We sent three skeptical women to three respected researchers and gave them one month to test-drive the latest theories...
By Michelle Burford
I have tried to meditate. It didn't work. So when I took the assignment to test a form of meditation called mindfulness—and let the record reflect that I only agreed because there's now proof the practice can send one's happiness quotient screaming toward Pluto—I'd already resolved that I would once again walk away markedly unchanged. I was wrong.
The science that lured me was the study by Richard Davidson, PhD, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, in which mindfulness meditation caused the brains of biotech workers to light up where the happiness regions are. Kabat-Zinn led me to Polly Wheat, MD, an internist who founded the mindfulness program at Barnard College in New York.
I join her mindfulness course—she meets with about 20 students on Wednesday nights for eight weeks—during session five. Only a few minutes into the two-hour gathering (and only ten minutes into the sugar high I've given myself by chain-inhaling 14 Jolly Ranchers on the way), along comes the experience I am prepared to suffer through: sitting. "Relax your neck and shoulders, balance your head...," Wheat instructs as I rearrange myself in my chair.
Minute one: My abdomen aches. I bet these people are faking it. Why am I doing this? Minute seven: Did I miss the part in the mindfulness manual that reads "Caution: This approach may not work on black people or endomorphs?" Minute 15: Did I TiVo Survivor? Why is my jaw tight? Thank God, she's finally ringing the bell!
After class I get straight with Wheat: Zilch happened to me during our time of silence. I got nowhere. It was like browsing through Bloomingdale's with no ka-ching.
"There's nowhere to get!" she says with a smile. "The paradox of living mindfully is that the best way to get there is to fully be here."
Two hours of hand-wringing later, I finally translate her meditation-speak into my native tongue. Mindfulness is basically this: Open your eyeballs to life. Clear your eardrums of interference. Give every single joy and annoyance in your day—be it a scrumptious Belgian waffle sliding down your esophagus or spam spilling over the sides of your e-mail in-box—your maximum attention. Stay out of the bike lanes marked "yesterday" and "tomorrow" and pop your wheelies in the present. Then hang this sign on the front porch of your brain: "No blaming, judging, and belittling allowed here." Life is happening in every breath. Wake up and notice it.
A day later, I try one of her homework assignments. Sitting on my couch, I utter a litany of thank-yous for the gazillion people in my world who lend me light and even for a few who don't. This is supposed to take 15 minutes, but I finish in only one minute and 17 seconds. Instead of galloping back to work, though, I sit it out to see what other thoughts show up. After six minutes, a familiar tide of anxiety rolls in: What if I'm more terrified of what I can accomplish during my lifetime than of what I can't? What if my big plans fizzle into big flops?
The next time I see Wheat, I press for answers: What does all this sitting have to do with mindful living? And will my brain light up if I don't meditate formally? "Everything can be a meditation when it's done with our full attention," she says. "In our society, we're constantly being pulled into the next moment. Sitting helps you practice mindfulness in a protected area. It's the same idea as playing scales on your piano at home so you can perform Beethoven's 'Appassionata' at Carnegie Hall." When I mention my episode of meditation angst, she explains that mindfulness isn't about zapping unpleasant thoughts. It's about getting still long enough to notice that you're having them. And in that space between pain and acknowledgment lives a choice. To let the anxiety grip you or to consciously dismiss it. To pout about where you could be or to accept where you are. To live in a state of constant cardiac arrest or simply to breathe your way through every second.
Wheat gives me more homework, all explained in a bulging green folder that, once back at my apartment, I pitch into my sock drawer. And there it might've stayed forever—except for the evening, three days after my third class, when a close friend called with a sentence that knocked us both to our knees: "I don't want to live." I listened. I wept. I called in help. And when I'd reached the final paragraph of my best pep talk, I dug out that file.
If it's true that we teach best what we need to learn most, I'm now well qualified to pass on the one principle of mindfulness that saved both my friend and me: You don't have to Windex your big mess the moment that you splatter it. Just get up and step to the right. Stand there. Notice how your feet feel on the ground. Notice that you're still aboveground. Take that news in. Or resist it and settle into your misery, then notice that's what you're doing. Decide you won't judge yourself for judging yourself. Judge yourself some more, then cut it out again. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Oh, relax: I'm in no danger of becoming a We Are the World tree hugger just because I finished the course so enthusiastically. I even—voluntarily—did an 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. silent solo retreat Wheat designed for me (it included listening to a guided meditation CD, taking a mindful walk and eating a mindful meal, a little yoga, and a ton of sitting). And hold on to your bra straps for this: I've actually been meditating every morning for 20 minutes.
I don't need a brain scan to know that an old Roberta Flack hit now makes my scalp tingle with exhilaration, that the feel of my favorite silk-mohair sweater now counts as a big enough reason to celebrate. When stressful thoughts flood my head these days, I stop, thank them for passing through, then keep stepping. And in the front right bedroom of my brain where constant judgment once resided, the newly freed space is a welcome spot for joy.
"Change is good" was my grandma's favorite expression—odd, considering she never left her Sun City retirement complex for 20 years.
We pay lip service to the joys of change, but most of us do love our routines. "Our natural tendency is to avoid uncertainty," says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. "This kind of inertia is difficult to overcome."
But overcome you must, says Berns, if you want to be happier. A hyperinquisitive 39-year-old, he has been studying the pleasure centers of the brain for 15 years. In a 2000 experiment, Berns and his colleagues squirted fruit juice and water into volunteers' mouths, using patterns that were predictable or unpredictable, while measuring their brain activity using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). He found that the pleasure centers of the subjects' brains responded much more strongly when the squirts were unexpected.
Based on those findings and others, Berns believes that novelty is the key to a satisfying life. To cultivate happiness (and keep those pleasure centers in your brain humming), he recommends constantly seeking new challenges and adventures—not necessarily skydiving, but stimulating experiences that make you feel vividly engaged: a vacation to Iceland, a rock climbing class, a social engagement you wouldn't ordinarily attend. "You can't just think yourself into happiness," says Berns: "You have to get up and do things you've never done before. And that entails risk. And risk entails anxiety. And even when those things don't turn out the way you hope, in the end you're more satisfied." Embracing uncertainty, he points out, also builds emotional resilience, "toughening you up for unexpected bad stuff that you have no control over."
When I met with Berns in his lab at Emory, he had me play a video-game-like device while he measured my brain waves with an MRI. In one test, I watched the screen passively as money was dropped into a bag. Then I used the controls to put the money in the bag myself. In the second case, my brain waves jumped because I actively made something happen.
Afterward, in his office, Berns produced a program of new challenges for me to tackle over the next month, loosely based on his book, Satisfaction. The first category involved putting my body to the test, trying a sport or physical activity I'd never done but wanted to, that I had some anxiety about. The next was intellectual (read a novel I've always found daunting or attend a lecture on a totally unfamiliar subject). The third was social ("make a connection with someone"), and the fourth was transcendent, which Berns defined as "going beyond the physical concreteness of daily life—through spiritual experiences, art, music, anything that creates a sense of being part of something more than yourself."
Back at home, I decided to try the social challenge first. I've lived in the same New York apartment building for three years and have never met my next-door neighbor. Three years. So I baked a batch of brownies and knocked on his door, my heart thudding. He looked suspicious while I explained it was high time we introduced ourselves, but then he invited me in for coffee and we chatted for the rest of the afternoon. Afterward I realized that meeting him (David, his name is) gave me a satisfied feeling: a comforting sense of community as well as the security of knowing that a friend was right next door.
My intellectual venture was forgoing TV for two weeks to read Great Expectations (actually staying up past my bedtime some nights to find out what happened to Pip). For the transcendent activity, I went to the American Museum of Natural History and visited the Butterfly room, despite a raging fear of the fluttery insects (it has something to do with their spindly legs). At the exhibition, I stood perfectly still as live butterflies gently alighted all over my body until, in a surreal moment, I was literally coated with them.
As for the physical novelty, I forced myself to ride a horse. Large and skittish isn't a good combo in my book, but I have always envied anyone who can ride. I spent a sleepless night before my morning appointment ("If it doesn't cause a bit of anxiety," says Berns," you're not doing anything"), and once I was in the saddle, my hands trembled for the whole, endless hour. So what if my instructor said that my elderly horse, Jack, "had one hoof in the grave"? I had never been on a horse in my life, and, for me, getting through that lesson was a major accomplishment. Once the abject terror subsided, I was elated.
The feeling of triumph stayed with me, too, mellowing nicely over the week into contentment. Berns cautions that his program isn't a "five steps to happiness" quick fix, but his theories have completely changed my mind-set. I find myself eagerly scanning the newspaper for stimulating new activities and striking up conversations with complete strangers. This way of thinking, I have a feeling, could get addictive.
Moods are tricky and often in need of an upgrade, which is why I'm about to spend 30 days test-driving a method for cultivating more happiness in my life. Allow me to confess to skepticism about whether happiness can be reliably and speedily induced. For years in therapy, I've slogged toward a little bit happy, a lot happy, and maybe someday soon, insanely happy. As far as I can tell, there's no such thing as a shortcut.
But here I go. What I'm going to test is a preliminary theory developed by Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Fredrickson, who is both serious and friendly, has spent 15 years mapping the benefits of feeling good, and figuring out how to feel this way more often.
I'm all in favor of good moods, so when I meet with Fredrickson at the local Starbucks in Ann Arbor, I'm hanging on her every word. Based on studies of college students, she believes that if people spend time every day finding positive meaning in what happens to them, they will become happier and more emotionally resilient. "Positive meaning leads to resilience, which leads to more positive meaning and positive emotions, and so on," says Fredrickson. "It's an upward spiral." And the payoff is huge: You raise test scores, improve problem solving, strengthen connections with others, and broaden your sense of possibility, according to studies by Fredrickson and others. Positive emotions even help people to see each other as individuals instead of members of a particular race. Typically, Caucasian research subjects do poorly on face-recognition tests of African-Americans or Asians, says Fredrickson. "It's 'They all look the same to me,'" she says. But in one study, Caucasians were nudged into a positive mood by watching an upbeat video, and face-recognition scores zoomed, she says.
Day 1: On the plane home, I get off to a rough start by reading a memoir by a woman who was raped. Dismal feelings swamp me. I see no positive meaning here, or in lots of terrible situations—child abuse and depression, to name but two. When I call to find out what Fredrickson suggests for people who go through horrific events like rape, she notes that some trauma survivors draw strength from finding purpose in their experience. "The goal is not to get rid of trauma or difficult negative emotions," she says, "but to bring positive meaning into the mix." And what if you're suffering from depression? "We're not studying people who are depressed," she says. "This is for normal, everyday ups and downs."
Day 7: A stellar day for finding the positive spin. My computer has died and the hard drive has vanished—a major, major problem. I'm freaked until I call Steve and his son, Jessie, my ace computer repair guys. Calmly, Steve makes a plan. He'll try to retrieve data from my computer and help me buy a new one. I put my dead laptop in my bicycle basket and ride to his office. As I pedal, positive meaning comes right at me: I am lucky indeed to have such kind, smart people helping me.
Day 12: My brand-new computer is humming along. Jessie, with near-magical powers, has retrieved everything off the previous hard drive. I'm so filled with gratitude for Steve and Jessie that I'm actually baking them cookies, a personal first in the millennium. Fredrickson would approve. Doing good deeds, she says, is a reliable way to get happier.
Day 18: Positive spiral? I don't think so. It's Thanksgiving, and I wake up feeling disconnected and tense. Fredrickson says that you can jump-start positive spirals by doing things you like to do, such as yoga, or by distracting yourself. I go to a funny movie with my kids and sweetheart. I laugh. After it's over, glum city again. I could go to films for days on end and still be stuck with these holiday feelings. What I'd really like to do, I tell Fredrickson, is talk to my therapist. She says that realizing this is, in fact, finding positive meaning. "You know what it takes to get you out of that sort of funk," she says. "That can be a source of pride." Geesh, this woman never quits.
Day 30: It's the end of my test run. Despite my skepticism, I actually think Fredrickson is onto something here. In just a month, I've made a stab at training my mind to watch for moments of kindness and grace. The idea is emotional balance. Sometimes I can't achieve it, but it's always worth a try.