a high-five and not smiling or feeling good about it. It’s not possible! The moment you give someone a high-five, that positive physical contact sends a signal up to the left prefrontal cortex, activating the nucleus accumbens, releasing dopamine, and making both of you feel happy.
Training happiness and cultivating loving-kindness for yourself and others is an important part of practicing meditation. You can sit and meditate for an hour every day, but if you’re not a kind person when off of your meditation cushion or mat, your meditation is meaningless. In a world where happiness is not normal and depression is rising, it’s becoming incredibly important that we cultivate more happiness and compassion. This can be done through a daily practice of gratitude or loving-kindness (metta meditation).
Challenge of the Day
Metta (loving-kindness) Meditation.
Sitting comfortably, start with a normal practice of meditation and come home to the present moment through your breath. When you’re centered in the present, begin to offer loving-kindness to yourself by saying silently:
“May I be safe and protected,
May I be Happy,
May I be Healthy,
May I live with Ease.”
Repeat it a few times and gather your attention on each phrase. When you get distracted, gently bring your attention back to your breath and then repeat the phrases. Then bring someone you love to mind and practice offering this loving-kindness to them, “May you be safe …” Then practice the same with a random stranger you’ve recently met, and then with someone who’s hurting or having a difficult time right now, and then can call to mind someone you’re having a difficult time with. This is the practice of unconditional loving-kindness.
“I cannot make you happy, but I can help you in the creation of your own happiness.” —Tweet this.
Tomorrow, we dive into training focus and how it works in the brain.
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