Taking Control in Your Life

For those looking to experience more calm in their lives, there is an option: meditation.

A study done by Professor Adam Anderson shows that spending just 30 minutes a day meditating can produce a positive feeling called mindfulness. This mindfulness is a concept of consciously observing one’s feelings for what they are, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the emotions. This is psychology, but a focus on the benefits of mental health, called “positive psychology.”

So how do you do this? One way is by focusing on your breathing. Spend 20 to 45 minutes a day meditating by concentrating on each breath that you are taking, to avoid drifting off. This technique will help you focus on the present and will train your brain to be more analytical regarding the emotions you feel. The result is that you acknowledge the feelings you have at any given moment, but you don’t lose control to them.

If you become successful at controlling your feelings this way, you are far less likely to become overwhelmed with negative emotions like depression and fear. Instead, you’ll be able to recognize those feelings for what they are, and then move on.

Meditation and mindfulness can be considered mental fitness. Just as we spend a portion of our day in physical activity to keep in shape, so should we mentally to keep our mind sharp and in control.

Research on this topic shows that people using techniques of mindfulness are able to reduce the effects of depression. They are also more likely to be successful in reducing the amounts of negative thinking. How does this work? Meditation affects the upper part of the brain, which deals with elevated thinking, rather than the lower part of the brain, which deals with primal thoughts. Drugs affect the lower part of the brain, while meditation affects the upper parts of the brain. Therefore, drugs are not necessary to deal with depression in order for a person to successfully meditate.

So why are some people more inclined to negative thinking than others? A study by a researcher named David Lykken says that a person’s happiness is largely determined by their experiences in life, but that 50% of a person’s happiness is determined by genetics. So someone with a cheerful disposition early in life is likely to keep that outlook on life several decades later. People are considered to have a “happiness set point” where even several years of good fortune or bad luck will not make people rise or fall much further beyond their “set point.”

Even though our genes will largely determine our “happiness set point,” things are not futile. We are still able influence up to 50% of how we feel by the choices that we make in our search for happiness. This search will differ for everyone, and the most difficult aspect is finding out what truly makes us happy. For some it could concern family, for others it could be the social satisfaction of attending church regularly. The key seems to be finding some type of concrete goal.

Surviving life’s ups and downs appears to come from being aware of the events and by acknowledging them for what they are, and then moving on. So we shouldn’t dwell on an incident of bad luck, but rather analyze why the event happened and then go forward.

Having money doesn’t seem to contribute much to one’s sense of happiness, as long as the basic necessities of life are being met. If anything, we tend to measure our happiness by how we are doing compared to others. If we get $100,000 but everyone else gets $200,000 we are less satisfied than if we get $50,000 whereas everyone else gets $25,000.

The heavy focus over the past few decades on happiness and our well-being has come about due to the progress Western civilization has made. We are no more happy or sad than any other generation before us. What has changed is our way of life. Since, generally speaking, given our basic needs have been met, we are now able to turn our focus to “well-being values.”

Source: Easton, Megan "What Makes Us Happy?" UofT Magazine. Spring 2009