What is the link between meditation and happiness?

I started to meditate regularly four years ago, and since then, little by little I started to feel better. My outside world was the same (same work, same family, same house, and more or less the same friends – except that the number of Acem friends increased), so it was evident that the reason for this feeling of having more of the life I really want for myself was a change in the inside world.

People dedicated to study the parameters involved in happiness say that it is not a sum of happy moments; it is more related to a specific lifestyle, a way of looking at life in general. But, what does meditation change in the way the meditator behaves in life?

In relation to these thoughts, there is an interesting article in the last number of the journal Science (12 nov. 2010, vol.330 nº 6006, p.932) called: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, (by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, from Harvard University, USA): Using an application for iPhone, they interviewed 2250 adults about what they were doing and thinking at different moments of the day, and how they felt at these moments. After analyzing the data, they concluded that more than 46% of waking  hours, these persons were thinking about things not related to what they were doing. They also found  that, overall, people whose minds were wandering were less happy than those with thoughts focused on the task at hand, even if that activity was not especially interesting.
In conclusion, erratic thinking seems to be a good way of predicting people´s unhappiness (the more our minds drift away from the present – and where they go, less happy we feel), even more than the activities we do in everyday life. The same authors suggest that perhaps traditions like meditation, that emphasize living in the present moment (i.e. increased awareness of the here and now, being conscious of our actions at the present time) can affect our degree of happiness.

If we put these results in the perspective of Acem meditation, the question would be: How does it work? Is it that resolution of unfinished issues makes us feel happier because we are less influenced by these traits of our personality? or is it something else we get used to do? Is the basic instruction (going back to the repetition of the sound even when thoughts are interesting) a way of disciplining the mind in being in the here and now, and not wandering around out of any control? This is what this article about wandering mind suggests. Another possible explanation would be that during meditation, we observe the thoughts coming and going, and it seems that over time the compulsive thoughts seem to loose their power  and maybe gradually subside. In some way, meditation can change our relation to thoughts: from a beginning place of being used by the thoughts, we tend to move towards a place we start to use thoughts more consciously.

Anyhow, although it is always interesting to know how things really work, to me the most important is that it really works, and as the basic instruction is so simple , it really looks like magic!

If you want to read a little more, go to: http://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2010/11/wandering-mind-is-unhappy-mind.html. And if you have an iPhone and want to participate in the study, go to www.trackyourhappiness.org and download the application.


  1. eirikj

    I wonder whether this might have the causal chain running in the wrong direction. Would’t a reasonable hypothesis be that if you are unhappy with what you are doing, where you are etc., then your mind would tend to wander more easily away from that and try to find something else to occupy it? And correspondingly, that if you are happy with what you are doing, you will stay with it, i.e. stay focussed on that? If so, the wandering mind is the effect of, and not the cause of, the unhappiness. Does the study discuss this possibility, Jacqueline?

    • jacqueliner

      Well, Eirik. The authors of the article don’t give a clear answer to that possibility. Anyhow, from my point of view, your question is a little bit like asking: what is before, the hen or the egg? If you are in the dynamic of easy mind wandering, you seem in some way caught in a vicious circle (wandering- unhappiness- wandering) that lowers your level of happiness.

      The article says that people’s minds wander during unpleasant activities and also during enjoyable ones; the only activity where it doesn’t wander is sex (the question then would be, how do they answer to the iPhone?).

      And wandering mind seems to cause unhappiness independently of the activity, pleasant or not. It could be like this: when you are doing pleasant things, the wandering mind brings you into worries (i.e. thinking of things that happened in the past or may happen in the future) and definitely that will make you enjoy less the present moment. And when doing an unpleasant activity, the wandering mind would make you have fantasies of better things to do, and this thought, in my experience, brings up a feeling similar to the one meditators have, of wanting to run away from meditation, that definitely makes the activity much more unpleasant than it really is.

      I have definitely experienced that meditation has almost completely taken away my mind wandering during working hours, and that is probably one of the reasons I actually like much more my job. My experience also is that meditation doesn’t suppress completely the wandering mind, but in some way it changes its quality: definitely the worries are no more there, in the sense that thoughts about problems that have to be solved are there but they don’t have any more the high emotional content of anxiety / anguish, probably responsible of the “unhappiness “ feeling.

  2. I believe this.
    Meditation done daily can truly improve presence and awareness, and this will bring happiness.

  3. I really like the topic of this blog and this post reminded me of a study that was just published in a professional psychology journal that discusses the changes that you have mentioned. The study showed that after 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, actual structural changes have been observed using Fmri imaging techniques

    “A mindfulness meditation training program can trigger measurable changes in brain areas associated with awareness, empathy and sense of self within eight weeks, a new study has found.”

    Here is a link to the actual study if anyone is interesting in more information.



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