Happiness can be learned

People strive for many important and valuable things in their lives, but in one way or another, all these efforts are aimed at making themselves feel happier. A sense of happiness is achieved through a sense of well-being both in thought and on the level of feeling. How much do you need to achieve in order to experience happiness, or is it enough to just learn the feeling? Italian scientists from Trent University, together with their colleagues, conducted a study, the purpose of which was to understand whether it is possible to teach people happiness, as well as any other skills. 

Specialists have developed a carefully designed comprehensive psychological training program "The Art of Happiness," which was based on ideas from the book of the Dalai Lama XIV and psychiatrist Howard Cutler's "The Art of Being Happy." Twenty people participated in the program (average age was 52.86). 

The program consisted of seven modules that took nine months to complete. They focused on developing positive cognitive strategies and behaviors using both formal (e.g., lectures, meditation) and informal practices (e.g., open discussions). Also included were two five-day retreats, one in the middle and one at the end of the course and several home activities.

Specific topics addressed in the respective modules were as follows: 1) the purpose of life: authentic happiness; 2) empathy and compassion; 3) changing attitudes toward suffering; 4) dealing with disturbing emotions I: hate and anger; 5) dealing with disturbing emotions II: self-esteem; 6) life and death; and 7) spirituality and awareness. 

The main conceptual principle underlying the program was that happiness is inextricably linked to the development of inner balance, a kinder and more open view of oneself, others and the world, so a key role was given to meditative practices of various types. 

In addition, happiness is seen as related to an understanding of the workings of the human mind and brain, as well as their limitations and possibilities in light of recent scientific discoveries. This knowledge contributes to a deeper understanding of one's subjective reality and that of others. For this reason, participants were offered several scientific topics from neuropsychology - some of which emphasized cognitive, affective, and social neurobiology. 

The scientific themes that were raised throughout the program were as follows:  1) the effects of mindfulness training and meditation; 2) the psychology and neurobiology of well-being and happiness; 3) neuroplasticity; 4) the mind-brain-body interaction; 5) the placebo effect; 6) the psychophysiology of attention; 7) the psychophysiology of stress and anxiety, pain and pleasure, positive and negative emotions, desire and addiction; 8) self-esteem; 9) empathy and compassion and others. 

The practical goal of the mindfulness training program was to help participants find new ways to achieve their own happiness by developing both self-awareness and their openness to others, thereby contributing to their own emotional and social well-being.

The results obtained by the researchers show a gradual increase in the participants' sense of psychological well-being over the course of the course. Particular advances were observed in life satisfaction, self-awareness and emotional regulation skills. 

After completion of the program, a continuation of the effects in the form of further reductions in anxiety, anger, and negative emotions was observed. Such results emphasize that the development of mental states related to subjective well-being is progressive in nature, with a gradual increase in the duration and frequency of positive mental states and a gradual decrease in the duration and frequency of negative ones. 

The authors conclude that happiness skill training programs, such as The Art of Happiness, have really great potential to increase people's sense of psychological well-being. 

March 22, 2021, 4:22 p.m.

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