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Learning Happiness

Happiness is interesting.

Also interesting: Human suffering.

Ask one hundred random people what would have to happen for them to be consistently happy, and I suspect you would get one hundred different answers.

Some might define happiness in terms of diminished suffering; others might offer a positively framed description, perhaps in terms of relationship or success.

So what is happiness? Can it be measured objectively? And if so, can happiness be learned?

Those questions sound crazy, but are they, really?

Perhaps not….

Over six years ago, Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. used functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis to index the brain’s set point for moods.

His findings: Happiness is a skill. Happiness can be learned.

Functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are emotionally distressed — anxious, angry, depressed — the most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, part of the brain’s emotional centers, and the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.

By contrast, when people are in positive moods — upbeat, enthusiastic and energized — those sites are quiet, with the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

By taking readings on hundreds of people, Dr. Davidson has established a bell curve distribution, with most people in the middle, having a mix of good and bad moods. Those relatively few people who are farthest to the right are most likely to have a clinical depression or anxiety disorder over the course of their lives. For those lucky few farthest to the left, troubling moods are rare and recovery from them is rapid.

Dr. Davidson found that we have a biologically determined set point that determines our emotional range, our relative happiness; however, his research also shows we can influence and change our happiness set point, changing where we fall on the happiness scale!

As we’ve said before, the brain is an incredibly plastic organ.

Training the mind using the kinds of skills we teach our coaching clients, skills such as centering and mindful awareness, literally remodels our brains!

In short, the results suggest that the emotion set point can shift, given the proper training. In mindfulness, people learn to monitor their moods and thoughts and drop those that might spin them toward distress. Dr. Davidson hypothesizes that it may strengthen an array of neurons in the left prefrontal cortex that inhibits the messages from the amygdala that drive disturbing emotions.

So, happiness can be learned, and if that’s not great news, I don’t know what is!