Happiness Training

Matthieu Ricard is an interesting guy. He's a scientist. He's a Buddhist monk. He's friends with the Dali Lama.

And he is, by some accounts, the happiest man on the face of the earth:

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson wired up Ricard's skull with 256 sensors at the University of Wisconsin four years ago as part of research on hundreds of advanced practitioners of meditation. 
The scans showed that when meditating on compassion, Ricard's brain produces a level of gamma waves -- those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory -- "never reported before in the neuroscience literature", Davidson said. 
The scans also showed excessive activity in his brain's left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, giving him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity, researchers believe.

Ricard attributes his blissful state to the practice of meditation. Apparently he spends hours each day contemplating human compassion in a meditative state.

Of course, all of this sounds well and good, but the more skeptical among us are inclined to wonder: what here is cause and what is effect? Is Ricard such a happy individual because he spends so much time meditating, or did he become a monk in the first place because he had an unusual brain that was pre-tuned to that sort of activity? After all, what are the chances that all that meditating has actually had some kind of impact on the physical structure of his brain?

In fact, it seems likely that it has done that very thing:

Research into the phenomenon, known as "neuroplasticity," is in its infancy and Ricard has been at the forefront of ground-breaking experiments along with other leading scientists across the world. 
"We have been looking for 12 years at the effect of short and long-term mind-training through meditation on attention, on compassion, on emotional balance," he said. 
"We've found remarkable results with long-term practitioners who did 50,000 rounds of meditation, but also with three weeks of 20 minutes a day, which of course is more applicable to our modern times."
Well, when you put it that way... Most of us are willing to devote some part of our day -- a few days a week, anyhow -- to exercise intended to make our bodies stronger, more durable, more attractive. Not many of us are attempting to set world's records or become the fittest person on earth, but we are interested in moving generally in that direction.

So even if we're not trying to become the happiest person on earth -- or even making the top 1,000 -- if there's reason to believe that 20 minutes of meditation each day could significantly increase our capacity for happiness, wouldn't that be worth it?

It really doesn't sound that hard.

(Meditation image via Wikimedia Commons.)


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