Is there a science of happiness? Is love a skill? In the last decade, neuroscientists have been exploring brain functions associated with happiness, and have discovered how this is trainable with different kinds of meditation.
One interesting piece of data they found: happiness has something to do with cultivating compassion and empathy, related to the fact that we are social animals.
In the latter decades of 20th century, a new scientific field arose called “psychoneuroimmunology” (PNI). Basically, this science tells us that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions can affect our physiology by influencing our immune system. Pharmacologist Candace Pert discovered what she calls “molecules of emotion”—technically known as neuropeptides. Based on her research, she claimed that emotions exist all over in the body—so, for example, when we say we have a “gut feeling,” a physiological reaction is actually happening in our gut!
Her discovery of the “molecules of emotion” rocked the scientific community, because it meant that the brain is not the headquarters of human functioning. We are not “top-down machines,” always reacting to what goes on in our heads. Instead, we are mindful-sentient organisms whose bodies teem with intelligence in every organ, in every cell. The communications systems between body and brain, and between mind and body, work back-and-forth. It’s a two-way dynamic between brain and the rest of the body. Based on scientific knowledge about what makes us happy, I would like to reveal here what I call “the three dimensions” of happiness. People seek happiness in various ways, through . . .
- external gratification that temporarily makes us happy.
- a feeling of satisfaction associated with (and often “attached” to) our individual self.
- a deeper sense of fulfillment that comes from simply recognizing and appreciating what is.
Our level of consciousness fluctuates throughout the day, and it is natural to move around these three layers. Essentially, nothing is wrong with experiencing external gratification (#1), and we all need to balance these three layers of happiness as we grow. We are all familiar with external gratification, so I don’t need to explain that here. Examples, of course, are our desires for chocolate, coffee, etc. When we respond to these desires, we get a feeling of satisfaction (#2), and this is what most of us seek. This kind of satisfaction can be related to work, our relationships, friends, family, and so on.
Attaining level #3 happiness and a deeper kind of fulfillment, we need a certain level of awareness. On the famous “hierarchy of needs” identified by pioneering human potential psychologist Abraham Maslow this kind of happiness is associated with “self-actualization”—the state of mind Dalai Lama encourages us to cultivate by practicing compassion, (I think this is what Oprah Winfrey tries to achieve with her audiences, too).
A couple of years ago, the lyrics of a song caught my attention. They went something like: “Love is not something you give or receive; it’s already there when you realize it.” The key phrase for me was “When you realize it.”
I tend to view feelings of satisfaction that rely on something external needing to change as “horizontal” happiness. However, I see deeper fulfillment as a vertical process—by accepting “what is,” we open to the rich depth and variety of what life has to offer. In doing so, we expand our awareness. This kind of fulfillment does not come from achieving things—it arises from within, from being. In fact, this mode of happiness doesn’t require us to do anything or to go anywhere. All it takes is full acceptance of what’s happening right here right now. It all begins by becoming aware of what’s present and realizing that the world is already filled with love. This step starts by unlearning what we know, by detaching ourselves from the self-image we have developed—especially if that image depends on externalities such as how we dress, how we look, how big or beautiful our home is, or how much money we have. Instead of protecting our fragile self-image, we can succeed in life by fully connecting with, expressing, and contributing our deepest natural self—the self that is mostly “unconscious” or transpersonal—the self that connects us with “something bigger.”