This inquiry arose this morning while sinking my feet into the moist duff at the base of the tall pines in my back yard. The Sisters--two pines, one Douglas Fir and one cedar--create the sacred space where I do morning Qi Gong and meditation, weather permitting. This morning, because of the recent rain, the moisture softened the normally crackly dry forest floor of needles, branches and cones. My feet could snuggle in and the dampness also increased the pleasing aroma from the pine forest. To me, it's reminiscent of camping.
I've been enjoying researching mindfulness and particularly neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the phenomena where the mind can actually change the physiology of the brain--mental training and/or experience has the power to change the physical structure and functioning of the brain.
What does this have to do with happiness? Well, if we can use our minds to actually change the brain, we can self-direct our thoughts to create more of a sense of happiness--more contentment. Less discontentment. And this is all without having to change our external circumstances. We would become less dependent on others for our happiness, so relationships could take on a new purpose and we would be less dependent on our external world, so our consumption patterns could change.
The implications of this are far reaching, really, particularly at a time when it is estimated that 50% of the creatures on the planet will be extinct in 85 years in part due to our over consumption patterns.
This understanding--that we can affect the literal part of our brain that generates a sense of well being and happiness--not only points to the reality that happiness truly lies within us, but more importantly, that we do co-create our own reality. On an even grander scale, this is conscious evolution--self-direction to our next level of being. And, as so many have been intimating for so long, we are the ones we've been waiting for.
We have what neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison calls a "happiness set point," according to a 2007 article in Time Magazine. To keep this simple, the set point is the relative level of activity that a person returns to in the left and right prefrontal cortex area of the brain after experience (positive or negative). This baseline is different for everyone, but Davidson noticed some interesting things when doing research with Buddhist monks.
The novice practitioners in the experiment did experience some immediate benefit--the area of the brain that distinguishes between self and other is quieted during compassion-based exercises, which can be "as if the subjects...opened their mind and hearts to others." according to author Sharon Begley.
Most intriguing, though, was that the long term meditators had markedly more activity in the left prefrontal cortex--where happiness is marked in the brain, which correlates with a higher baseline level of contentedness. This was not evident in the novice practitioners, which indicates that an increased positive state of being can be trained over time. He also noticed in the long term practitioners a greater activation in the network associated with empathy and maternal love.
What does this suggest for our future when we can generate our own states of contentment, empathy, maternal love and happiness? Personally, if our experience of happiness is truly in our own hands, we might want to get started with ways that can generate these states of being (mindfulness and compassion-generating exercises) and see for ourselves what happens.
Also, we can explore what happens as a result of a happier state of being. What have you noticed when you are in a happy state? Does life flow easier? Do your external circumstances and people's response to you change as a result? Am I happier because my circumstances changed, or did my circumstances change because I'm happier?
What about collectively? Could this be the missing link to our survival as a species? Could experiencing more personal happiness arrest our fear-driven insatiable appetite for more consumption that has us, and many other creatures, on the brink of extinction?