You can be ‘trained’ to be happier, research shows

TRENTO, Italy — When people are dealing with depression and other challenges in their lives, it may seem like being happy is something that will never happen again. While some may think that happiness is something everyone has to figure out for themselves, a new study finds people can actually learn to be happy. Researchers in Italy say an intensive program focusing on happiness successfully increased the psychological well-being of its participants.

The results show individuals in the nine-month course experienced boosts in their life satisfaction, perceived well-being, self-awareness, and emotional self-regulation. Participants also had significantly lower levels of anxiety, stress, negative thoughts, and anger. Study authors say they witnessed participants have a simultaneous improvement in positive well-being while negative emotions melted away.

“The training that we proposed to the participants was inspired by the idea – present in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions – that happiness is inextricably linked to the development of inner equilibrium, a kinder and more open perspective of self, others, and the world, towards a better understanding of the human mind and brain. In this training process we need on the one hand the theoretical study of philosophy and science, and on the other meditation practices,” says Nicola De Pisapia, a researcher in the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Trento in a media release.

So what’s the key to unlocking inner happiness? The study finds meditation can help put you in touch with how your mind works.

What does it take to learn to be happy?

Participants in this experiment attended seven theoretical and practical weekends and two meditation retreats at Lama Tzong Khapa Institute of Tibetan culture in Pomaia, Italy.

During the theoretical weekends, the group went to a series of presentations and watched a number of video courses. They also took part in open discussions about psychology, neuroscience, the history of Western thought, and the philosophy of Buddhism.

The more scientific topics focused on the brain circuits for attention and mind-wandering, stress and anxiety, and pain and pleasure. The group also examined how their brains process positive and negative emotions, desire and addiction, and empathy and compassion.

In the practical exercises, participants engaged in several contemplative traditions from Western and Eastern cultures. These included meditation focusing on the breath, analytical meditation, and keeping a personal journal.

Researchers say modern society sometimes mistakes happiness for hedonism. However, their findings reveal that meditation practices are key in creating a healthy mind.

“I believe that in times like these, full of changes and uncertainties, it is fundamental to scientifically study how Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, together with the most recent discoveries on the mind and the brain, can be integrated with contemplative practices in secular way. The goal is to give healthy people the opportunity to work on themselves to develop authentic happiness, not hedonism or superficial happiness. With this study we wanted to take a small step in this direction,” De Pisapia concludes.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.