Don’t worry, be happy, goes the song. It highlights the fact that to be happy is often seen as the epitome of our life’s achievements. All our other goals are lined up, just so we are happy some day!
Mindfulness and Happiness
We rarely achieve happiness when we actively chase it. Instead, it is usually a by-product of our life choices or our lifestyle. With mindfulness, happiness takes the same journey. It is not usually a direct goal. Rather, it is the result of achieving mindfulness and its consequent effect on our physical, mental and psychological health. In other words, when we practice mindfulness, we achieve certain states which then boost our happiness.
1. Experiencing life
The seeds of happiness are scattered all around us. We are just too busy to notice those most of the time. If you made a journal of every small thing that made you happy in a day, you will start to observe the micro details of the day, like the smile of your child or the aroma of freshly ground coffee at your favourite coffee shop.
Curiously, these experiences were always there. So, why did you stop feeling happy? Chances are that you just stopped noticing them and only focused on what made you unhappy — the traffic jam, an annoying colleague or the queue at the coffee shop when you picked the coffee. In other words, your brain learned to block everything that made it happy to mostly register what made it unhappy.
Now, that does not seem very smart, does it? Yet, this is precisely what we do. Mindfulness helps us to combat this brain bias by focusing our attention on our surroundings without judgement. We learn to consciously look for things that make us happy and since the brain learns from repetitive behaviour, soon we start doing this instinctively.
2. Dealing with negative emotions
People often think of happiness as a state of complete contentment where no negative emotions exist. However, this is impossible to achieve in reality. In life we are bound to be sad, anxious, jealous or frustrated as we are slated to be joyous, energetic or purposeful.
The difference between a happy and an unhappy person is not determined by the lack of negative emotion, but by which emotion will we regularly allow to overwhelm our state of being. An unhappy person is usually carrying around a bag of negative feelings inside their mind. Mindfulness teaches us to deal with these negative emotions without suppressing or over reacting to them. It opens up a healthy way of addressing these emotions. Also simultaneously it teaches us to maximise the flow of positive emotions in our life.
Overall we start by focusing inwards and identifying what makes us unhappy or angry. We acknowledge it and let ourselves experience it fully. Then we seek out different ways to address them, such as seeking help around them or writing down our experiences. Thus spent, negative emotions create the space for us to focus on the positive emotions.
Research shows that compassion has a real and measurable effect on our brain, particularly our sense of contentment and happiness. In an experiment that measured compassion, researchers found that the areas that lit up in the participants’ brains when experiencing compassion were the same areas as those associated with feeling good. Also released simultaneously were dopamine and oxytocin, powerful neurotransmitters that are associated with a rush of happiness and excitement. So, being compassionate can literally make us happy. Better still, this head rush means that we are likely to replicate it. The question obviously is whether we can learn compassion in the first place. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness exercises are particularly useful in building compassion. Here we focus on the other, learning to be compassionate from within. Mindfulness also teaches us to be compassionate towards ourselves as a first step towards true compassion. Importantly, mindfulness techniques are also central in ensuring that our feelings of compassion do not result in a compassion burn out.
Like compassion, gratitude is a word we understand. But does it actually make us happy? Again, we can find proof in science. Researchers found that gratitude affected not just the person who received the ‘gift’ or kindness, but also the giver. It had powerful and measurable impact on their sense of contentment, sleep patterns, energy levels and blood pressure.
It is also one of the cornerstones of mindfulness. When we are mindful, we actively acknowledge the gifts that we have received and our feelings on receiving them. By helping us in acknowledging our gifts and invoking gratitude, it fosters a feeling of contentment, which is the underlying state of a happy person.
5. Stress relief
In modern living one of the challenges to the feeling of contentment is the stress levels we suffer from. It not just affects our level of life satisfaction but also has tangible physical manifestations like lack of sleep and loss of appetite.
Some of the most effective means of dealing with stress are regular mindfulness practice. A number of scientific studies have shown that this meditation has a direct effect of relieving stress and infusing a feeling of containment in a person. In fact, it is often used in high stress occupations for better mental health.