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Learning to Be Happy: What Is the Secret to Happiness?

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Happiness—we all seek it and want to know the secret of it. Happiness research has become something of a cottage industry in recent years. Self-help books line the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Motivational speakers mentor—and make—millions on the how-tos of finding it.

Many of us fall into the trap of seeking happiness through material possessions or external circumstances—many of which are beyond our control. It’s as if there’s a tape loop inside our heads constantly replaying the words “if only.” If only I had “blank,” I’d be happy. Happiness becomes an elusive thing, just beyond the humdrum of the daily grind.

Happiness—we all seek it and want to know the secret of it. Happiness research has become something of a cottage industry in recent years. Self-help books line the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Motivational speakers mentor—and make—millions on the how-tos of finding it.

Vicki Mazik credits meditation with helping her cope with her cancer diagnosis. Photo courtesy of Vicki MazikMany of us fall into the trap of seeking happiness through material possessions or external circumstances—many of which are beyond our control. It’s as if there’s a tape loop inside our heads constantly replaying the words “if only.” If only I had “blank,” I’d be happy. Happiness becomes an elusive thing, just beyond the humdrum of the daily grind.

Experts have long pondered the secrets to happiness, discovering that the path to that coveted state does not center on material possessions. Indeed, research has shown that once basic human needs are met, wealthy people are really no happier than their less affluent peers. What’s more, the happiest people in the world reside in Panama—the world’s poorest country—while the least happy live in Singapore, its richest.

So what is the secret to happiness? No one knows for sure but a team of neuroscientists led by Dr. Richard J. Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, appear to be on to something. It seems that a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself in response to changes in the environment—may play a role in our ability to be happy.

Using MRI technology, the researchers were able to view the left-sided anterior region of the brain—the area associated with positive mental states. They documented increased activity in this region of novice meditators who participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation course.
In addition, the researchers also found that meditation stimulated the limbic system, the area of the brain that regulates emotions. Expert meditators with more than 10,000 hours of practice showed the greatest amount of activity in this area and appeared to have permanently altered their brains to generate positive thoughts—even when they weren’t meditating.

This means we can choose—and learn—to be happy. Indeed, from a Buddhist perspective, meditation is a way of eliminating suffering from our lives. If we meditate, we will experience less suffering and therefore more happiness. But the goal of Buddhist practice isn’t really happiness as we imagine it, but rather something more like peace or self-fulfillment.

“Happiness is fleeting, so it’s much more about fulfillment than happiness,” says Alison Smith Driscoll, certified meditation instructor at Empowered Yoga in Wilmington. “A problem arises when we say that happiness is the goal because it’s a set-up for failure.”

Indeed, meditation teachers say you shouldn’t be seeking a pleasurable state or any other state for that matter. Rather, you should observe things—your breath, your emotions, sensations, sounds—without making value judgments. So while anxiety normally feels bad, if you encounter it while meditating, you’re supposed to examine it in as detached a way as possible, doing your best to see it as neither good nor bad, just “what is.” This cool detachment allows us to see our emotions more clearly, leading them to loosen their grip on us.

“Suffering is optional,” says psychologist Doris G. Lauckner, Ph.D., a meditation instructor at the Insight Meditation Community in Lewes and chair of the community counseling program at Wilmington University. “Buddhism talks about the two arrows. The first arrow is whatever pain you have, but the second arrow is the thoughts and actions around it that creates the second level of suffering that is avoidable.”

The aim is simple: to pay attention—to be “mindful” or “in the moment.” But our experience rarely has this quality. A lot of the time we find ourselves engulfed in emotions way past their expiration date: self-pity, anger, wish fulfillment, fear. Pointless thoughts about what could have been or what could be—“only if”—do nothing to enrich the present. Meditation teaches that the only place we can experience the flow of life—and creative thought—is in the now. Not surrendering creates psychological and physical tension, which inhibits that flow. And the more we try to suppress an unpleasant thought, the more it recurs.

Andrea Winward Kennedy, instructor/owner of The Yoga Studio in Lewes, leads a class. Photo by Ron Dubick“If I try to hold it in, I’m distracted because it’s on my mind,” says Andrea Winward Kennedy, instructor/owner of The Yoga Studio in Lewes.

It can be a real shock to discover how much runaway thinking we actually engage in and how that causes suffering. “As you start to practice meditation, you’re going to notice the quality of your thoughts, and you’re likely to come to the conclusion that you might be a little insane because you’re going to find that the thoughts are very repetitive,” says Nick Edge, teacher and member of the Insight Meditation Community in Lewes. “They’re almost always based on fear or desire: either chasing after or pushing something away.”

It is very hard to develop the concentration necessary to calm the inner maelstrom, but therein lies the route to self-awareness and contentment. “When you’re left without words and your mind does shut down, when the gap between thoughts gets bigger and bigger and you’re in the gap, what you’re left with, that’s your pure essence—not the ego,” says Edge.

Indeed, meditation is the process of cultivating compassion for ourselves and others, offering the realization that we are all naturally perfect and whole. “There is no concept for self-loathing in Tibet,” says Smith Driscoll.

Mindfulness, then, is not about ecstatic states. It’s comparatively humdrum. Moreover, it’s not a fast track to blissful happiness. In fact, it can be rather unsettling as it works with painful experiences. But going with what is can also be liberating.

Andrea Winward Kennedy goes with the flow. Photo by Ron Dubick “I allow myself to feel how I feel because I know I’m not going to get stuck there,” says Winward Kennedy. “I’m not afraid to cry. I know that I cry, then it passes. Some people are afraid to feel because they’re afraid they’re going to get stuck there. I think I witness myself going with the flow.”

Vicki Mazik, owner/instructor at Zen Yoga Room in Newark, credits the grounding effects of meditation with helping her cope with the cancer diagnosis she received last year. “I’m now cancer-free, but whatever the outcome was I was OK with it,” she says. “You can live in a crisis situation as long as you’re present and negative thoughts aren’t entering your mind. I was present every day. I appreciated little things around me: my dog, my fiancé and the sunshine.”

Western psychology has finally discovered what Buddhist monks knew centuries ago: that the most powerful way to happiness is developing compassion for oneself and for others. Contemporary positive psychology states that people are generally happy and that money doesn’t necessarily buy well-being. Moreover, while happiness is influenced by genetics, people can learn to be happy by developing optimism, gratitude and altruism.

“That’s what meditation practice is about—cultivating those kinds of states of mind,” says Lauckner.

Is there something larger, deeper and more lasting than mere happiness? Those who practice meditation say there is and believe they’ve found it.

“’Happy is not a word I’d use to describe myself, but I am content,” says Carlyle Hoof, 62, who works in mental health services for the state of Delaware. “Things don’t bother me the way they used to. I would get a lot more attached to an issue. Now I just go with the flow.”

Joe DiGiovanni got involved with meditation last year after taking some yoga classes to correct a back problem. He says it’s helped lower his blood pressure and has allowed him to cope better with stress. It has also given him a different perspective on the “grass is greener” syndrome so many of us fall prey to.

“You come to realize you don’t need the big car or the big house,” says the 45-year-old sales and marketing professional from Trolley Square. “Those things are nice but they don’t last. The economy can go down, people can get sick. I’m much more appreciative of the smaller things in my life—when I’m spending time with my daughter, or I’m surfing or with my family.”

Margaret Badger welcomes the opportunity to just quiet her mind for a while. “I work 70 ro 80 hours a week,” says the 40-something musician who teaches piano and voice at the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington. “So I always have something I’m thinking about, or preparing or planning for or writing down. Doing something where I can just turn off my brain is kind of exciting.”

Lauckner views meditation as a complement to her work as a psychologist. “I’ve heard people say that therapy takes you to normal neurotic, and meditation takes you to happy,” she says. “By meditating on a day-to-day basis, I’m less reactive. I don’t jump emotionally. I take my time to think things through and make better choices. I feel like I have tools to cope that I didn’t have before.” 


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