Category Archives: Neuroscience of Happiness

What is Meditation? The Science of How it Makes us Happier.

1Assignment: Write out the sentences below and finish the sentences with information that you read in the article below. 

1.  Three benefits of meditation that I read about below were …

2.  Today, meditation is being used to treat …

3.  Many groups are now using meditation, including …

4.  Physicians have increasingly started …

5.  When new meditators were hooked up to microphones during the day, the doctors found that the people …

6.  I am liking/not liking meditation because …

7.  I will use meditation in my life in these ways …


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A quiet explosion of new research indicating that meditation can physically change the brain in astonishing ways has started to push into mainstream.

Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation can make you happier, less stressed — even nicer to other people. It can help you control your eating habits and even reduce chronic pain, all the while without taking prescription medication.

Meditation is an intimate and intense exercise that can be done solo or in a group, and one study showed that 20 million Americans say they practice meditation. It has been used to help treat addictions, to clear psoriasis and even to treat men with impotence.

The U.S. Marines are testing meditation to see if it makes more focused, effective warriors. Corporate executives at Google, General Mills, Target and Aetna Insurance, as well as students in some of the nation’s classrooms have used meditation.

Various celebrities also are known meditators, including shock jock Howard Stern, actors Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn and Heather Graham, and Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer of the band Weezer.

In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.

READ: Meditation 101: Tips for Beginners

Recently, the Dalai Lama granted permission for his monks, who are master mediators, to have their brains studied at the University of Wisconsin, one of the most high-tech brain labs in the world.

Richie Davidson, a PhD at the university, and his colleagues, led the study and said they were amazed by what they found in the monks’ brain activity read-outs. During meditation, electroencephalogram patterns increased and remains higher than the initial baseline taken from a non-meditative state.

But you don’t have to be a monk to benefit from meditation, which is now gaining acceptance in the field of medicine.

Physicians have increasingly started prescribing meditation instead of pills to benefit their patients. A Harvard Medical School report released in May found that more than 6 million Americans had been recommended meditation and other mind-body therapies by conventional health care providers.

Perhaps the most mind-bending potential benefit of meditation is that it will actually make practitioners nicer. Chuck Raison, a professor at Emory University, conducted a meditation study in which he hooked up microphones to participants who had been taught basic meditation and those who hadn’t. He then recorded them at random over a period of time. Raison found that these newly-trained mediators used less harsh language than people who had no meditation experience.

“They were more empathic with people,” Raison said. “They were spending more time with other people. They laugh more, you know, all those things. They didn’t use the word ‘I’ as much. They use the word ‘we’ more.”

However, even the Dalai Lama admitted that meditation is not the silver bullet cure-all for every ailment or emotion.

“Occasionally, [I] lose my temper,” he said. “If someone is never lose temper then perhaps that may come from outer space, real strange.”

The Dalai Lama also cautioned that meditation takes patience, so new mediators should not expect immediate results.

“The enlightenment not depend on rank,” he said, laughing. “It depends on practice.”

Some scientists believe that in a generation, Americans will see meditation as being as essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle as diet and exercise.

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The Role of the Brain in Happiness


Advances in Neuroscience Reveal Fascinating Details About How the Brain Works

Guest Blogger: Dr. Bill Conklin

The heart has long been considered the seat of emotion.  Several familiar expressions prove it.  When faced with an interpersonal loss, it is said that someone is “broken hearted.”  When a person is overly-emotional we say that he “wears his heart on his sleeve.”  When someone is overjoyed, she might say that her “heart is about to burst.”  Yet, over the past century, science has taught us that the brain is the true home of our feelings.

Advances in the field neuroscience have revealed fascinating details about the workings of the brain.  Over the centuries, the 100 billion neuron mass of tissue in our skull has evolved.  For descriptive purposes the brain can be divided into different areas based on function.  Two basic divisions are the lower brain (also known as the reptilian brain) and the upper brain (known as the mammalian brain).  The mammalian brain – as the name suggests – is present in mammals but to a proportionally greater degree in humans.  As the human species has developed, so too has the mammalian brain.

Another name for this area of the brain is the neo cortex.  The neo cortex is itself divided into sections.  These areas have come to be called the “lobes” of the brain.  There are four large lobes: the frontal, the parietal, the temporal, and occipital lobes.  The frontal lobes are used most in higher level thinking.  The parietal lobes are used mostly in movement.  The temporal lobes are involved in hearing and speech.  And the occipital lobes are involved in sight.

The reptilian brain contains several structures comprising the limbic system.  Thirty years ago brain scientists believed that this area of the brain was exclusively dedicated to the processing of emotions.  Yet now we know that the limbic system has intricate connections with the frontal lobes.

The work of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has been particularly valuable not only in the traditional field of neuropsychology but also in the new field of positive psychology.  In his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2012), Davidson describes the biochemical interaction between the limbic system and the frontal lobes.  To simplify his findings, the frontal lobes are involved in both higher level thought and emotion.  This fact suggests that our thinking affects the way we feel and vice versa.

The implication is that we can use our thoughts to change our feelings in a very important way – that is toward happiness.  For me, this is the essence of positive psychology.  The power of positive psychology lies within the process of intentionally using thought to change emotion.

Through functional MRI (fMRI) technology, Davidson demonstrated that the left side of the frontal lobe – known as the left prefrontal cortex – is more active when people feel happy.  In contrast the right side of the frontal lobe –the right prefrontal cortex – is more active when people feel sad.  Thus, by learning what stimulates the left prefrontal cortex we can encourage or even train people to be happier.  Similarly, by learning what calms the activity in the right prefrontal cortex we can discourage or train people to reduce sadness.

Does this sound far-fetched?  I’m guessing that it might.  But consider the state of the art treatment for anxiety and depression.  Research has proven time and again that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective intervention for treating anxiety and depression.  Simply put, what CBT tells us is that we can change the way we think through repeated exposures to thinking healthy thoughts, avoidance of unhealthy thoughts, and engagement in healthy behaviors.  Doing these things strengthens the left prefrontal cortex – the feel good center of the brain.

Davidson tells us that other things can facilitate the activity of this positive neural network.  Meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) can both strengthen the activity of the left prefrontal cortex and reduce the activity in the right prefrontal cortex.

Both fun and social interaction impact the function of the brain.  Enjoying pleasurable activities, doing something that seems to make time stand still, spending time with loved ones, pursuing meaning in its many forms, and celebrating accomplishments stimulate the activity in your left prefrontal cortex.

Finally, physical exercise can strengthen the feel good centers of the brain including those in both the mammalian and reptilian brain.  In particular, exercising in new and different ways has been found to stimulate the release of natural feel-good chemicals (neurotransmitters).

By doing any or all of these activities, you are literally changing the way your brain works – and by doing that you can change your life for the better – not just for today, but for years to come.


Dr. Bill Conklin is a psychologist practicing in East Tennessee. Bill has applied the principles of positive psychology since the late 1990s. He has coordinated the development of A.P.T. – Automatic Positive Thinking™ a group positive psychological intervention. For information:

A Few Things That Therapy May Do Better Than Medication, According To Science


By: Alice G. Walton on

In the last couple of weeks, there have been some big announcements from the medical and mental health communities about the wisdom of using drugs over behavioral methods for various disorders. The meds vs. therapy debate has been an active one for a number of years. But these days, some experts and organizations are questioning, more and more, whether popping pills should really be our go-to treatment, based on the literature. And it seems that for some that have historically used meds as the first line of treatment, the evidence for behavioral methods has mounted to the point where recommendations have shifted in their favor. At least for some things.

“Considering behavioral interventions (therapy) prior to medication is a long-overdue recommendation,” says psychologist Shannon Kolakowski, and author of the book When Depression Hurts Your Relationship. “I am thrilled to see this progress, as it reflects what I see in my daily practice. People make tremendous strides with therapy alone. Having therapy be officially recommended as a first line of treatment reduces the stigma about therapy and adds validity to an already established, vetted treatment.”

And research is, as it should be, what’s driving the trend. Studies are making more rigorous comparisons between methods, and learning more about how to determine various measures, like the benefit vs. risk ratio and relapse rate, of each one.

“Over the past two decades, the field of psychology has become a more rigorously tested science, with treatment outcomes measured and reproduced, and therapy guidelines have followed,” says Kolakowski. “This has led to effective, evidence-based treatment people receive in therapy sessions. The changing recommendations are a reflection of how effective therapy is for a host of behavioral and emotional problems.”

Here are a few things for which recent research has prompted changes in go-to treatments.

Behavioral Interventions for ADHD/ADD in Kids

There’s been a big backlash in recent years regarding the advisability of prescribing stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall for children, especially very young ones. The numbers of kids with ADHD have risen markedly in recent years, with many questioning whether this is a true rise in incidence, or it’s a result of diagnosis-eager physicians or even shortcomings in our education system. In any case, the CDC has just released a new recommendation that behavior therapy, rather than medication, should be the first line of treatment for children with ADHD.

“Parents may feel overwhelmed with decisions about their child’s treatment for ADHD, but healthcare providers, therapists and families can all work together to help the child thrive,” said Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director, CDC. “Parents of young children with ADHD may need support, and behavior therapy is an important first step. It has been shown to be as effective as medicine, but without the risk of side effects. We are still learning about the potential unintended effects of long-term use of ADHD medicine on young children. Until we know more, the recommendation is to first refer parents of children under 6 years of age with ADHD for training in behavior therapy before prescribing medicine.”

Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia

As of this week, the American College of Physicians believes that for insomnia, cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) should be the first line of treatment, rather than meds, since it has better scientific evidence behind it. And meds can come with all sorts of negative side effects. As per the new recommendations, CBT-I should be used first as a matter of course.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is an effective treatment and can be initiated in a primary care setting,” said ACP President Wayne J. Riley. “Although we have insufficient evidence to directly compare CBT-I and drug treatment, CBT-I is likely to have fewer harms. Sleep medications can be associated with serious adverse effects.”

The experts add if that if the behavioral strategy alone doesn’t work, then the pros and cons of medication can be discussed. And if it’s deemed necessary by both patient and doctor, it can used for four to give weeks, while still doing CBT-I.

Therapy for Depression

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that everyone aged 12-18 be screened for depression. The first line of treatment for depression is still somewhat up for grabs, but the effectiveness of antidepressants is being called into question more and more, while the research behind the value of behavioral interventions is growing. Last week, a study suggested that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was as effective in preventing relapse in chronic depression as antidepressants. This is not the first to suggest a similar thing. There are of course certain cases in which medication is absolutely necessary. But in some cases, perhaps in many cases, behavioral strategies should be the first line of treatment instead of medication for certain mood or anxiety disorders. And doctors are beginning to realize that.

“I’ve noticed that many of my referrals come from physicians and pediatricians, who are now recognizing that therapy should be used for treatment of behavioral issues before they prescribe medication,” says Kolakowski. “This is further evidence of the trend we are seeing, and I see many people in my practice who would not have sought out therapy had not their doctor recommended it as a first line of treatment. The exception is with severe cases, sometimes medication and therapy in conjunction is best. But again, I think medication alone is a disservice.”

So far, the shift in attitude is promising. And insurance companies are slowly beginning to reflect the changing tides. “Mental health parity laws which ensure that therapy is covered by insurance companies just as any medical treatment is covered,” says Kolakowski, “are also in line with the change in recommendations. Parity laws recognize that mental health is a medical condition that affects people as a disease, and should be covered and treated as such.”

Time will tell whether more experts and guidelines recommend behavioral methods as a first treatment for other disorders. If you’re dealing with any kind of mental health issue, the most important thing is to talk with a professional, and understand all the pros and cons of each treatment, before making the best decision for your, or your kids’, specific situation.

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Lines from “Song of Myself”


Poem: Lines from “Song of Myself,” by Walt Whitman.


A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

Mindfulness Meditation & Addiction


One of the first steps in dealing with addiction is to discover the emotional cause of it, whether it is fear, depression, anxiety, or pessimism.  Many times these unwholesome thoughts and beliefs come from what I call the “wanting mind.”  In wanting mind, we feel that our current state of unhappiness could be cured if only we could have the money, job, relationship, recognition, or power we had and lost, or never had and strongly desire.  Often we cause ourselves suffering when we ache for something that lies out of our grasp or cling in vain to something that has already passed away. Sometimes, wanting mind involves tightly holding on to something negative: an unwholesome belief about how things ought to be or should have been, or an unwholesome emotion such as anger, sadness, or jealousy. Mindfulness practice helps us develop the capacity to see clearly exactly what we’re attached to so that we can let go of it and end our suffering. The hidden areas of resistance that emerge into our awareness can be noted and examined later so that we can make the conscious choice to reject them.

You can never completely avoid the wanting mind or any other hindrance. Desire is part of being human. It causes us to strive toward bettering our lives and our world, and has led to many of the discoveries and inventions that have provided us with a higher quality of life. Yet despite all that we can achieve and possess, we can become convinced that we won’t be happy or contented unless we acquire even more. This unwholesome belief can lead to competitiveness and feeling resentful toward, or envious of, those who seem to have an easier life.

If I have a patient who is using drugs or even food to manipulate their moods I first refer them to a nutritionist; a psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist; or a holistic doctor, such as an integrative medical doctor, to break this habit.  In addition to this I recommend mindfulness meditation, yoga practice, and regular exercise as they are all excellent to help mood regulation.  These types of activities lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your bloodstream, increase your interleukin levels (enhancing your immune system and providing you with greater energy), and streamline your body’s ability to cleanse itself of chemical toxins, such as lactic acid in your muscles and bloodstream, which can affect neurotransmitter receptors and alter your mood (Chopra 1994; Rossi 1993).

The challenge to altering addictions is the fear that you can’t change which can push you into denial and cause you to minimize the consequences of your unproductive behaviors. Whatever you discover about yourself and however painful your discovery, dramatic breakthroughs are always possible. Research on mindfulness meditation indicates that qualities we once thought immutable that form temperament and character can actually be altered significantly. By retraining your mind through mindfulness practice, you create new neural networks. If you’re aggressive, you can find ways to temper that aspect of yourself, becoming assertive and clear about your boundaries without entering into a competitive and possibly even hostile mind-set that will sabotage you.

For many years, scientists believed that the brain’s plasticity, that is, its ability to create new structures and learn, was limited after childhood. However, new research shows that we can alter the structure of the brain and reap the benefits well into adulthood. Sara Lazar, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered that the more one practices mindfulness meditation, the thicker the brain becomes in the mid-prefrontal cortex and in the mid-insular region of the brain. Changing your mind (or thought processes) actually causes changes in the brain (Lazar et al. 2005). Lazar found that, while people who’ve practiced meditation for ten or twenty years are adept at quickly achieving a state of concentration and mindful awareness, newcomers who engage in mindfulness meditation as little as four hours a week can achieve and sustain a state of mindfulness that leads to creative flow, or what I call “open-mind consciousness.” She discovered that even beginning meditators in their early twenties were able to achieve advanced states of concentration and insight (what I refer to as “mindstrength”) equal to that of senior meditation practitioners. Intention and attention of focus were the keys to reaching these states, not the number of hours spent on a meditation cushion (Lazar and Siegel 2007). From my own experience and work, I know that regular mindfulness practice allows us to set aside distractions and enter the transformative state of open mind.

Mindfulness practice may positively affect the amount of activity in the amygdala, the walnut-sized area in the center of the brain responsible for regulating emotions (Davidson 2000). When the amygdala is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system engages to counteract the anxiety response. The heart rate lowers, breathing deepens and slows, and the body stops releasing cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream; these stress hormones provide us with quick energy in times of danger but have damaging effects on the body in the long term if they’re too prevalent. Over time, mindfulness meditation actually thickens the bilateral, prefrontal right-insular region of the brain (Lazar et al. 2005), the area responsible for optimism and a sense of well-being, spaciousness, and possibility. This area is also associated with creativity and an increased sense of curiosity, as well as the ability to be reflective and observe how your mind works.

By building new neural connections among brain cells, we rewire the brain, and with each new neural connection, the brain is actually learning. It’s as if we’re adding more RAM to a computer, giving it more functionality. In The Mindful Brain, leading neuroscientist Daniel Siegel (2007, 5), defines the mind as “a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” His early brain research showed that “where neurons fire, they can rewire” (2007, 291); that is, they create new neural pathways or structures in the brain. He postulates that one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation practice is this process of creating new neural networks for self-observation, optimism, and well-being. Through mindfulness meditation, we light up and build up the left-prefrontal cortex, associated with optimism, self-observation, and compassion, allowing ourselves to cease being dominated by the right-prefrontal cortex, which is associated with fear, depression, anxiety, and pessimism. As a result, our self-awareness and mood stability increase as our harsh judgments of others and ourselves decrease. By devoting attention, intention, and daily effort to being mindful, we learn to master the mind and open the doorway to the creativity available in open-mind consciousness.

It’s entirely possible that the same effects can be achieved through other practices that appear to open up new neural pathways, such as tai chi, yoga, and other forms of meditation, but thanks to researchers studying mindfulness meditation, we now know that we can actually remap the brain and affect the way it functions, as well as the way it influences the body.

Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss, and Change. He is the Executive Director of the OpenMind Training® Institute, practices mindfulness-based mind-body psychotherapy and leadership coaching in Santa Monica, CA, for individuals and corporate clients. He has taught personal and clinical training groups for professionals in Integral Psychotherapy, Ericksonian mind-body healing therapies, mindfulness meditation, and Buddhist psychology nationally and internationally since 1970. (

The White House is Requesting $700K for Standing Desks

The White House is tak­ing a stand.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent pub­lic so­li­cit­a­tion, the Ex­ec­ut­ive Of­fice of the Pres­id­ent is seek­ing up to $700,000 worth of stand­ing desks. The cost is the gov­ern­ment’s best es­tim­ate over a five-year peri­od, al­though the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will end in Janu­ary 2017, and the lat­ter four years of the con­tract are op­tion­al.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment post­ing was quite spe­cif­ic in that the desks had to be “Var­idesk brand name or equal” and provide the con­tract­or’s pri­cing for vari­ous mod­els with up to three com­puter mon­it­ors. The lar­ger Var­idesks cost between $400 and $500 per unit.

The full min­im­um re­quire­ments are lis­ted be­low:

1) A fully as­sembled height ad­justable stand­ing desktop that sits on top of an ex­ist­ing desk (no as­sembly [i.e., no clamps or arms]); 2) Key­board/mouse tray in­cluded as part of the sys­tem; 3) Ease of use (mul­tiple heights/po­s­i­tions); 4) The ad­just­ment must be sturdy, stable and safe at all height ex­ten­sions to ac­com­mod­ate in­di­vidu­als of vari­ous heights while they are in a stand­ing po­s­i­tion; 5) Dur­able, abil­ity to with­stand wear and tear; 6) Must hold up to 35 pounds; 7) Desk at­tach­ment should have an op­tion that fits eas­ily in­to corners; 8) No loss of work space; 9) Col­or: black unit; 10) Must be fully port­able (eas­ily moved from desk to desk) and eas­ily stored (not cum­ber­some or bulky for stor­age); and 11) Min­im­um of one-year war­ranty in­cluded.

Op­tion­al ac­cessor­ies: 1) Stand­ing mats, dur­able, sturdy, nonslip, and stable cush­ion­ing to sup­port legs and back dur­ing long-term stand­ing.

The stand­ing-desk craze might have re­cently reached a new peak, but some high-pro­file Re­pub­lic­ans in pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions have evan­gel­ized the an­ti­sedent­ary life. In a 2002 memo on in­ter­rog­a­tion tech­niques, former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld fam­ously ques­tioned some of the lim­its on de­tain­ees. “I stand for 8-10 hours a day,” he wrote. “Why is stand­ing lim­ited to four hours?”

For cen­tur­ies, users have ex­tolled the pos­it­ive ef­fects of stand­ing desks, al­though only in the past sev­er­al years have many main­stream pub­lic­a­tions taken no­tice and pro­claimed an­oth­er boom­let. In 2011, the New York Times Magazine pub­lished an art­icle titled, “Is Sit­ting a Leth­al Activ­ity?” Sev­er­al months later, The Wall Street Journ­al ran a piece not­ing how the stand­ing desk is “Sil­ic­on Val­ley’s new­est status sym­bol.” In 2012, Google set up a tread­mill desk at the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion.

Then came The New Re­pub­lic back­lash—“Screw Your Stand­ing Desk! A Sit­ter’s Mani­festo”—and the counter. Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 Wash­ing­ton Post column, the ad­justable-height, no-non­sense, white-or-black Var­idesks have popped up at the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health, United Na­tions Sec­ret­ari­at, and the Fed­er­al Re­serve.Fast Com­pany ran a first-per­son nar­rat­ive that year (with the ed­it­or’s note that it “is now one of their most-read lead­er­ship art­icles of 2014”and Smith­so­ni­ roun­ded up five health be­ne­fits of stand­ing desks: re­duced risk of obesity, Type 2 Dia­betes, car­di­ovas­cu­lar dis­ease, some forms of can­cer, and thus dy­ing early. Fi­nally in Feb­ru­ary, satire web­site The Onion re­por­ted that Mayo Clin­ic ex­perts have a new dir­ect­ive: “Amer­ic­ans stand up at their desk, leave their of­fice, and nev­er re­turn.”

The White House did not re­spond to com­ment.