Becoming Happier through Meditation

Kevin W Chen, Ph.D. MPH

We all want to be happy!  Pursuit of happiness is everyone’s right and probably the optimal life goal.  However, in terms of what happiness is, or the way and direction of pursuing happiness, there are huge variations and disagreements.  Most of our time and energy in pursuing happiness is devoted to sense-pleasures through routine or external activities, such as seeking material and emotional security, enjoying sensory pleasures, or establishing a good reputation or wealth.  Although things like making extra money, having a close relationship, enjoying a delicious meal, or promoting to a desirable position may make us feel happy for a short time, we know they are not able to provide the deep lasting gratification we are truly longing for in life….  As happiness is a state of mind, sooner or later our feelings may turn into dissatisfaction, and we may find ourselves engaged in the pursuit of more socially desirable pleasures instead the lasting inner happiness.

Happiness is a state of mind; therefore, the real source of happiness lies in the mind and soul, not in external circumstances.  According to Buddhism, true happiness is not to be found in the deceptive sensory pleasures of the world — not in wine or wealth or roses. No matter how hard we try, we can never reach true security as long as we persist in wrong views of the desirability of this or that sensual object.  Many sages and studies suggest that meditation or meditative practice may help us achieve genuine happiness – inner peace and security.  I would like to share some of the materials I found when I prepared for my presentation on this subject.

For many years, there have been scores of studies looking into the benefits of meditation. Most agree that it has the power to alleviate the adverse effects of stress – promote relaxation.  However, only recently did we see some definitive studies confirming our long-time hypothesis – meditative practice aids in making us happier.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been traveling around the world giving lessons on happiness — meditation and compassion.  According to His Holiness, being happy is not only our right, but clearly the principle force that drives our lives.  Our ability to attain a lasting happiness, however, is not so clear. The path of inner transformation begins with developing an understanding of our true nature.  Once this door opens, one naturally develops a feeling of compassion and acceptance for oneself and others.  In these difficult times, people are looking for answers to finding inner peace and happiness.

Chinese Medicine: Meditation increases positive sensation and inner joy

The mental realm of entering meditation or tranquility status has been fully explored and discussed in the literature of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which can be divided into different stages or levels by different standards and needs.  The common characteristics of subjective experiences in the process of entering tranquil meditation can be divided into the following four stages: relaxation and tranquility stage (松静阶段), pulsations and senses stage    (动触阶段), joy and pleasure stage (快感阶段), and void and nothingness stage (虚无阶段).

During joy and pleasure stage, the pleasant sensation obtained can hardly be described with words, since it is not the specific sensations experienced in everyday life but one that seems to include them all. Such joyful and pleasurable sensation is physical and mental, strong and serene, profound and penetrating, as if coming from every cell and pore. Enveloped in these sensations, the body and mind become tranquil and permeated with infinite, persistent contentment and happiness. This stage of mediocrity and knowing marks a significant advance in Qigong or meditation practice (Liu and Chen, 2010)

At the stage of void or nothingness, what the body and mind are after is not satisfaction of senses or emotions but losing self into the eternity of the universe. Once self-consciousness vanishes, your state broadens suddenly, changing from finite to infinite, instant to eternal. By this time, the mind has become barely distinguishable from what it perceives. The external sensation does not affect your inner peace and joy that much. On one hand, the mind seems to be both itself and the perceived; and on the other hand, what is perceived is both itself and the consciousness.  Thus, a state of peace and harmony represented by void and nothingness is reached, where it is full of infinite vitality and vigor for the purification and creation of everything, which becomes the source for true joy and harmony in life.

Scientific Study:  Meditation Leads to Greater Happiness

In one early study by Smith et al.(1995) on “Meditation as an adjunct to a happiness enhancement program,” the subjects were randomly divided into three groups: two received instruction on the Personal Happiness Enhancement Program (PHEP) as part of the designed intervention, and one group was taught a meditation exercise in addition to the PHEP.  An additional control group received no instructions.  After 6 weeks of training they found that the PHEP only group improved significantly over the control group on all measures — Happiness Measure, Psychap Inventory, and Beck Depression Inventory — except anxiety state measurement.  The meditation plus PHEP group significantly improved on all dependent measures over both the PHEP only group and the control group.

Early scientific studies on the neurophysiology of meditation focused on changes in brain wave (EEG) patterns, and differences in brain wave patterns between meditators and non-meditators. In general mediation was found to

  • increase Alpha (8-13 Hz or cycles per second) production
  • increase Theta (4-7 Hz) production
  • increase high Beta (20-40 Hz) activity (with experienced meditators)

Alpha patterns are associated with calm and focused attention; Theta patterns are associated with reverie, imagery, and creativity; high Beta activity is associated with highly focused concentration. It was therefore argued that meditation contributed to a calm, creative, and focused pattern of brain activity which resulted in a person with these same qualities.

One of the more recent studies between modern science and ancient wisdom was done by Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson used functional MRI and advanced EEG analysis to identify an index for the brain’s set point for moods.  The fMRI images reveal when people are emotionally distressed — anxious, angry, depressed. The most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, and the right prefrontal cortex (under stress).  When people are in positive moods — upbeat, enthusiastic and energized — those sites are quiet, with the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex. A quick way to index a person’s typical mood is by reading baseline levels of activity in these right and left prefrontal areas. That ratio predicts daily moods with surprising accuracy.  After taking readings on hundreds of people with this technology, Dr. Davidson established a bell curve distribution of this ratio with most people in the middle.  Lately he had the opportunity to test the left-right ratio on a senior Tibetan lama (Oser) who had meditated over 30 years.  It turned out that the Tibetan lama had the most extreme value to the left of the 175 people measured to that point……

Was this just a coincidence, or a trait common among those who become monks? Or was there something about the training of lamas (the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a priest or spiritual teacher) that might nudge a set point into the range for perpetual happiness?  If so, can it be taken out of the religious context to be shared for the benefit of all?   A tentative answer to that last question has come from a study that Dr. Davidson did in collaboration with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught MBSR to workers in a high-pressure biotech business for 3 hrs a week for 8 weeks. A comparison group of volunteers received the training later (waiting list control), though they all were tested before and after training by Dr. Davidson  After the 8-week training, on average their emotions ratio shifted leftward, toward the positive zone. Simultaneously, their moods improved; they reported feeling engaged again in their work, more energized, and less anxious.  In short, the results suggest that the emotion set point can shift, given the proper training.  In mindfulness meditation people learn to monitor their moods and thoughts and drop those that might spin them toward distress.

Another benefit for the workers was that mindfulness meditation seemed to improve the robustness of their immune systems, as gauged by the amount of flu antibodies in their blood after receiving a flu shot.

How Meditation Leads to Greater Happiness?

Although scientists are not sure exactly how meditation leads the practitioner to greater happiness, there are many discussions or functions related to the meditation process that may help us to understand the multiple paths:

Relieve the negative emotions

It is well documented that meditation helps to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, through optimizing the autonomic nervous system, or cultivating the positive mood.  Meditation helps to reduce physiological arousal and facilitate relaxation and positive affects, thereby reducing the unhappiness of negative emotion.  For example, serotonin is a hormone that helps maintain a “happy feeling” and keep our moods under control by helping with sleep, calming anxiety, and relieving depression.  According to research, depression is caused by a deficiency in serotonin, which impairs neurotransmitter communication.  Research suggests that meditation helps practitioners boost up the serotonin level if it is low, and keeps your serotonin levels in balance if it is too high (Solberg et al. 2004;Yu et al. 2011)

A study of Buddhists by scientists at the University of California has also found that meditation might tame the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with fear and anger.  As Lama Oser (the Lama studied by Dr. Davidson) put it “I couldn’t be confrontational.  I was always met with reason and smiles; it’s overwhelming.  I felt something (like a shadow or an aura) and I couldn’t be aggressive.”

Discover the positive vibrations in the universe

In preparation for meditation (training process) or actual meditative practice, we are usually taught to stay away from random thought or disturbance by resting our mind on one thing, which could be breathing itself, chanting a word or a sentence, a sound or an idea, such as appreciation, gratitude, or forgiveness.  Continued focus on the positive idea or feelings would amplify them over and over, until they swelled into a crescendo of bliss, experienced as a joyful love of the universe and all it contains.  For example, when one focuses on appreciation, one would appreciate the gifts of nature: trees and flowers, the life and the peace around, the opportunities to meditate.  When focusing on gratitude, one may feel gratitude for the life-giving sun, for the oxygen-producing trees, for the gift of sight and the mobility of one’s body…. The positive emotions or feeling that begin in meditation process can be carried forward throughout the day.

Increase self-esteem

“Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.” (Nathaniel Branden)  High self-esteem is associated with good mental health, quality relationships, success and happiness; while low self-esteem is associated with anxiety, depression and underachievement.  Low self-esteem is also the underlying cause for most emotional and behavioral problems.  According to positive psychology research, meditation can increase self-esteem through multiple paths, such as self- acceptance, living consciously, self responsibility and self assertiveness:

Discover the inner peace and meaning of life

In addition to calming down and feeling more relaxed, meditation helps to develop the internal locus of control (Marlatt et al. 1984).  It will give you the inner peace and harmonious status so that you are able to find your own answers and chart your own path – an automatic spirit experience you would not forget.  “The process itself has some extraordinary qualities, but not necessarily the subject.  The important idea is that this process is within the reach of anyone who applies himself or herself with enough determination.” (Lama Ocer)

Well, now we know that meditation helps us relax, and reduce stress; more importantly, meditation make us feel happier and be healthy. What more can you expect from life?  Go meditate! What do you have to lose?



Davidson J. R., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K. & Sheridan, J. F. (2003).  Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.  Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003).  Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future.  Clinical Psychology, 10 (2), 144-156.

Liu TJ & Chen KW (eds.) (2010).  Chinese Medical Qigong.  London: Singing Dragon Imprint.

Marlatt CA, Pagano R, Rose R, Margues J (1984). Effects of meditation and relaxation training upon alcohol use in male social drinkers.  In D. Shapiro & R. Walsh (Eds.) Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspective (pp. 105-120).  New York: Aldine.

Shapiro, S. L. et al. (2002).  Meditation and Positive Psychology.  In C. R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, 632-645.  Oxford University Press.

Smith WP, Compton WC, West WB, “Meditation as an adjunct to a happiness enhancement program.” Journal  Clin Psychol. 1995; 51(2):269-73.

Solberg EE, Holen A, Ekeberg Ø, Østerud B, Halvorsen R, Sandvik L.  (2004.) The effects of long meditation on plasma melatonin and blood serotonin.  Med Sci Monit. 2004 Mar; 10(3): CR96-101

Yu X, Fumoto M, Nakatani Y, Sekiyama T, Kikuchi H, Seki Y, Sato-Suzuki I, Arita H (2011).  Activation of the anterior prefrontal cortex and serotonergic system is associated with improvements in mood and EEG changes induced by Zen meditation practice in novices. Int J Psychophysiol. 2011 May; 80(2):103-11.


[Educated in both China and the United States, Dr. Kevin Chen has years of experience and training in blending eastern and western perspectives, and in the practice of life-nurturing methods.  As a long-time practitioner of Qigong Yang Sheng, he is one of the few scientists to have both hands-on knowledge of mind-body practice, and an active research career in mind-body medicine, which is funded through grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and various foundations.  Dr. Chen devotes his life and career to the practice of Yang Sheng, and promotion of self-healing and mind-body-spirit integration]


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