Many of us fall into the trap of seeking happiness through material possessions or external circumstances many of which are beyond our control. It is as if there is a voice in our brains saying the words "if only."
If only I had a better job, a bigger house, friends, lovers, fame, cars, boats, and so on, I would be happy. Happiness can appear to be an elusive thing, just out of reach, just beyond the boredom of our common lives.
Many have pondered the secret to happiness and have found that happiness by and large does not center on material possessions. Researchers have found that once the basic human needs are met, affluent people are really not happier than the rest of us.
So what is the secret to happiness? Perhaps no one knows that for sure but a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison may have taken a step toward finding out. It seems that the phenomenon known as neuroplasticity may play a role in learning to be happy.
The researchers investigated a group of subjects' brains by using a new kind of scanning device called fMRI or functional MRI. This device is capable of showing the blood flow to specific areas of the brain. It allows scientists to peer into one's brain to see which parts are active at any point in time.
The researchers used monks who performed at least 10,000 hours of compassion meditation to train a group of subjects. One group of subjects was trained in compassion meditation while another control group was told to think positively about loved ones.
Both groups were then subjected to stimuli while being scanned. The subjects were exposed to the same stimulus consisting of negative and positive human voices. Some voices were designed to evoke empathy and others were neutral.
The results showed increased function in the insula, an area of the brain associated with emotions in the group trained in meditation. There was also increased function in another part of the brain, the temporal parietal juncture which has been associated with empathy.
So what are the implications of this study? Well, for one if you deeply practice an emotional state your brain will respond by becoming more functional in activating that state. This is very similar to learning new skills like a tennis serve or golf swing, only instead of developing the motor areas you develop the emotional areas.
This means that happiness and all of the healing properties associated with it can actually be learned through meditation. Meditation and guided imagery have been shown to facilitate healing primarily through the connection between the mind and body. The mind acts like a source of information and this information is carried to the tissues to the body via the nervous and endocrine systems.
Negative emotional states like depression and stress have been associated with illness while positive states tend to facilitate health. Techniques to improve emotional states may have a powerful influence on overall health and healing. So far many of these techniques center on guided imagery or psychotherapy.
It may be that compassion meditation may be another tool in the mind-body healing arsenal. Compassion is central to the teachings of Buddism and the Dali Lama.
Compassion meditation helps an individual perceive relationships with others in a more positive way. For example let's say that you are waiting in a long line and someone cuts in front of you. Instead of thinking about what a jerk this person is you could think about the action in terms of what could have happened to this person that he would treat others this way. Or you could work to be non-judgmental about the event.
What is interesting is that this technique can be learned and actually causes physical changes in the brain. So to be happier, be compassionate. You will be rewarded with a happier and healthier life.