Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
For decades, scientists believed that once we reached adulthood, our brain was incapable of any change beyond the negative alterations associated with disease and aging. We now know that the brain is incredibly dynamic, with a potentially unlimited ability to change throughout our entire lifespan. At any age, new neural pathways can be created and refined, and our gray matter can actually increase. The brain’s plasticity is an infinitely precious quality that we can harness to move from habitual negative feelings states, including depression, anxiety and PTSD, to an expanded experience of emotional wellbeing and happiness in our daily lives.
Meditation is one of the most powerful yet simple tools for altering the brain in many positive ways. There are numerous studies about the benefits of meditation in relieving stress and anxiety, improving sleep, and nurturing deep states of calm. Almost every week new scientific studies are coming out showing more neurological benefits of meditation. Here are just a few recent discoveries:
• A study led by scientists at UCSF found that schoolteachers who underwent a short, intensive meditation program were less depressed, anxious and stressed, while also experiencing greater compassion and awareness of others’ feelings.
• Researchers at UCLA found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (folding) of the brain’s cortex, specifically in the area of the insula—an area of the brain whose many vital roles include emotional awareness, attention, self-recognition, decision making, and sensing. The researchers found a direct correlation between the number of years study participants had practiced meditation and the amount of brain change, offering further possible evidence of the brain’s plasticity.
One of the study leaders, Dr. Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, said, “Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula.”
• A groundbreaking study led by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that as little as eight weeks of meditation not only helped people experience decreased anxiety and greater feelings of calm, it also produced growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.
What happens in the brain during meditation?
The emotional effects of sitting quietly and going within are profound. The deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals has been linked to different aspects of happiness:
Dopamine plays a key role in the brain’s ability to experience pleasure, feel rewarded, and maintain focus.
Serotonin has a calming effect. It eases tension and helps us feel less stressed and more relaxed and focused. Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been linked to migraines, anxiety, bipolar disorder, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue and insomnia.
Oxytocin (the same chemical whose levels rise during sexual arousal and breastfeeding), is a pleasure hormone. It creates feelings of calm, contentment and security, while reducing fear and anxiety.
Endorphins are most commonly known as the chemicals that create the exhilaration commonly labeled “the runner’s high.” These neurotransmitters play many roles related to wellbeing, including decreasing feelings of pain and reducing the side effects of stress.
Meditation choreographs the simultaneous release of these neurotransmitters, something that no single drug can do—and all without side effects.
How to Receive the Full Benefits of Meditation
Learning meditation from a qualified teacher is the best way to ensure that you get the most from your practice. A teacher will help you understand what you’re experiencing, move past common roadblocks, and create a nourishing daily practice.
Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dr. David Simon founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in 1996. Located on the beautiful grounds of La Costa Resort & Spa, the Chopra Center offers a variety of programs, workshops, and online courses, including Seduction of Spirit meditation and yoga retreat, which will be offered this April at La Costa Resort & Spa, and then in July in Whistler, B.C. To learn more, visit Chopra.com/seduction or call 888-736-6895.