Tom Peter's new website poll is about the source of "authentic happiness." That's always a very very good question to be asking, but I found absolutely no answer on the poll that even remotely aligned with my view.
I've been reflecting on (and taking more action related to) neuroplasticity, homeostatis, mind training and its effects on personal creativity and innovation as well as joy, meaning and empathy.
And last night at the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course I'm taking, I was handed fascinating research with insights into areas as diverse as enhanced immune function to meaninfulness at work to reading people's emotions accurately to personal contentment done in 2003 by Richard Davidson, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. (I couldn't find it online; the original article I'm quoting from below is in the Dr. Weil's Self Healing newsletter, September 2003, based on research published in July/August 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.)
I'll refrain from adding too much of my commentary as I think the results speak for themselves.
Earlier research by Dr. Davidson, using brain-imaging technology and EEG readings of brain electrical activity, suggested that each person's brain has a natural "set point" for good versus bad moods. People who are generally happy and calm typically show greater activity in the left side of the brain's frontal area compared with the right side. In contrast, those more prone to sadness, anxiety, or worry typically show more activity on the right side of the frontal area and less on the left. Life's ups and downs may alter your ratio of left versus right activity for a while, but it will tend to return to its usual level.
What Drs. Davidson and Kabat-Zinn discovered is that meditation can apparently shift this emotional set point in a more positive direction. The study looked at stressed-out volunteers from a biotechnology firm, who were randomly assigned to one or two groups. A group of 25 people attended eight weekly classes in mindfulness meditation (which involves remaining aware of bodily sensations and thoughts, without passing judgment on them) and participated in a seven-hour retreat. They were also asked to practice mindfulness meditation for an hour a day, six days a week. The 16 people in the control group didn't receive meditation training until the study was completed.
The researchers found the meditation group had a significant increase in activity in the left side of the brain's frontal area, and they also reported feeling more positive emotions in their daily life. (The control group didn't show these changes.) In addition the meditation group showed enhanced immunity: They produced more antibodies in response to a flu shot than did the control group. So meditation may not only make you happier but may also keep you healthier.
My instructor, Bob Stahl, last night also noted that most of the biotech employees had reported that their sense of "meaningfulness" in their workplace was low prior to the study. And the meditation group reported an increased sense of meaning at work at the conclusion of the study.
While this new study revealed that even novice meditators can reap health benefits, other recent research has some extraordinary effects from long-term meditation practice. When Dr. Davidson had the chance to test a senior Tibetan Buddhist monk at his laboratory, he found that the monk's brain had the highest ratio of left versus right activity out of all the 175 people tested, suggesting an unusual degree of emotional contentment. Paul Ekman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, tested the startle reflex of a different Buddhist monk by exposing him to noises as loud as a gunshot: While meditating, the monk was able to suppress this reflex, his face not moving a muscle. This was unprecedented display of mental control over a supposedly automatic response.
Dr. Ekman had previously developed a test of how well someone can read other people's emotions from rapid, subtle changes in facial expression (the test involves watching a video-tape of these fleeting expressions and attempting to identify the correct emotion). Most people do poorly on the test, but when Dr. Ekman tested two advanced Buddhist meditators, they got nearly perfect scores. This suggests meditation may actually sharpen perception and enhance empathy.
Ah well, no wonders there. The highest goal of meditators is to embody and exude "unconditional compassion" which is essentially a flowing loving-kindness to all sentient beings - a very advanced practice indeed. In my own experience, it is impossible to attain that state if if you are harboring any lingering resentment or judgment towards anyone, including yourself. (Thus you now understand why it's difficult.) In his latest research measuring brain gamma waves, some of the highest-frequency and most important electrical brain impulses, Davidson compared a highly skilled group and a novice group. I found it most revealing that the researchers did not select the common breath or other object-oriented meditation.
Buddhist teaching describes that state [of unconditional compassion], which is at the heart of the Dalai Lama's teaching, as the ''unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings.'' The researchers chose that focus because it does not require concentrating on particular objects, memories or images, and cultivates instead a transformed state of being.- Miami Herald, 1/18/05
Additional resources: Meditation Can Modify the Brain, Research Shows, Miami Herald, Jan 18, 2005 (reg req); more of Dr. Davidson's research; additional related articles via Fouroboros and Feb 2004 MIT Technology Review article, "Meditation and the Brain"