We’ve all heard that meditation will make us happier, and people who meditate do seem to be pretty happy. After all, the Dalai Lama wrote The Art of Happiness, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg wrote Real Happiness and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard wrote a book simply titled Happiness.
But when you’re sitting on a cushion you pulled off the couch with your eyes closed waiting for happiness to hit you while your inbox fills up and your stress levels rise, the connection between the means and the end can seem frustratingly murky.
To connect the dots, we spoke to someone who's experienced his own happiness boost since he started meditating more than 10 years ago. Dan Harris, Nightlineanchor and bestselling author, decided to take up meditation after having a panic attack on national television in 2004. He then went on to publish 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story. (He now has a podcast and meditation app of the same name and is releasing a book next year exploring the common obstacles to meditation and how to overcome them.)
In an interview with Thrive Global, he recalls a conversation he had with his friend, Buddhist psychiatrist Dr. Mark Epstein. Having asked many friends about happiness and it’s connection to meditation, Harris found Epstein’s explanation to be the most helpful.
“Happiness is more of the good stuff and less of the bad,” Epstein told him. Basically, we all have a happiness set point and when good or bad things happen, our happiness rises or falls in tandem. With a steady meditation practice, we start to have higher highs and shallower lows.
Meditation makes the peaks higher and longer for two reasons, Harris explains. First, “you're actually awake and aware enough to enjoy the good things as they're happening, and you're not leaping so quickly onto the next hit of dopamine.”
Plus, you’re calmer, he says. But meditation doesn’t relax you the way people often think it does. “It's not because you throw yourself into a cross-legged position that all the sudden you're super calm,” says Harris. It’s because, through awareness, you become less distracted and less emotionally reactive (rather than bristling when your boss gives you tough feedback, you’re able to learn from the conversation and move on, for example) which in turn chills you out a bit.
The happiness valleys also become shorter and shallower because when you’re mindful, your emotions don’t yank you around as much and it’s more obvious when you’re giving too much power to unproductive feelings. “Stress is useful until it's not,” Harris says, “and having a kind of self-awareness generated through meditation can help you see when you're engaged in the kind of worrying and hand-wringing that’s just a waste of your time and energy.”
And when the highs are higher and the lows aren’t as low, Harris says an interesting thing happens: “Your set point goes up...your overall level of personal satisfaction is higher.”