Happiness Can Be Learned
A new study coordinated by the University of Trento shows the beneficial effects of an intensive program on happiness.
The results showed that several psychological well-being measures gradually increased within participants from the beginning to the end of the course. That was especially true for life satisfaction, perceived well-being, self-awareness and emotional self-regulation.
The participants in the study also reported a significant decrease in anxiety, perceived stress, negative thoughts, rumination and anger tendencies.
The researchers observed, simultaneously, improvements in the positive aspects and a reduction of negative emotions, both in the short term and longitudinally throughout the program.
Nicola de Pisapia, a researcher of the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences of the University of Trento and scientific coordinator, explained theprinciples of the study as follows:
The training that we proposed to the participants was inspired by the idea – present in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions – that happiness is inextricably linked to the development of inner equilibrium, a kinder and more open perspective of self, others and the world, towards a better understanding of the human mind and brain. In this training process, we need on the one hand the theoretical study of philosophy and science, and on the other meditation practices.
The study was conducted over nine months (with seven theoretical/practical weekends and two meditation retreats) at the Lama Tzong Khapa Institute of Tibetan culture in Pomaia (Italy).
For the theoretical part, the participants attended a series of presentations and watched some video courses, and took part in open discussions on topics of psychology, neuroscience, the history of Western thought and the philosophy of life of Buddhism.
The scientific topics included neuroplasticity, the brain circuits of attention and mind wandering, stress and anxiety, pain and pleasure, positive and negative emotions, desire and addiction, the sense of self, empathy and compassion.
For the practical part, a series of exercises were proposed, taken from different, Buddhist and Western, contemplative traditions (for example, a meditation on the breath, analytical meditation, personal journal). The participants in the study also reported a significant decrease in anxiety, perceived stress, negative thoughts, rumination and anger tendencies.
In recent years, excluding the “recipes” that mistake happiness for hedonism, and the New Age obsession with positive thinking, research has shown that meditation practices have important benefits for the mind, while studies on happiness and wisdom have been scarce. De Pisapia therefore concluded:
“I believe that in times like these, full of changes and uncertainties, it is fundamental to scientifically study how Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, together with the most recent discoveries on the mind and the brain, can be integrated with contemplative practices in a secular way. The goal is to give healthy people the opportunity to work on themselves to develop authentic happiness, not hedonism or superficial happiness. With this study, we wanted to take a small step in this direction”.
Therefore, in essence, authentic happiness boils down to…