The Science Is In: If You Want To Be Happy, Stop Trying So Hard

Spotlighting mental chatter and mindful effort through a neuroscientific lens.

Michael Papas
Apr 16 · 5 min read
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The mindful person knows that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. And she knows that, with (non-dual) mindfulness, the mind rests where it is and tranquility arrives.

But, she may not know, the more she tries to be mindful, the less tranquil she’ll be.

I recently listened to Judson Brewer, Ph.D. — psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and meditator — discuss his powerful research on meditation and the default mode network with Sam Harris.

He mentioned something late in the conversation — something I missed before. It’s critical for anyone on the mindful path to know.

The First (Important) Thing

Many philosophical and contemplative traditions teach that “living in the moment” increases happiness. However, the default mode of humans appears to be that of mind-wandering, which correlates with unhappiness, and with activation in a network of brain areas associated with self-referential processing. — Brewer et al

Brewer is here referring to the Default Mode Network (DMN) — the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices.

Brain scan with medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices active. | Source

The DMN is most active when you’re not doing anything (i.e. in your default mode), and it’s responsible, as Brewer states, for self-referential processing.

This means it projects both a conceptual (from the prefrontal) and an experiential (from the posterior) sense of your ‘self’ as a separate object within a world of objects.

When the DMN turns off, this falls away and you manifest subjective awareness — the sense of “oneness” or unity with reality — reported by experienced meditators.

Activity in the DMN quietens when you engage with a goal-directed task, meditate, or enter a ‘flow state’. When you’re not in such states, i.e. in ‘default mode’, activity in the DMN hums back up.

Here passive, undirected thought pops back into awareness. Most lose themselves in it since without mental training the natural thing to do is identify with the illusion of the ‘thinker’ behind the thoughts. This illusory ‘thinker’ is who most people take themselves to be, despite it never having existed in the first place.

Now, research shows that while in the “default mode” of mind wandering, human beings are less happy.

Maybe that’s because the thoughts that enter the mind aren’t always great ones. Why should they be? Often they just mirror underlying emotion, which in our anxiety-ridden world can be all over the place. But if you identify yourself with every lousy thought that enters consciousness, of course you’ll be unhappy.

Perhaps that’s why default mode is avoided like it is. At my corporate law firm, everyone’s so busy, all the time. They never rest in default mode. Maybe it’s intentional?

Mindfulness and the Default Mode

Brewer’s research spearheaded a finding that links mindfulness and neuroscience: the DMN is less active in the brains of experienced meditators than non-meditators.

A meditation practice, therefore, comes with two benefits:

  1. It puts wandering thoughts in the right context, now.
  2. It reduces the mind’s wandering, going forward.

When learning the precepts of mindfulness, you’re taught that you’re not your thoughts. Thoughts merely arise within an awareness that encompasses everything you experience, including thought.

Thoughts are not you but rather experiences. Thoughts happen to you. This insight shifts your position from guilty perpetrator of unsavory thoughts to awareness in which thought appears.

The research shows that the longer you meditate, the less active becomes your DMN. As such, your mind wanders less. You’re rewarded for your disciplined efforts by a mind that’s more open, aware, and present.

In this state, you’re happier. “Happiness” in this context does not mean “excitement”. Excitement can’t be happiness if in its wake remains only craving for more excitement.

No, happiness here means tranquility, serenity, equanimity. It means that you’re open, awake, and aware. You’re not buffeted by the winds of the unpredicted. You’re friends with both positive and negative emotions, which arise in consciousness like everything else.

This, I again note, associates with reduced activity in the Default Mode Network. But can you guess what Brewer found links to higher activity in the DMN?

The Second (Very Important) Thing

In both experienced meditators and amateurs, trying to meditate generates more activity in the DMN.

During Brewer’s experiments, subjects were linked to brain scanners and shown their brain waves live as they meditated. In response, some of the subjects tried real hard for good results on the brain scanner. They tried with all their might to clear their mind and be tranquil.

It must have been frustrating, then, to watch their results worsen the more they tried. The less self-referential and thoughtless they tried to be, the more self-referential and lost in thought they became.

This result is fascinating. But it’d be confirmed by experienced meditators like Joseph Goldstein and Mingyur Rinpoche. The whole point of mindfulness is to let go, to surrender to experience.

The idea is to stop doing and start being. To open awareness and notice what is. To RECEIVE reality for what it is — starting from the breath and working to the cosmos.

As Brewer notes in his chat with Harris, in the Western world we’ve always been fans of doing. This is how we solve problems, progress forward, and pursue happiness.

Rosie the Riveter (Westinghouse poster, 1942). SYmbolic representation of the high value placed on “doing” in the West | U.S. National Archives

Doing is effective for building skyscrapers, curing diseases, and flying space ships to Mars. For these things, a ‘doing culture’ is deeply valuable.

But it’s a mistake to think that the same applies to achieving peace, happiness, and tranquility in our daily lives. In this realm, the West has much to learn from the East.

As neuroscience confirms, happiness is the art of not doing — of not trying.

Takeaways

If you want to be happy, become aware. Notice your thoughts as they arise, without judgment, and without identifying yourself with the imaginary “thinker” hiding behind them.

More importantly, don’t try to be aware. Awareness is not a state to be ‘achieved’. It’s not something you taste after meditating for four years. It’s with you right now. Open, peaceful, transcendent awareness surrounds you as you read these words.

Accessing it is a matter of not accessing. It’s a matter of letting go of all efforts. It’s a matter of receiving reality as it comes, rather than trying to direct your world like a driver.

You’re the car, not the driver.

This logic applies everywhere: in sport, in work, and in daily life as your mind wanders. Relax. Let go. Receive experience.

You’ll be better, and happier, for it.

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Michael Papas

Written by

Insights from neuroscience, non-dual mindfulness, and psychedelics to upgrade your awareness. For gigs or just to chat, get me at michaelpwriting@gmail.com.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Michael Papas

Written by

Insights from neuroscience, non-dual mindfulness, and psychedelics to upgrade your awareness. For gigs or just to chat, get me at michaelpwriting@gmail.com.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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