Most people do what they have to do to get through the day. Though this may sound dire, let’s face it, it’s the human condition. Given the number of people who are depressed or anxious, it’s not surprising that big pharma is doing as well as it is. But for millennia before we turned to government-approved drugs, humans devised clever ways of coping: Taking a walk, eating psychedelic mushrooms, breathing deeply, snorting things, praying, running, smoking, and meditating are just some of the inventive ways humans have found to deal with the unhappy rovings of their minds.
But which methods actually work?
Most people would agree that a lot of our unhappiness comes from the
mind’s annoying chatter, which includes obsessions, worries, drifts from
this stress to that stress, and our compulsive and exhausting need to
anticipate the future. Not surprisingly, the goal of most adults is to
get the mind to shut up, calm down, and chill out. For this reason, we
turn to our diverse array of feel-good tools (cigarettes, deep
breathing, and what have you). Some are healthier and more effective
than others, and researchers are finally understanding why certain
methods break the cycle and others exacerbate it.
Last year, a Harvard study
confirmed that there’s a clear connection between mind wandering and
unhappiness. Not only did the study find that if you’re awake, your
mind is wandering almost half the time, it also found that this
wandering is linked to a less happy state. (You can actually use the iPhone app
used in the study to track your own happiness.) This is not surprising,
since when your mind is wandering, it’s not generally to the sweet
things in your life: More likely, it’s to thoughts like why your
electric bill was so high, why your boss was rude to you today, or why
your ex-husband is being so difficult.
found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain
cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when
we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in
“self-referential” thoughts (read: when our brain is flitting from one
life-worry to the next).
Meditation is an interesting method for increasing one’s sense of
happiness because not only has it stood the test of time, but it’s also
been tested quite extensively in the lab. Part of the effect of
mindfulness meditation is to quiet the mind by acknowledging
non-judgmentally and then relinquishing (rather than obsessing about)
unhappy or stress-inducing thoughts.
New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University
has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind
wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased
activity in their DMN. Earlier research
had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing
thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says
that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these
“‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.”
They also found that when the brain’s “me” centers were activated, meditators also co-activated
areas important in self-monitoring and cognitive control, which may
indicate that they are on the constant lookout for “me” thoughts or
mind-wandering – and when their minds do wander, they bring them back to
the present moment. Even better, meditators not only did this during
meditation, but when not being told to do anything in particular. This suggests that they may have formed a new default mode: one that is more present-centered (and less “me”-centered), no matter what they are doing.
“This is really cool,” Brewer says. “As far as we know, nobody has
seen this type of connectivity pattern before. These networks have
previously been shown to be anti-correlated.”
So is being happy all about shifting our tendency away from focus on
ourselves? Research in other areas, like neurotheology (literally the
neurology of religion), suggests that there may be something to this. Andy Newberg, MD at the University of Pennsylvania has found that both in meditating monks and
in praying nuns, areas of the brain important in concentration and
attention were activated, while areas that govern how a person relates
to the external world were deactivated. These findings may suggest that
for people who practice meditation or prayer, the focus becomes less on
the self as a distinct entity from the external world, and more on
connection between the two. This reflects the idea discussed earlier
where shifting attention from inside to outside is at least part of what
What about using other tools like cigarettes, food, or alcohol, as
a method for finding pleasure and calming the mind? Don’t these things
take a person outside of him or herself, and move the focus from the
inner world of stressful thoughts to something outside, or “other”?
Looking forward to the next hit of caffeine, nicotine, or coke might
seem like a valid method of moving attention from the inside to the
outside, but if you look closer, it actually intensifies the
Brewer uses the example of smoking
to illustrate why addiction fuels negative thoughts rather than abates
them. In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually
creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and
craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a
negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that
you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the
mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes
is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using
craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or
everyday worries can all be substituted in.
Substituting a carrot stick or other behavior for your actual craving
(or other form of unhappiness) is a typical method of treatment, but it
doesn’t often work, says Brewer, because the feedback loop is still
there. Addressing the process itself with other methods (like
meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by
attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more
successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.
So if you’re dealing with unhappiness of any kind, whether it’s every
day worries, or more severe depression or anxiety, the method you
choose for coping matters. Finding one that solves the problem –
breaking the cycle, rather than masking it – is crucial.
Alice G. Walton