Could “Happiness 101” be a compulsory class for first-year students in the future? That sounds impossible at first. After all, happiness isn’t as easy as math or biology (to be fair, even these subjects are rarely straightforward).
Furthermore, happiness is not a tangible commodity like money in a bank account or books on a shelf. Happiness is fluid and constantly changing. What makes us happy one day can make us angry the next.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped countless books, strategies, and self-help gurus from applying as a path to satisfaction. Most of these approaches have their merits, but none are generally beneficial.
Now, however, an “intensive program on the subject of happiness” put together by the University of Trento in northern Italy shows a really incredible success rate among the participants.
The researchers report that over the course of the course, participants experienced gradual improvements in various wellness measures, including life satisfaction, self-esteem, emotional control, and perceived well-being. Participants in the course also saw that their stress levels, negative thoughts, ruminant tendencies, fear and tendency to anger also decreased significantly.
These changes occurred at the same time for most of the participants; As the positive emotions increased, the negative thought patterns decreased. This continued in both the short and long term.
How does this crash course on happiness differ from the rest? The researchers chose a comprehensive approach to promoting happiness. They didn’t just focus on the practical or the scientific and chose to include both Western and Eastern philosophies regarding happiness. The focus of the course is the idea that happiness depends on a sense of inner balance and understanding.
The more we understand ourselves on an emotional level and our minds in a more scientific sense, the easier it is to find some happiness.
“The training we proposed to participants was inspired by the idea, present in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, that happiness is inseparable from developing inner balance, a kinder and more open perspective on yourself, others and the world is connected to a better understanding of the human mind and brain. In this training process, we need theoretical studies of philosophy and science on the one hand, and meditation practices on the other, ”explains Nicola De Pisapia, researcher at the Institute for Psychology and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Trento and scientific coordinator.
In many ways, this work is groundbreaking as it combines modern, science-based neural discoveries with centuries-old wellness techniques such as meditation.
The study’s authors say that far too many modern methods of happiness either confuse hedonism and pleasure for real happiness, or offer far too simple guidelines like “think positive no matter what”.
“I believe that in times like these, which are full of change and uncertainty, it is of fundamental importance to scientifically examine how Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, along with the latest discoveries about the mind and brain, integrate into contemplative practices in a secular realm can be way. The goal is to give healthy people the opportunity to work on themselves to develop authentic happiness, not hedonism or superficial happiness. With this study we wanted to take a small step in this direction, ”explains Dr. Pisapia.
However, like so much in life, happiness is not achieved in an afternoon or in the course of a single week. This course lasted nine months (plus two meditation retreats and several study weekends) and was held at the Lama Tzong Khapa Institute of Tibetan Culture in Pomaia, Italy. Participants had a full learning plan with video classes, presentations, and open discussions on topics such as Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and the history of Western thought.
When students weren’t getting esoteric, they would study and discuss more scientific issues related to happiness, such as neuroscience, neuroplasticity, stress, anxiety, the brain circuits responsible for attention, pain / pleasure, positive / negative emotions, desire / addiction, empathy / compassion and confidence.
Participants were also encouraged to try out various “contemplative traditions” borrowed from both the East and the West. Examples include keeping a journal, breath-based meditation, and analytical meditation.
Happiness is a unique concept for everyone. Perhaps this approach to wellbeing is effective because it doesn’t emphasize positivity so much, but encourages the student to understand themselves better.
The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Psychology.