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The top 10 insights from the “science of a meaningful life” in 2013

Jeremy Adam Smith

The past few years have been marked by two major trends in the science of a meaningful life.

One is that researchers continued to add sophistication and depth to our understanding of positive feelings and behaviors. Happiness is good for you, but not all the time; empathy ties us together, and can overwhelm you; humans are born with an innate sense of fairness and morality, that changes in response to context. This has been especially true of the study of mindfulness and attention, which is producing more and more potentially life-changing discoveries.

The other factor involves intellectual diversity. The turn from the study of human dysfunction to human strengths and virtues may have started in psychology, with the positive psychology movement, but that perspective spread to adjacent disciplines like neuroscience and criminology, and from there to fields like sociology, economics, and medicine. Across all these fields, we’re seeing more and more support for the idea that empathy, compassion, and happiness are more than you-have-it-or-you-don’t capacities, but skills that can be cultivated by individuals and by groups of people through deliberate decisions.

In 2013, the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center is now part of a mature, multidisciplinary movement. Here are 10 scientific insights published in peer-reviewed journals from the past year that we anticipate will be cited in scientific studies, help shift public debate, and change individual behavior in the year to come.

A meaningful life is different — and healthier — than a happy one.

The research we cover here at the Greater Good Science Center is often referred to as “the science of happiness,” yet our tagline is “The Science of a Meaningful Life.” Meaning, happiness—is there a difference?

New research suggests that there is. When a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology tried to disentangle the concepts of “meaning” and “happiness” by surveying roughly 400 Americans, it found considerable overlap between the two—but also some key distinctions.

Based on those surveys, for instance, feeling good and having one’s needs met seem integral to happiness but unrelated to meaning. Happy people seem to dwell in the present moment, not the past or future, whereas meaning seems to involve linking past, present, and future. People derive meaningfulness (but not necessarily happiness) from helping others—being a “giver”—whereas people derive happiness (but not necessarily meaningfulness) from being a “taker.” And while social connections are important to meaning and happiness, the type of connection matters: Spending time with friends is important to happiness but not meaning, whereas the opposite is true for spending time with loved ones.

And other research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that these differences might have important implications for our health. When Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole compared the immune cells of people who reported being “happy” with those of people who reported “a sense of direction and meaning,” the people leading meaningful lives seemed to have stronger immune systems.

The emotional benefits of altruism might be a human universal.

One of the most significant findings to have emerged from the sciences of happiness and altruism has been this: Altruism boosts happiness. Spending on others makes us happier than spending on ourselves—at least among the relatively affluent North Americans who have participated in this research.

But a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that this finding holds up around the world, even in countries where sharing with others might threaten someone’s own subsistence.

In one study, the researchers examined data of more than 200,000 people from 136 countries; they determined that donating to charity in the past month boosts happiness “in most individual countries and all major regions of the world,” cutting across cultures and levels of economic well-being. It was even true regardless of whether someone said they’d had trouble securing food for their family in the past year.

When the researchers zeroed in on three countries with vastly different levels of wealth—Canada, Uganda, and India—they found that people reported greater happiness recalling a time when they’d spent money on others than when they’d spent on themselves. And in a study comparing Canada and South Africa, people reported feeling happier after donating to charity than after buying themselves a treat, even though they would never meet the beneficiary of their largess. This suggests to the researchers that their happiness didn’t result from feeling like they were strengthening social connections or improving their reputation but from a deeply ingrained human instinct.

In fact, they argue, the nearly universal emotional benefits of altruism suggest it is a product of evolution, perpetuating behavior that “may have carried short-term costs but long-term benefits for survival over human evolutionary history.”

Mindfulness meditation makes people more altruistic — even when confronted with barriers to compassionate action.

In March, the GGSC hosted a conference called “Practicing Mindfulness & Compassion,” where speakers made the case that the practice of mindfulness — the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and surrounding — doesn’t just improve our individual health but also makes us more compassionate toward others. Coincidentally, just weeks after the conference, two new studies bolstered this claim.

The first study, published in Psychological Science, found that people who took an eight-week mindfulness meditation course were significantly more likely than a control group to give up their waiting-room seat for a person on crutches. This was true despite the fact that other people in the waiting room (who were secretly working with the researchers) didn’t acknowledge the person in need or make any gesture to give up their own seats; prior research suggests that this kind of inaction strongly deters bystanders from helping out, but that wasn’t the case when the bystanders had received training in mindfulness.

A few weeks later, another study published in Psychological Science echoed that finding. In this second study, which was unrelated to the first, people who had practiced a mindfulness-based “compassion meditation” for a total of just seven hours over two weeks were significantly more likely than people who hadn’t received the training to give money to a stranger in need. What’s more, after completing their training, the meditation group showed noticeable changes in brain activity, including in networks linked to understanding the suffering of others.

“Our findings,” write the authors of the second study, “support the possibility that compassion and altruism can be viewed as trainable skills rather than as stable traits.”

Meditation changes gene expression.

Are genes destiny? They certainly influence our behavior and health outcomes—for example, one study published in 2013 found that genes make some people more inclined to focus on the negative. But more and more research is revealing how it’s a two-way street: Our choices can also influence how our genes behave.

In 2013, a collaborative project between researchers in Spain and France and at the University of Wisconsin found that when experienced meditators meditate, they quiet down the genes that express bodily inflammation in response to stress.

How did they figure this out? Before and after two different retreat days, the researchers drew blood samples from 19 long-term meditators (averaging more than 6000 lifetime hours) and 21 inexperienced people. During the retreat, the meditators meditated and discussed the benefits and advantages of meditation; the non-meditators read, played games, and walked around.

After this experience, the meditators’ inflammation genes—measured by blood concentrations of enzymes that catalyze or are a byproduct of gene expression—were less active. Blood samples from the people in the leisure-day condition did not show these changes.

Why does this matter? The researchers also looked at their study participants’ ability to recover from a stressful event. Long-term meditators’ ability to turn down inflammatory genes, it turns out, predicted how quickly stress hormones in their saliva diminished after a stressful experience—a sign of healthy coping and resilience that can potentially lead to a longer life.

This is good news to people who come from a family of stress cases who are stress-prone themselves: There are steps you can take to mitigate the impact of stressful events. Hard as it may be to find time or get excited about meditating, mounting evidence suggests that it can offer more concrete advantages to a healthy life than the leisurely activities we more readily seek.

Mindfulness training improves teachers’ performance in the classroom.

For educators grappling with students’ behavioral problems and other sources of stress, new research suggested an effective response: mindfulness.

Although mindfulness-based programs are not uncommon in schools these days, they’ve mainly been deployed to enhance students’ social, emotional, and cognitive skills; only a handful of programs and studies have examined the benefits of mindfulness for teachers, and in those cases, the research has focused largely on the general benefits for teachers’ mental health.

But in 2013, researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds broke new ground when they studied the impact of an eight-week mindfulness course developed specifically for teachers, looking not only at its effects on the teachers’ emotional well-being and levels of stress but also on their performance in the classroom.

They found that teachers randomly assigned to take the course felt less anxious, depressed, and burned out afterward, and felt more compassionate toward themselves. What’s more, according to experts who watched the teachers in action, these teachers ran more productive classrooms after completing the course and improved at managing their students’ behavior as well. The results, published in Mind, Brain, and Education, show that stress and burnout levels actually increased among teachers who didn’t take the course.

The researchers speculate that mindfulness may carry these benefits for teachers because it helps them cope with classroom stress and stay focused on their work. “Mindfulness-based practices offer promise as a tool for enhancing teaching quality,” write the researchers, “which may, in turn, promote positive student outcomes and school success.”

Read the rest on the website of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, including “Employees are motivated by giving as well as getting” and “Subtle contextual factors influence our sense of right and wrong.”

This piece was written along with my colleagues Jason Marsh, Devan Davison, Bianca Lorenz, Lauren Klein, and Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas.

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