What would your life look like if you felt 20% happier?
Would that mean having more free time, quitting your job, moving up in your career or moving on from a relationship?
It’s an odd question, this idea of becoming 20% more happy, but why not ask it? When we think of happiness, we often see it as a far off goal — like a fabulous vacation we can’t afford. The truth is, no drastic changes need to be made to find your priceless kind of happiness in the present.
And what if you knew that it only took 30 minutes each day to do?
The answer lies in mindful meditation. A study review found that 30 minutes of meditation a day relieves symptoms of depression by up to 20% and anxiety by up to 10%. In other words sitting still, breathing deeply and witnessing your thoughts can lead to a happier you.
Brainwashing for the better
So here’s how the practice physiologically makes that happen in your body. I should preface this by saying I’m not a medical professional, but a journalist who has researched the topic, as well as a yoga practitioner for seven years and teacher of four years.
When you meditate over time, you create more gray matter in several regions of the brain. Hat tip to Neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Harvard Medical School, who scanned the brains of average people who meditated for 30-40 minutes a day and then scanned folks who matched demographically, but didn’t meditate, to find this conclusion.
This is neuroplasticity: The fact that whatever you engage in repeatedly, changes the way your neurons talk to one another in the brain. In other words, what you focus on expands chemically.
If you focus on what you perceive as negatives, which includes sadness, feeling anxious, having low self-esteem and so on, what often happens is you’ll get more of the same.
What we put on repeat in our brains, we tend to believe.
This is brainwashing, if you think about it. While it can be used to our detriment, we can also self-brainwash to our advantage in order to fuel the conditions for our happiness.
I began this mental experiment seven years ago after I first starting practicing yoga. For me, this meant repeating my mantra, “I no longer identify with depression” even when it wasn’t true.
I did other things, too, like smile while driving in my car when I didn’t feel like smiling. The thing is: Our brains chemically don’t know the difference between a genuine smile or a forced one. Both instances elicit the same feel-good chemical, dopamine.
Similarly, when you meditate, even if the thoughts are racing and you feel like you’re terrible at it, you’re still showing up and doing it. And it’s in that doing that things literally start to change in the brain.
Your brain on meditation
When you meditate, the connection between the Me Center (the medial prefrontal cortex) and the Fear Center (the amygdala) begins to break down. This, my friends, is why you should brainwash yourself.
An example of this in action is asking someone whom you really like for a date, being rejected and then thinking that there’s something inherently wrong with you or that you’re unlovable.
When we meditate, we instead strengthen the rational, logical lateral prefrontal cortex . The next time you get rejected, you see it as simply a rejection or maybe bad timing… and you’re less apt to take it personally. And when we stop taking things personally, we’re more likely to flow with life than against it.
Another brain shift that occurs is that the insula, involved in experiencing and feeling empathy, and the Me Center become stronger (more gray matter!). This means we become more empathetic and compassionate toward others.
Yoga, of course, means union. This practice is all about seeing the connections among us and realizing that none of us go through life alone.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how yoga and meditation can help you create your happy momentum. If 30 minutes doesn’t seem doable right now, do 10.
Just don’t do nothing.
Try it: Reverse Warrior Pose, Viparita Virabhadrasana
There are two sides to living a happier life: looking back at where you’ve been and looking to where you’re going. Meet in the middle — the present moment — with a strong foundation in Reverse Warrior Pose. Although you’re reaching back, your legs are also strongly rooted into a forward lunge.
- From the top of your mat, step your right leg back into a lunge, turn the toes right and plant the foot. Bring your hands to your hips and ensure the front heel is bisecting the middle or heel of the back foot.
- Draw your right thigh back as you tuck the left hip under. Gaze forward at your left foot and open the knee to the left so that you can see your big toe.
- Inhale and lift the arms shoulder height. Draw the navel gently into the spine and reach the crown of the head tall to elongate the torso.
- Flip the front palm up, exhale and reach the left arm up and behind you. Let your right hand gently rest on the right thigh, no weight in the arm. Keep the legs solid and navel moving in and up as you reach through the left fingertips.
- Stay for six deep breaths. Soften the bottoms of your shoulder blades down the back as you extend both of your side bodies long. Inhale and windmill the arms back up to Warrior II. Exhale and step forward to the top of your mat, pausing in Mountain Pose before moving on to the other side.