The Science Behind Why Meditation Makes You So Much Happier

Photo: © Christine Hewitt

One of my favorite things to do is watch students' faces go from stressed to serene, right there during their meditation. They rush into the studio straight from Los Angeles traffic hell, looking hassled and harried, and practically glide out of the meditation room 45 minutes later looking as if they just spent a week at a spa.

But it's what happens to them over a few weeks—or for some, even a few days—that really gets me. People are just happier. They're sunnier and lighter. They stand up straighter. They smile more. The increase in joy is tangible in how they look, how they sound, how they walk, and how they interact with people around them.

This hit of happiness is real. Even better, it lasts, because we're reconfiguring our capacity for happiness by rewiring our brains. Little happiness boosters like vacations are nice, but they've got no staying power. Researchers in the Netherlands discovered that the effects of a "very relaxing" vacation wear off after just two weeks. Meditation is so much cheaper than flying off to a beach somewhere, and there are many scientific studies showing it makes us happier in the long term. You get to keep the glow going for as long as you want.

We all have what psychologists call our "happiness set point," which is our individual capacity for joy. Mine might be high; someone else's might be low. But the good news for those who weren't born naturally happy is that this set point is not carved in stone. It's been proven that we can grow new neurons, which means we can train our brains to go from mildly happy to wildly happy. Or, as meditation teacher Amy Budden likes to say, "Meditation can trump environment and genes to help you hardwire happiness." So there literally is no cap on the amount of happiness you can experience!

Here are a few studies that show why meditation makes us happier.

  1. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar's studies showed that meditation shrinks the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls anxiety and fear. Less anxiety and fear translates to less stress. Less stress means more joy.
  2. A study done by research scientists at U.C. Davis showed that meditation can lower the amount of cortisol in the body, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Less cortisol, less stress, more capacity for joy. Seeing the pattern here?
  3. Richard Davidson, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, put a group of stressed biotech employees through Kabat-Zinn's eight-week MBSR program. They found that the employees who completed the program had more activity in the left prefrontal cortex—the happy, calm zone of the brain—than those who didn't do the training.
  4. A study done by Yale researchers showed that experienced meditators are able to dial down their daydreaming. Why does this matter? Because when our minds meander, they usually drift into worry or rumination, so less mind wandering is associated with more happiness. According to a different study done at Harvard, people reported being much less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were fully engaged in whatever they were doing. Being present, it turns out, is a ticket to being happy.
  5. A study done at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that meditation can provide a level of relief from symptoms of anxiety and depression similar to that of antidepressant drugs. Peace and happiness, no prescription needed!

Convinced yet? Good. Now get out there and meditate.

Based on an excerpt from Unplug: A Simple Guide to Meditation for Busy Skeptics and Modern Soul-Seekers. Copyright © 2017 by Suze Yalof Schwartz. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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