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Joyful Wisdom: How Happy Can We Be?

Our moods shift with life's ups and downs. But neuroscience tells us that our daily mood range ordinarily shifts little through life. So what can we do to shift our mood toward contentment?
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How happy can we be? Take Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama billed as "the happiest man in the world," and the author of a book with an upbeat title, Joyful Wisdom.

What's so intriguing about Mingyur Rinpoche is that he started out in life fairly unhappy, prone to fits of intense anxiety. If a child psychiatrist had found her way to the tiny village in Nepal where he spent his earliest years, the diagnosis would likely have been for one or another of the anxiety disorders.

Mingyur Rinopche has investigated both Asian and Western methods for enhancing wellbeing. A while back he spent time at our house getting briefed on brain research, and on the integration of mindfulness with cognitive therapy outlined in Emotional Alchemy, written by my wife Tara Bennett-Goleman. I've seen him laugh in the face of hassles and setbacks that could well pitch most of us into a frown, if not tears. And he finds this "happiest man" label hilarious.

Born into a family of meditation adepts, at 13 Mingyur Rinpoche entered a three year (that's right -- three years, three months and three days!) meditation retreat with a group of other monks. He spent the first year still suffering from chronic distress that peaked into panic attacks. But by the end of the retreat he was dong so well that he was made the retreat master for the next three year cycle.

Rinpoche was among a dozen or two world-class meditators recruited for a study by neuroscientist Richard Davidson who happens to be the authority on the brain basis of our emotional set-points, and how happiness can be learned.

Davidson discovered that each one of us has a neural index for our mood set-point. Distressing moods activate the right side of the prefrontal area, just behind the forehead; upbeat ones the left side. Our day-to-day left/right ratio predicts remarkably accurately our usual mood range. People far to the right may have clinical depression or an anxiety disorder; those far to the left bounce back from setbacks.

While Davidson was "norming" this mood index by inviting hundreds of people into the lab to be assessed, he happened to invite for testing an elderly Tibetan lama who had come to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin. That lama had the most extreme left-side ratio of anyone tested to date.

Our moods shift with life's ups and downs, of course. But neuroscience findings like those from Davidson's lab tell us that our daily mood range ordinarily shifts little through life. This explains why people who win millions of dollars, or who become paralyzed from a tragic accident, get past their initial elation or depression after a year or so and return to having roughly the same spectrum of moods they experienced before those events. An upbeat temperament can eventually return to the parapalegic and morose outlooks once again take over the newly minted millionaire (another reason money can't buy happiness).

So the big question: what can we do to shift our mood setpoint toward the range of more contentment, if not outright happiness?

Davidson's research offers some clues. For one, he's seen some of the highest activity on the left prefrontal area ever found when he studied lamas like Mingyur Rinpoche meditating on compassion. For another, he's seen early signs of a shift toward the left -- along with better moods -- in people working in a high-stress company who were taught mindfulness meditation. Some good news: you don't need three years -- the biggest positive shifts in set-point seem to come early in practice.

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