Is Compassion the Secret Ingredient of Happiness?

The dalai lama

dalai lama

Meditative science’s expert on happiness, Matthieu Ricard  and Richard Davidson et al. at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds think so. The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

It doesn’t appear to be coincidence that most of the research done on the effects of meditation on brain change are done by focusing on compassion.  The results in strengthening attention, focus and general sense of well being are remarkable. (See the results in upcoming posts.)

Here are the 5 areas that compassion is focused on during meditation:

1. Compassion focused on a loved one,

2. Compassion focused on someone you see regularly but don’t necessarily know,

3. Compassion on someone who has caused you pain,

4.  And probably most importantly, compassion focused on yourself.

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Does Meditation Make You Smarter, Happier, More Focused and Take Years Off Your Brain?

 

 by Deborah L Gabriel,

Most everyone who meditates will say yes.

Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

But Sara Lazar , a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has gone a step further by imaging brain changes in meditators.

Dr. Lazar was not always a believer in the powers of meditation, but while training for the Boston marathon, a running injury took her to a Yoga class for stretching and cardiovascular fitness. When the teacher started touting the fact that Yoga promoted stress reduction, increased compassion and spiritual and emotional benefits; at first she was skeptical, but then  after  a couple of weeks, she noticed that she was calmer, better able to handle stressful situations, felt more compassionate, open hearted and able to see things from other people’s point of view. Still skeptical and thinking maybe she was experiencing a placebo response, she started searching the literature and found plenty of scientific evidence supporting that both Yoga and meditation promoted:

  • stress reduction

  • reduced symptoms associated with:

    • depression

    • anxiety

    • pain

    • insomnia

  • enhanced the ability to pay attention

  • Increased the quality of life and an overall feeling of happiness

Using the concept of neuroplasticity ( the neurons in the brain changing the way they connect and communicate through experience and concentrated effort) together with MRI studies , Dr. Lazar decided to investigate what was going on in the brain.  Her team did a study where they recruited people from the Greater Boston area who had been meditating regularly for several years along with a demographically matched control group who had not previously been meditating.

 They did brain MRI’s on both groups and here are the results:

This chart shows meditation may slow the natural aging of the brain?

It shows that in the areas colored red, the meditators ( blue dots) had an increase in cortical grey matter. The green octagonal area show the pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain that controls amongst other things, focus, working (short term) memory, the ability to learn new information, executive planning and organization and a braking center for overly emotional reaction.

 So why is this important?

It is well documented that the cortical grey matter shrinks in most people as they age. The cortical grey matter amongst other things controls processing speed of the brain, memory, ability to learn new skills, and thinking in general.

So take a look at the cortical grey matter in those subjects who have been meditating regularly for 30-40 minutes per day. The older subjects ( in their 50’s) actually have just as much if not more more grey matter than many of those 25 year olds who have never meditated. This suggests that meditation may enhance cortical structure as well as possibly slowing down the natural age related decline in the density  of  cortical grey matter.

 Another Study:

So Lazar and her team did another study where they compared demographically matched subjects who  had never meditated. They taught half to meditate for 30-40 minutes per day over 8 weeks vs the controls who just relaxed for 30-40 minutes per day. Both groups were put in the MRI scanner at the end of the 8 weeks.

 

 

This study found that there was an increase in the grey matter that assists in learning and memory:

In the subjects that meditated for 30-40 minutes per day over 8 weeks, there was an increase in grey matter in left hippocampus, an area of the brain that assists in learning and memory and emotional regulation. There was a significant greater amount of grey in the left hippocampus in the meditators than in the non-meditators.

An interesting note is that it has been found that persons suffering from both depression and PTSD have significantly less grey in the left hippocampus than those not suffering from depression and PTSD, suggesting that meditation would be beneficial for both groups.

 Second set of findings from the same study was that meditation increases compassion and empathy:

Subjects who meditated for 30-40 minutes per day over 8 weeks reported an increase in both prospective taking (the ability to see things from another’s point of view) along with increased empathy and compassion. This is visualized in the brain as an increase in cortical grey matter in the temporo-parietal junction.

The third set of findings from the same study shows there is a positive correlation with meditation and stress reduction:

The amygdala is associated with the fight or flight response. Stress increases the cortical grey matter in the amygdala while a calm relaxed state of mind is associated with a decrease in cortical grey matter in the amygdala. The subjects that meditated for 30-40 minutes per day over 8 weeks, reported less stress in their lives than the controls and that was positively correlated with decrease in cortical grey matter in the amygdala as shown in the MRI. It is noted that there was no change in any of the normal everyday life activities in either the meditators nor the controls other than meditating or not, implying that it is not the stress in the environment that is changing, but the meditators response to the stress in their environment that has changed.

In conclusion, the above studies show visually that meditation can literally change the brain.

Resources:

 1. All slides (charts are from) Sara Lazar’s research: TedxCambridge Jan.23, 2012

 2. Meditation Research

3. My own cortical grey matter stored and recalled from over 30 years of study and practice.

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