Happiness as a Habit

by Adam Siak
in Blog

Eating, walking, and sleeping are a few of the most basic human experiences. One of the great successes of the wellness industry has been reframing these basic functions (that often get taken for granted) into skills that can be developed and improved upon. By incorporating small changes in these key lifestyle areas, individuals are able to achieve positive gains in physical health and wellbeing. Eating becomes a skill. Sleeping becomes a skill. And so, too, may the most fundamental purpose of human endeavor: happiness.

The body of research from organizations like The Mind and Life Institute aims to integrate neuroscientific research and the medita tive practices of Buddhism. This research is best presented in books by Buddhist monk,  Matthieu Ricard, and emotional intelligence guru, Daniel Goleman, who provide considerable evidence showing that sustained mindful meditation practices lead to numerous positive outcomes including resilience, personal relationships, compassion, and personal well-being while reducing the harmful and costly symptoms of depression and anxiety.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

The words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence still resonate at the core of the American spirit. We all want to be happy and we have the inalienable right to pursue happiness. However, we have collectively stumbled along this path. As American GDP has increasingly gone up, so have rates of divorce and suicide. Meanwhile, measures of general wellbeing have gone down, ultimately placing the United States at 13th on the World Happiness Index for 2016. It may be that our other profoundly American virtue of industriousness has married itself to our pursuit of happiness to the detriment of our wellbeing, as reflected by the negative effects of the American workaholic culture. Working long hours, climbing through an organization, making more money, buying the car to be the envy of the neighborhood, constantly striving for the next accomplishment. These are the symbols and symptoms of success, and with the comforts of luxury, we are to believe, happiness should follow. However, the research shows that while income does improve one’s evaluation of life, it does not for emotional wellbeing. Money doesn’t appear to buy happiness, after all. While the statistics on mental illness prevalence in America are discouraging, this does not mean to suggest that happiness is unattainable in the modern age, but rather, it may simply require a shift in mindset to identify the best methods for the pursuit of happiness.

In order to identify the best path towards improved wellbeing, it becomes necessary to establish a helpful definition of “happiness.” Matthieu Ricard (google “happiest person in the world”) discusses the various definitions of happiness in his TED Talk, where he describes the common trap outlined above where we often are in the pursuit of pleasure (not happiness) from objects or experiences in the outside world, which are “limited, temporary, illusory,” and often result in more pain. “Wellbeing,” rather, as Ricard comes to define, “is not just a mere pleasurable sensation, it is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment... a state that actually underlies all emotional states and all joys or sorrows that can come one’s way.” For Ricard, happiness isn’t a fleeting moment of elation, but rather a deep state of being that forms the bedrock underlying all emotional responses.

Happiness, then, as a state that pervades all emotions, relates very well to the concept of resilience. It is a skill. It can be developed. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson and clinical mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose research on mindful meditation and wellbeing is cited in Ricard’s “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill,” discuss their findings on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress is common to everyone. Each of us are faced with stressful situations in life that happen outside of our control. The difference is in how we respond to the stressor. Some of us are able to overcome the stressful event effectively and proceed with the proper behaviors that reduce the emotional response. Others may get wrapped up emotionally in the event, ruminate over it, and take more harmful actions aimed at removing or ignoring the pain, rather than reflecting on the stressful event and constructively managing it with a planned course of action. Davidson’s research studied the duration of the amygdala response to a discrete stressor, and demonstrated that the group trained in mindful meditation was able to recover from the stressor more quickly. “There is a response… but it changes how quickly we can recover… and that may be a key attribute of resilience,” Davidson says. The meditative group is more familiar with recognizing the experience of stress, and is thus able to more effectively manage the stress with composure and planning and to more quickly recover. By becoming more familiar with our full range of emotions, meditative practices, then, have the unique ability to create measurable improvements ranging from resilience to empathy to performance.

What further distinguishes the practice of meditation from others in the self-improvement industry is in its characteristic nature of inaction, of focusing on the present, and letting go of the drive to improve. The self-help industry is a billion-dollar industry which shows that there is a great market for people with intentions to improve themselves. Unfortunately, this pursuit of happiness and improvement may actually be counterproductive and lead, rather, to greater anxiety, with dubious measurable improvement in wellbeing. It may create a culture where the audience needs to buy the next book to continue on an endless track towards self-improvement, or fixing oneself. Barbara Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill notes that “The biggest danger of positive psychology is the hyper-zeal to be positive in a way that is not genuine or heart-felt.” The problem in this approach is that the individual is too fixated in fixing the past or improving the future self. The advantage of the mindfulness approach may be that it keeps the individual mindset in tune with the present. Paradoxically, then, to have the greatest impact on one’s future wellbeing, one must be willing to give up the future to bring enough focus to the present to become more familiar with one’s emotional experience.

Fredrickson’s research is also cited by Ricard, and she, like Davidson, also defines happiness as a state partly characterized by the skill to navigate the entire range of emotions, rather than being the mere expression of joy or pleasure. She uses a metaphor of a sail boat to make the point that the objective is not to eliminate negative emotions, but rather that the negative emotions of the boat’s rudder are necessary to keep us grounded and on course. The objective, then, is to cultivate positive emotions through loving-kindness meditation, what Fredrickson calls the broaden-and-build theory. The study results showed that the “meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.” This small lifestyle change, the daily practice of mindful meditation, was able to decrease symptoms of depression while improving personal wellbeing, which served as the foundation for positive improvements in multiple life areas.

“Happiness as habit” is neither a new idea nor one that is unique to Eastern culture or Buddhism. This grounded concept of happiness traces back to the founders of Western civilization, where Aristotle would define the happy person as one who has cultivated certain habits to live a more measured and virtuous life, and to bear the inevitable misfortune of life with greater equanimity. These ideas have woven their way through history and found contemporary Western proponents, such as Stephen Covey, and his influential “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Not only are the philosophical underpinnings of the Mind and Life Institute research consistent with the modern wellness industry, but the tools are available in abundance for wellness vendors to support the development and measurement of wellbeing skills. There are a variety of innovative online tools and apps available for stress management, resilience building, mindfulness meditation, and CBT programs that are developed to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression while improving levels of wellbeing. In fact, there are over 200 mental health start-up companies that reflect the competitive technology market in the behavioral health space. With the demand stated, and the proper tools in place, wellness programs may include happiness as a basic skill for development alongside eating, walking, and sleeping.

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