Are you presently satisfied with your life? Most people say they are. You probably would like to be more than just satisfied, though. It’s kind of meh.
Actual positive emotions have great benefits beyond happiness.
- broaden attention and thinking (great for managing attention)
- encourage higher-level and creative thinking (great for problem-solving)
- build cognitive, social, and physical resources (great for developing the skills needed for future challenges)
- are key components of resilience (great for when things are particularly challenging or don’t go as planned).
People who experience more positive emotion also experience
- more optimism and calmness
- increased mental health and close relationships.
One of the challenges of both staying happy and becoming happier, though, is the hedonic treadmill, the tendency for people to adapt to experiences and return to their happiness set points. This appears to be most true of pleasure-seeking, which by itself is not a good approach to either maintaining or increasing happiness.
Researchers have found that it is possible to be too happy. (In my post here I explain other disadvantages of too much happiness.) If your goal is close relationships, then being very happy may be optimal. If instead you want success in income or education, being moderately happy is probably just right. Just a slight amount of dissatisfaction is all you need to improve your achievement motivation to learn, achieve, and earn more. Note that you will still want to be happier than average, and that means you will be subject to the hedonic treadmill and happiness adaptation. But wouldn’t you like to be in more control of this? Meditation is the practice to help with that.
I have practiced meditation regularly for over twenty years. I meditate in the morning to start my day relaxed and clear-headed, especially before a challenging meeting where I will need to be proactive rather than reactive. I meditate before a business trip and find I am both more relaxed and more energized when I get off the plane. In the evening I meditate to let the stress of the day blow past like so many clouds. It is challenging to learn to meditate but the mindfulness that you develop is worth those first few weeks of wondering when it is ever going to work.
Michael Cohn, Barbara Fredrickson, and colleagues found that loving-kindness meditation can undo your adaptation to happiness. In other words, you can control your happiness appetite. In the original study, they conducted a seven-week meditation study with adults in a workplace setting. People who meditated
- increased positive emotion and built personal resources including mindfulness, hopeful thinking, positive anticipation of the future, and self-acceptance
- increased their sense of purpose in life
- enhanced the social support they received
- improved positive relationships with others
- decreased reported illness and depression symptoms. Wow!
In a follow-up study that Cohn and Fredrickson conducted with these same participants 15 months later, people who had continued to meditate also broadened and built positive emotions and personal psychological resources. Interestingly though, regardless of whether participants continued to meditate (or what kind of meditation they practiced), all participants maintained gains in positive emotion found when they were interviewed at the end of the first intervention, even when assessed more than a year later. Meditation practices have many benefits, and the benefits from meditation accumulate and persist. They can last even through days without meditation practice. Among these are:
- Increases in positive emotion and goal-oriented behavior
- Stronger and healthier immune system responses
- Improvement in interpersonal emotions such as empathy and compassion
Learning to meditate is worth the difficulty. Initially many participants in the original study were less happy, but after they got past the first challenging days of restlessness, boredom, or doubt, the upward trajectory from meditating was clear. Loving kindness meditation had substantial and lasting good effects on their health and life satisfaction. There are many kinds of meditation to try, including Mindfulness, Loving Kindness (try Dr. Emma Seppala’s version here), and Meditative Exercise. Learn more about these in Unleash Your Epic Self‘s chapter on Engagement and Exercise. Let me know how you do!