In my own pursuit for happiness I’m always on the look out for evidenced based research. That’s not to say that I don’t keep an open mind about alternative remedies (*read non-science based remedies) but I’m mostly after things that I know are scientifically proven to have efficacious outcomes. Specifically, I’m after scientifically proven methods to help in man’s search for happiness.
Now this “men’s happiness” space is littered with gurus claiming the benefits of everything from herbal teas to ice baths but one item that keeps popping up is meditation. So before you read on, full disclosure, I’m already a convert. I practice meditation from time to time to help me get a handle on stress however, I’m no expert and I’m certainly not a guru. It’s just something that I’ve been trying out for a few years now that seems to work. My issue is that I don’t do it regularly; only when I seem to become overwhelmed. Unfortunately this is reactive to the problem and what I’m after is something that’s proactive and heads off the feeling of stress before I hit my redline. So, let’s have a deeper dive and see what we can see.
The inspiration for this article came from a mindfulness show that I was watching on Netflix called HeadSpace. In the second episode the narrator mentions a Harvard University study that measured the physical effects of meditation on the human brain. The study was conducted by Prof Sara Lazar and was published in the 30 Jan 2011 issue of Physiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
The idea behind this research is that our brains are malleable which means they can be changed (like putty). Not in the gross, mush between your fingers gooey sense but in the make it faster, stronger and more powerful sense. Funnily, if you think about it, it’s crazy to think that we ever thought otherwise. I mean, we all know that if you lift weights your muscles get bigger/thicker/stronger so why wouldn’t your brain? We anecdotally know that people that study hard and contemplate hard questions, get better at solving them so it all seems to fit. There’s even a name for it, neuro-plasticity!
Back to the Harvard study; it required a group of participants to have a magnetic resonance image (MRI) of their brains 2 weeks prior to the study. Then the participants participated in an 8 week meditation course at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. After this the participants had another brain scan and the results were compared.
The research found that people that meditate regularly had thicker and more active parts of the brain that are associated with happiness. Specifically, they found:
- Thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associate with attention and emotional integration
- Increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to drive learning and memory as well as improvement in brain structures accociated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
- Decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala; known to play an important role in anxiety and stress
Just to be sure, the researchers also had a control group of participants that didn’t participate in the mindfulness course. They also had the relevant MRI scans. This control group didn’t show any changes in brain activity from their first to last scan.
So my question is, how long did they meditate per day to achieve the change? The answer was only 27 minutes. After 8 weeks of meditating 27 minutes per day, the participants reports significantly lower levels of stress, anxiety, greater well-being, improved attention span, better memory and greater levels of happiness! These reports correlated with the changes noted in the participants brains as evidenced by the brain scans. By contrast, the control group that didn’t meditate experienced no change whatsoever.
Running the numbers, 8 weeks is 56 days. At 27 mins per day, that means you can change your brain with 25 hours of meditation. Doesn’t sound too hard now does it!
So what am I going to do with this information? well, first thing is to set a goal to meditate everyday. How? well I’m too disorganized (anyone with kids will understand) to remember to do it everyday so I downloaded an app called Insight Timer. It was free. I’ve now used it more than a dozen times and it still hasn’t asked me to pay for anything. Overall I’m a fan. I did originally try the paid HeadSpace app (which I liked) but I found it hard to justify the cost when compared to Insight Timer.
So how am I feeling after a few weeks of meditation? Hard to say, I guess I could split this into two sections. First, immediately after meditation I feel great. I feel relaxed and open. According to my wife I’m visibly calmer and more present. Secondly, taking a longer view, a few hours after meditation I feel normal. That is to say that I don’t feel a floating sensation of oneness with the world, I just feel normal. I guess because change in yourself can be so tricky to measure subjectively, and especially over time, that it’d be better to have some kind of objective measure by which I could evaluate my stress levels. What I’ll do is update the article after 8 weeks and let everyone know.
If you have your own experiences to share then please do in the comments below. It’d be great to know that I’m not alone in a mans pursuit of happiness.