Mindfulness and the Pursuit of Happiness

How can meditation make us happier?

There are a lot of advantages to modern living. Advances in nutrition and sanitation have increased the human lifespan almost threefold compared to ages past. Modern technology provides widespread conveniences historically reserved for the aristocracy. Modern medicine can cure an increasing variety of ailments. Around the world, billions of people have access to all manner of materials needed for a happy life. And yet with these benefits come new challenges. The pleasure of getting a promotion at work or eating a good meal are all too often fleeting, replaced by some other concern or deadline. We lucky billions, the world’s most privileged citizens, are learning that finding happiness is not the same thing as keeping it.

Despite its affordances, the modern age is also an age of discontent. Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide, and the advent of antidepressant medication has done little to stem the tide. Perhaps because of a growing sense of conventional medicine’s limitations, people are turning towards alternative therapies to ease their suffering. It is in this pursuit that eastern health practices have begun to rise in prominence in the West. While more physical practices such as yoga have exploded into prominence over the past two decades, a second wave of mental practices such as mindfulness meditation are now growing in popularity.

Mindfulness meditation, simply put, means intentionally paying attention to immediate experience. This is easier said than done, given that at each moment, our minds are filled with a motivating sense of want that points to something missing from the present:  we want to explain the world, to justify our actions, to construct narratives around our lives that connect past to present to future. Attending to this want is a deeply conditioned practice of abstracting from immediate experience into a world of judgment and memory. The problem with trying to pay attention to the present is that we are constantly rejecting present moment experience to cater to this sense of want. This difficulty is directly apparent when you try to focus on one object for any length of time, be it a sound, sight, or physical sensation; the mind’s constant tendency to wander to abstraction, memory, or anticipation reveals our somewhat surprising inability to maintain a connection to the here and now.

Practicing mindfulness means working to increase awareness of present moment experience, without jumping to judgment, manipulation or avoidance of experience. In this way, mindfulness attempts to extinguish the deeply rooted habit of ignoring immediate experience to attain some future goal. The reason for this practice lies in the realization that the present, not the past or future, is the only time in which we can actually be happy. When attempting to redress the wrongs of the past or achieve some future benefit, there is a strong and perhaps captivating sense of mental engagement, but a constrained ability to appreciate one’s situation or other people. In essence, every time one’s attention projects into judgment, memory or anticipation, it constitutes a rejection of the adequacy of the present. In circumstances where the present is rejected in favor of negative thoughts about oneself or one’s situation, the mind is ironically avoiding the good and bad of the moment to focus on a purely negative situation. In extreme cases, this tendency is debilitating and is called depression or anxiety. If meditation can help break this cycle and return to an open appreciation for what is already right with the present moment, then meditative practice is more than just an attentional exercise – it represents a form of liberation from suffering.

Buoyed by the growing popularity of mindfulness meditation courses in reducing stress of vulnerability to depression, scientists have begun to understand what exactly is happening when people concentrate on the present moment. Such research has begun to suggest that mindfulness may be improving both the quality of people’s attention, i.e. the ability to concentrate, and also changing the contents of awareness to include greater sensation from the body and less reliance on abstract thought. In this way, individuals move from the abstract space of judgments and narration into physical sensation, an ongoing and changing field of awareness in which no thought or judgment has the power to appear as an absolute Truth.

In my own research on functional brain activity, my collaborators and I have identified a separate brain pathway for perceiving momentary changes in body sensation. This brain pathway seems to operate independently from the parts of the brain that are used for narrating and evaluating experience. By practicing mindfulness meditation, people are better able to activate this part of the brain instead of the evaluation / narration network. Furthermore, people who are able to keep a hold of momentary body sensations in the face of sadness show fewer signs of depression than those who narrate and evaluate in reaction to the negative emotions. So at a basic level of representation in the brain, mindfulness changes the systems we rely on to support awareness.

So what’s the big deal with awareness of body sensation? One benefit of training such awareness is that this body-focused context allows a person to see the arising of reactions and self-judgments more clearly. This awareness creates an understanding of how often self judgments occur by default, dictating a person’s quality of life. After all, if you noticed each time you arbitrarily created anger or sadness in your own mind, why would you continue to the point of hatred or depression? In becoming aware of automatic thoughts, it is possible to eventually choose other interpretations, weakening and perhaps eventually extinguishing harmful habits.

Techniques such as mindfulness will not magically remove conflict from the world. It does however cultivate a skill for openly investigating one’s response to stressors, an openness which allows for new and creative solutions to be developed. Combined with a deep commitment and resolve to improve one’s life and the lives of others, mindfulness can be a powerful tool in combating depression, apathy, and hopelessness. Such thoughts creep insidiously into our waking moments, draining life of joy and disempowering action. By exposing them to the light of calm and determined attention, they lose their power, letting life and choice occur once more, moment after moment.

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