Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Mindfulness meditation and happiness

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Mindfulness mediation and happiness:
How does mindfulness meditation influence happiness?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Buddhist Monk in Meditation Practice

We[who?] live in a fast-paced world full of stressors, demands and distractions. To continuously attend to them is a mentally and physically exhausting task. With all these daily distractions it is often hard to switch our minds off and focus our attention fully on the present moment without mental wandering. This often has a negative impact on our happiness and everyday well-being. Mindfulness meditation is a practice that helps to bring awareness to the present moment and clear the mind of stressors and demands. Regularly practicing meditation for as little as ten minutes a day produces changes in the mental state which fosters a happy and healthy lifestyle (Lazar et al., 2005). Although there is no set definition of happiness, several factors such as mental health, physical health, coping strategies and relationships are proven to influence happiness levels (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005). Hedonic and Eudemonic happiness are two conceptualizations that assist in providing theories of happiness. Throughout the use of mindfulness meditation, skills of attention regulation, bodily awareness and emotional regulation are developed to influence an individual's happiness throughout improving everyday life (Holzel et al., 2011).

Happiness[edit | edit source]

The scientific pursuit of happiness and positive emotion has its roots tied in positive psychology. Happiness is often characterized through the experience of more positive affective states and a high regard of life satisfaction as opposed to negative affective states (Gruber, Mauss & Tamir, 2011). Happiness involves the perception that one is progressing towards important life goals and establishing good mental health, physical health, coping strategies and relationship quality (Tkach & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Researchers in positive psychology have suggested two conceptualizations that determine happiness: hedonia and eudaimonia (Delle Fave, Brdar, Freire, Vella-Brodrick & Wissing, 2010).

Hedonic Happiness[edit | edit source]

The hedonic conceptualization of happiness primarily focuses on positive emotions and life satisfaction. The hedonic components of happiness are conceptualized in terms of increased positive emotion (positive affect) and decreased negative emotion (negative affect) (Gruber, Mauss & Tamir, 2011). Hedonic philosophers believed that humans desire to increase their experience of pleasure and to reduce pain. Thus, feelings of pleasure and enjoyment were considered to be reflective of happiness and well-being (Henderson & Knight, 2012). Additionally, hedonic happiness is best understood from a subjectivist position as the individual is considered to be the best position to determine how happy they are (Gruber, Mauss & Tamir, 2011).

Eudaemonic Happiness[edit | edit source]

The eudaemonic view of happiness suggests that happiness and well-being is concerned with actualizing one’s full human potentials (Deci & Ryan, 2006). This conceptualization maintains that happiness and well-being is not an outcome or end state but rather a process of fulfilling ones own virtuous potentials (Deci & Ryan, 2006). Factors such as life purpose and higher order of meaning in which individuals find a purpose, experience challenges and growth are believed to construct happiness (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2008). Thus, it is not the pursuit of pleasure that produces happiness but rather developing one’s own strengths and virtues (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2008).

Mindfulness Meditation[edit | edit source]

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Overview[edit | edit source]

The practice of mindfulness meditation originally stemmed from Eastern spiritual traditions. The practice of meditation is often identified with Buddhism and involves an array of different exercises such as sitting meditation, walking meditation and body scans (Ortner, Kilner & Zelazo, 2007). These exercises are all essentially designed to cultivate a continuous and clear sighted attention to an ongoing subjective experience. This is combined with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment towards the experience (Ortner, Kilner & Zelazo, 2007). The practice of mindfulness meditation encompasses focusing attention on the experience of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations by simply observing them as they arise and pass away (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin & Freedman, 2006). The regular practice of meditation is aimed to provide an increase in positive qualities such as awareness, insight, wisdom, compassion, contenment[spelling?], gratitude and acceptance (Hofmann, Grossman & Hinton, 2011).

Modern Applications[edit | edit source]

In recent decades, mindfulness meditation has been adapted into medical and mental health settings. Mindfulness training has emerged as a powerful, evidence-based tool for enhancing psychological health[factual?]. Intervention techniques have been established based on the traditional Buddhist practice of meditation in which participants spend up to 45 minutes each day directing their attention in specific ways (Baer, 2006). Two common mindfulness based interventions are mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Empirical literature supports the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions as clinically proven in a wide range of clinical disorders, including chronic pain, anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, OCD, substance abuse, and borderline personality disorder (Baer, 2006).

Mechanisms of Mindfulness Meditation[edit | edit source]

There is a distinct array of interacting mechanisms that contribute to constructing the benefits of mindfulness meditation. The combination of attention regulation, bodily awareness and emotional regulation interact closely to establish a process of enhanced self-regulation which contribute to a positive state of well-being in an individual (Holzel et al., 2011). It is important to note that each mechanism of mindfulness meditation is experienced to varying degrees and may occur sporadically throughout practice.

Attention Regulation[edit | edit source]
Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating location of the anterior cingulate cortex.
Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating location of the anterior cingulate cortex.

During mindfulness meditation, two components are combined that assist in attention regulation – focused attention and open monitoring. Focused attention refers to a form of meditation that practices sustaining the attentional focus on an object (Malinowski, 2013). Often the object of desire is the inhalation and exhalation of the breath. As the mind wanders the meditator must detect distraction and disengage the attention away, redirecting it back towards the aimed object (the breath) (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne & Davidson, 2008).

Open monitoring is another form of meditation practice aimed to build on attentional stability and clarity which is achieved through focused attention meditation. During open monitoring, the meditator aims to develop an open, curious, non-discriminating awareness of sensations and mental events without evaluating them (Malinowski, 2013). Research has found that the regular practice of focusing attention during meditation allows meditators to focus their attention for extended periods of time with the effect of distractions disturbing attention less frequently. Consequently, mindfulness meditators demonstrate an enhanced attentional performance (Moore, Gruber, Derose & Malinowski, 2012).

Neuroimaging research has shown that mindfulness meditators have greater activation in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC enables executive attention by detecting the presence of conflicts that emerge from streams of conflicting information processes (Holzel et al., 2011). During meditational practice, when distracting external events conflict with the task goal of focusing one’s attention on the breath, the ACC activates and contributes towards maintaining the attention by alerting systems that implement top-down regulation. Consequently, this resolves the conflict and focuses the attention back on the breath (Holzel et al., 2011). This suggests that mindfulness meditators have a stronger processing of conflict/distraction. However, Brefczynski-Lewis, Lutz, Schaefer, Levinson and Davidson (2007) found that the more proficient at focusing attention meditators become, ACC activation decreases as the focus of attention is so steady, monitoring distractions becomes unnecessary.

Bodily Awareness[edit | edit source]
Animation. Both left and right temporoparietal junctions are shown in red.

Bodily awareness is best understood as the ability to notice subtle bodily sensations. In mindfulness meditation, the focus is usually placed on an internal experience such as the sensory experience of breathing or experiences relating to emotions (Holzel et al., 2011). Self report findings of ten mindfulness meditators found that since they began practicing mindfulness they experienced greater emotional awareness and a more differentiated experience of body sensations (Hölzel et al., 2007). Additionally, in one study conducted by Carmody and Baer (2007), participants underwent a mindfulness-based stress reduction course and found that a large increase in factors measuring bodily awareness occurred.

Studies have found two brain areas in meditators that are associated with bodily awareness – the insula and the temporo-parietal junction. The insula has been linked to activation during tasks of interoceptive awareness and its local gray matter volume has been suggested to correlate with interoceptive accuracy and visceral awareness (Holzel et al., 2011). Insula activation has been found to increase in individuals after a mindfulness-based stress reduction course where participants were asked to practice focused attention on their momentary experience (Holzel et al., 2011). Conversely, research by Blanke (2005) has suggested that after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, the gray matter in the temporo-parietal junction increased, demonstrating it to be a key structure for the first-person perspective of bodily states. Impaired processing at the temporo- parietal junction may lead to the pathological experience of the self, such as out-of-body experiences (Blanke, 2005).

Emotional Regulation[edit | edit source]

Emotion regulation refers to the alteration of ongoing emotional responses through the action of regulatory processes (Ochsner & Gross, 2005). Literature suggests that the practice of mindfulness meditation results in improvements of emotion regulation. Studies have determined that during mindfulness meditation, meditators who were more experienced showed greater activation in the dorso-medial pre-frontal cortex which has been linked in monitoring one’s affective state and the rostral ACC which is responsible for the detection of affectively arousing stimuli, when compared with non-meditators (Holzel et al., 2011). Disorders that have been depicted by a deficit in emotion regulation (e.g. depression, anxiety, bipolar) have been associated with reduced pre-frontal activity. This demonstrates the importance of the pre-frontal cortex in emotion regularity.

During mindfulness meditation an individual is required to be aware of bodily functions and observe without judgment. Often feelings of stress or anxiety may arise; one method that is suggested to describe ways in which emotion gets regulated during mindfulness is reappraisal. Reappraisal refers to the adaptive process in which stressful events are reconstrued as beneficial or meaningful (Holzel et al., 2011).

How does mindfulness meditation influence happiness?[edit | edit source]

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Mental Health[edit | edit source]

The mechanisms of mindfulness meditation are regarded as effective in resolving psychological distress (rumination, anxiety, worry, fear, anger) and assisting in positively enhancing mental health (Keng, Smoski & Robins, 2011). Mindfulness meditation assists in regulating emotions and becoming resilient towards unpleasant emotions. One major factor that negatively affects happiness is the tendency to engage in negative thought cycles. This negative feedback loop between thoughts and emotions offsets a downward spiral creating feelings of anxiety, stress and depression. For many individuals living with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, negative and worrying thoughts are a common occurrence offsetting the feedback loop. During meditation, individuals learn to observe the negative pattern of thoughts and disengage from them by redirecting attention away and bringing it to the present moment through focusing on breath. In one study conducted by Jain et al. (2007), individuals who attended a month long course of mindfulness meditation experienced a significant decrease in ruminative thoughts and an increase in positive mood.

Practicing mindfulness meditation has been linked to reducing symptoms of psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and bipolar. The meditational practice may be beneficial in assisting enhancement of cognitive functioning in individuals with bipolar or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Holzel et al., 2011). Empirical evidence suggests that bipolar disorder is associated with impairments in sustained attention and executive function (Maletic & Raison, 2014). Throughout the consistent practice of mindfulness meditation, those suffering with attention difficulties may strengthen attention regulation and ACC performance, resulting in better daily performance and concentration (Holzel et al., 2011).

Additionally, brief mindfulness training significantly improved working memory and executive functioning whilst reducing fatigue and anxiety (Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David & Goolkasian, 2010). Research by Lykins and Baer (2009) found that meditators reported significantly higher levels of self-compassion and overall sense of well-being with lower levels of rumination, thought suppression and difficulties with emotion regulation when compared to non meditators (Keng, Smoski & Robins, 2011).

Physical Health[edit | edit source]

Research into happiness suggests that physical health is a significant factor that contributes to an individuals[grammar?] overall well-being (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005). Without general physical health, life satisfaction decreases as living with pain is not only physically damaging but the cognitive and emotional strain is significantly debilitating in everyday life. Behavioral studies demonstrate evidence that practicing mindfulness meditation can change the manner in which harmful stimuli such as physical pain are experienced (Zeidan, Grant, Brown, McHaffie & Coghill, 2012). Although pain intensity is a subjective experience, it is constructed by interactions between sensory, cognitive and affective processes (Zeidan, Grant, Brown, McHaffie & Coghill, 2012). Mindfulness meditation, uses mechanisms of enhanced cognitive control and emotional regulation to assist in relieving pain intensity through altering emotional responses and diverting attention. A study by Morone, Greco and Weiner (2008) found that chronic pain patients who underwent eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program significantly improved their pain symptoms and overall quality of life. Pain reduction is suggested to increase as mindfulness meditation is practiced more frequently as sensory and affective pain ratings were reduced in experienced practitioners (Perlman, Salomons, Davidson & Lutz, 2010).

Studies indicate that the anterior cingulate cortex is often associated with experiences regarding pain (Apkarian, Bushnell, Treede & Zubieta, 2005). Pain reduction is suggested to occur through employing cognitive control mechanisms (attention regulation) to control pain by activating this area. As previously mentioned, research supports the activation of the ACC during mindfulness meditation. Consequently, it can be suggested that mindfulness meditation reduces pain through resolving attentional conflict streams of information (pain) and bringing the attention and awareness back to the task focus of the breath (Holzel et al., 2011).

Coping Stratergies[spelling?][edit | edit source]

An important characteristic that leads to a state of positive affect and happiness is developing effective coping strategies in regards to life challenges and stress (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005). The importance of developing positive and effective coping mechanisms is significant as poor coping strategies result in an increase of stress and decline in mental and physical health. Mindfulness meditation develops an adaptive coping strategy through the skill of “reperceiving” (a meta-mechanism of action that leads to change and positive outcome) (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin & Freedman, 2006). Mindfulness based coping strategies give the ability to take time and contemplate an issue objectively without triggering negative affective states. Consequently, this results in less emotional reactivity to stress and enables a response based on self-regulation and solution focus (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin & Freedman, 2006).

Studies examining the relationship between mindfulness and coping styles have found that undergoing mindfulness meditation and mindfulness based therapy influences coping styles in a positive way (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin & Freedman, 2006). Individuals who mindfully meditate are more likely to implement approach coping strategies where future events are interpreted as a challenge as opposed to avoidance coping where events are viewed as threatening (Weinstein, Brown & Ryan, 2009). Additionally, in a study conducted by Weinstein, Brown & Ryan (2009) individuals who scored higher on mindfulness had adaptive coping styles governed by detaching and rationalizing problems as opposed to maladaptive coping styles that are emotional and avoidant.

Relationships[edit | edit source]

Research has shown that one of the proven benefits of mindfulness meditation is an improvement in relationships. Relationships are essential to an individual’s happiness as feeling of loneliness have detrimental affects to one’s happiness resulting in an increase in negative mood, perceived stress and a decline in life satisfaction (Bluth & Blanton, 2014). Studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation increased marital satisfaction (Wachs & Cordova, 2007). Throughout mindfully meditating, it positively influenced the identification and communication of emotions, regulating the expression of anger (Wachs & Cordova, 2007) and increased better communication quality during relationship discussions (Barnes, Brown, Krusemark, Campbell & Rogge, 2007).

Practicing mindfulness meditation increases awareness of internal states allowing one to become more attuned to their experiences. In turn, this results in a greater capacity to understand and empathize with oneself. As ability to become more aware and empathize with oneself increases, so does the ability to tune in and empathize towards one’s partner. Mindfulness meditation cultivates empathy which increases the degree of openness to others thoughts and emotions (Dekeyser, Raes, Leijssen, Leysen & Dewulf, 2008). This is especially useful during arguments as impulsiveness to react on “autopilot” often occurs creating a destructive decline in relationship quality. By bringing awareness to one’s own thoughts and emotions, it increases a heightened sense of empathy towards both parties. This makes disagreements a more positive experience where rather than reacting the objective is to understand and recognize the emotional suffering.

Appraisal Theory[edit | edit source]

According to the cognitive appraisal theory of emotions, emotions are activated by people’s appraisals of situations - (Nezlek, Vansteelandt, Van Mechelen & Kuppens, 2008). Early theorists believed that mindfulness meditation reduced stress through evoking a generalized relaxation response. However, modern research indicates that mindfulness meditation reduces stress by targeting cognitive mechanisms (cognitive appraisal) (Garland, Froeliger & Howard, 2014). During meditation, meditators first disengage from the initial negative appraisal into a state of mindfulness in which cognitions and emotions are objectively viewed and accepted. Consequently, the attentional focus broadens to encompass a larger set of information that was previously unattended in which a new situational appraisal is generated (Garland, Froeliger & Howard, 2014). The new relationship between emotions and environmental context is reappraised into a perspective that promotes positive affect. For example, a negative stress inducing situation a student may experience is starting a new job in their desired career. Rather than viewing the experience as threatening and allowing feelings of anxiety and stress to take over, mindfulness meditation can be put into practice to observe (but not engage in) feelings of stress and reappraise the situation as a challenge to put into practice the skills learned throughout university. Consequently, mechanisms of mindfulness meditation shift cognitive appraisals from threatening to challenging, decrease ruminative thought and reduce stress arousal to increase a state of positive arousal.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Evidence shows that mindfulness meditation influences happiness in a variety of ways. The primary mechanisms of happiness which include attention regulation, bodily awareness and emotional regulation assist in the development of positive affective states over four main factors that are essential to establish a high level of life satisfaction and happiness (mental health, physical health, coping strategies and relationship quality). By regularly practicing meditation, positive affect qualities such as compassion, gratitude, awareness and acceptance are experienced. These qualities transfer into everyday life experiences and help to remove negative affective states such as stress, depression and mental wandering. The appraisal theory of how emotions are experienced is a fundamental factor that explains how mindfulness meditation ties in with the experience of happiness. Through forming a new reappraised relationship between emotions and environmental conditions, a change in perception about life stressors occurs by viewing situations from threatening to challenging. Reappraisal of negative conditions into positive and constructive cognitions increases positive affect, resulting in feelings of happiness. Finally, the benefits of mindfulness meditation is depicted in both hedonic and eudaemonic concepts of happiness. With reference to hedonic happiness, an increase in positive emotions and decrease in negative emotions occurs. Subsequently, eudaemonic happiness is influenced by reappraising situations as fulfilling and challenging to enable personal growth. Overall, mindfulness meditation has a positive influence on aspects that determine happiness.

See also[edit | edit source]

Mindfulness and Anxiety

Meditation and Emotion

Emotional Regulation through meditation



Andy Puddicombe: 10 Mindful minutes

References[edit | edit source]

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Wachs, K., & Cordova, J. (2007). Mindful Relating: Exploring Mindfulness and Emotion Repertoires in Intimate Relationships. J Marital Family Therapy, 33(4), 464-481.

Weinstein, N., Brown, K., & Ryan, R. (2009). A multi-method examination of the effects of mindfulness on stress attribution, coping, and emotional well-being. Journal Of Research In Personality, 43(3), 374-385.

Zeidan, F., Grant, J., Brown, C., McHaffie, J., & Coghill, R. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters, 520(2), 165-173.

Zeidan, F., Johnson, S., Diamond, B., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness And Cognition, 19(2), 597-605.

External links[edit | edit source]

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