Doctor, psychiatrist, and mindfulness expert tells: We have the power to train our brains to experience a deeper and more sustainable kind of happiness.
Few experiences can compare to holding a human brain.
It was my first year of medical training. I was 19 years old, and as I stood in the cold, sterile dissection room with a brain in my hands, I wondered how a lifetime of memory, feelings and thoughts could arise from this one and a half kilogram, tofu-like substance. This fascination with the brain, coupled with my desire to help people live happy and meaningful lives, led me to a psychiatry career.
Moving deeper into my career, I discovered that while psychiatry helped save lives, it often left the flourishing part of the equation to other health professionals. I also realised that this was the part of the journey I was most passionate about. I wanted to support people to thrive, not just to survive.
A deeper calling
I knew I wanted to be of service, to help others flourish and make a positive difference in the world. However, I sensed I wasn’t moving in the right direction. I valued the rigour of science and the solid foundation of knowledge my training gave me. But somehow I was feeling unfulfilled and confused. I knew I wasn’t on the right path, but I wasn’t sure how to course correct.
It was during my own search for clarity, happiness, and resilience that I discovered mindfulness meditation.
It was the early 2000s, and mindfulness had not yet hit the mainstream medical world. I attended a conference and heard leading neuroscientists Dr Richard Davidson and Dr Michael Merzenich talk about the impact of mindfulness on the brain. They shared knowledge on the new science of neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to adapt and change throughout our lifetime in response to our experiences.
I was intrigued. Only a few years earlier, the accepted view in science was that the brain rapidly developed until about our mid-twenties. It was believed at this point brain-cell growth stopped and our capacity to create new neural pathways significantly reduced. It was a depressing picture of our brain’s capacity, peaking early, and then declining into old age. But by the time of the conference, Davidson and a few other leaders in the field of neuroscience were correcting this misconception. A new understanding of the brain was emerging, and it provided much more exciting possibilities.
Davidson shared research which demonstrated that mental training such as meditation actually changed meditators’ brains – both functionally and structurally – in ways that supported greater happiness and well-being. The changes were even seen in relatively short periods of meditation practice: one of Davidson’s studies revealed that just seven hours of compassion meditation over a two-week period resulted in measurable changes in the brain, and also had a positive impact on behaviour, leading to increased altruism.
Meanwhile, in a study of rats, Merzenich and his team demonstrated that regular brain training not only allowed their brains to continue growing and maintain function into old age, but could actually reverse age-related functional decline. His later studies found the same outcomes for humans who participated in intense brain training. The lifelong potential of neuroplasticity was emerging as a crucial element of our collective scientific understanding, empowering us to reach optimal levels of well-being.
We can sculpt our own brains
These scientists were suggesting that just as practising an instrument improves one’s musical abilities, implementing regular mind and brain practices could improve our psychological and physical well-being. I realised this perspective on well-being could offer hope to my patients, many of whom believed that their potential for happiness was limited by their genetics. Many saw themselves destined to a fate of familial anxiety or depression, with no capacity to influence this trajectory.
Although genetics undeniably has an influence on our mental health, the new science offered a more empowering perspective; we can,,to some extent, become sculptors of our own brains.
I realised that I was witnessing a paradigm shift in the world of well-being. Old models were being shattered as new models emerged, revealing the undiscovered potential of our brains. Scientific research supported what Buddhist monks had known for well over two thousand years. Finally, we were all starting to catch on that meditation is powerful tool for enhancing well-being, clarity, and happiness.
As I continued to explore this robust science, I was inspired to do my own investigation into mindfulness and the brain. I dove head-first into meditation by signing up for a seven-day silent meditation retreat.
My psychiatry boss at the time warned me against it. “I had a patient who lost their mind on one of those things. I couldn’t think of anything worse,” he casually remarked.
To be honest, I was a little scared too. Spending a week in silence with only my mind as company terrified me. As a high-energy person who likes to be productive and creative, I didn’t consider myself the ideal candidate for meditation. However, despite my reservations, a few weeks later I found myself on a meditation cushion in a retreat centre in the Byron Bay hinterland.
During the first few days I struggled. I was falling asleep from boredom and exhaustion in some moments, then experiencing profound agitation at others. It felt like an army of ants was crawling under my skin.
I suddenly felt clear
Then, after three days of obsessively questioning what I was doing there and contemplating escape plans, an unfamiliar sense of calm emerged. It was as though I’d been living my whole life with a background of mental static, and suddenly it cleared. I felt strangely content being right where I was, even though what I was doing was objectively pretty boring.
On the afternoon of the fourth day I strolled around the retreat grounds. I became strangely captivated by the details of trees and plants. Colourful flowers seemed more vibrant, leaf patterns and shapes became fascinating artworks, the melodic birdsong as thrilling as a live concert. I was completely present, absorbed in the moment. The narrating, planning, judging, worrying voice in my head had disappeared. There was stillness, ease and a feeling of deep connection to everything.
A transformation had taken place
I laughed at my clichéd transformation. I’d quickly gone from being a driven, ambitious, latte-sipping, list-making city dweller, to a bird-watching, contemplative, calm, nature-admiring meditator. After only a few days of silent practice I had indeed ‘lost my mind’, but in the most positive way.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this turning inwards started a profound shift in my life’s direction. A few years later, I left my psychiatry career to follow a deeper calling, creating a global meditation campaign. Six years later, it is the largest online fundraising meditation campaign for global poverty, called Mindful in May.
Striving for happiness
Many of us are drawn to meditation or mindfulness with the hope of finding better ways to manage their stress. Although these practices can be a powerful antidote to stress, they have a much deeper capacity to transform us.
There are so many books that boast magical, quick fixes to life’s challenges, and judging by the number that are hitting the bestseller lists, it seems that many of us are searching for that ‘secret’ to achieving lasting happiness. We are obsessed with trying to avoid the suffering that comes with being human.
In our relentless pursuit of happiness, we can easily get caught running on ‘the hedonistic treadmill’. This can be noticed when we constantly seek external sources of pleasure. Whether it’s earning more money, finding the ‘perfect’ relationship, or seeking approval, power, or success; we look for happiness in areas that are often transient and outside of our control. Our desires keep bubbling up as we struggle to fill gaps between our current reality and some imagined better reality.
A different kind of happiness
But there is another form of well-being and happiness, called eudaimonic happiness, first explored by Aristotle several thousand years ago. Eudaimonia comes from two Greek words: eu, meaning ‘good’, and Daimon, which is translated as ‘soul’ or ‘self’. This type of flourishing is not dependent on external circumstances, but rather emerges from an inner sense of well-being; it’s created by what we bring to life rather than what we get out of it, and it is completely within our control. Mindfulness training connects us to our inner reservoir of well-being. As a result, it also helps us see the causes of our happiness and suffering. With this growing wisdom and clarity, we make better decisions and start experiencing happiness that transcends our never-ending desire list.
When I started learning mindfulness meditation I had no idea how deeply it would transform my life. This ancient practice offers a completely new way of understanding our thoughts and mind. As far as I’ve found, this is the real ‘secret’ to supporting our greatest happiness.
This is an extract from Elise’s latest book The Happiness Plan.
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