Meditation can help ‘grow’ a happier brain

Meditation can help ‘grow’ a happier brain

Scientists find way to measure contentment levels and say happiness organ can be developed.

Aristotle said that “happiness depends upon ourselves”, and now a new study suggests it is possible to grow a happier brain physically through practices such as meditation. It was known which hormones produce emotions such as pleasure or desire, but until now the source of contentment and well-being was unclear.

Scientist at Kyoto University asked fifty-one volunteers to rate their own happiness levels and then scan their brains to see if they could spot any differences between the upbeat individuals and their more glum counterparts.

They discovered that an area of the brain called the precuneus was larger in people who were happier. The findings suggest the happiness can be worked like a muscle. Previous studies have shown that regular meditation can boost grey matter in the precuneus, which could explain why those see meditate report experiencing feelings of general contentment and even bliss.

The scientists behind the finding said it will now be possible to measure clinically what things make people happier.

“Over history, many eminent scholars like Aristotle have contemplated what happiness is,“ said lead author Wataru Sato. “ I’m very happy that we now know more about what it means to be happy.

Several studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter mass in the precuneus. This new insight on where happiness happens in the brain will be useful for developing happiness programmes based on scientific research. This study suggests it is possible to grow a happier brain.”

Researchers believe the precuneus is important for subjective happiness, such as when someone chooses to make the best of the situation. The study found that people who feel happiness more intensely, feel saddest less intensely and are more able to find meaning in life have a larger precuneus. The difference in size between the person with the biggest and the smallest was about 15 per cent.

“Happiness is a subjective experience that has special significance for humans,” added Dr Sato, “ I research suggests psychology training that effectively increases grey matter and volume in the precuneus may enhance subjective happiness.”

Prof Paul Dolan, of the London School of Economic’s, author of Happiness by Design, said it was clear that the brain could be changed. “ This does not surprise me at all,”  he said. “The brain is malleable, just like other organs.

“Most things we think will make us happy won’t,” he said. “We are really always happier if we are focusing on the person we are with and the thing we are doing right now. Some make that something you enjoy.”

The research was published in the nature journal scientific reports.

The Daily Telegraph Saturday, 21 November 2015

By Sarah Knapton Science Editor

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