Happiness. We all want it. If you were born in America you learned early that happiness is not only your right but a national obsession as well. Indeed, not only do we individually spend huge amounts of time, energy, and money becoming and staying happy, corporations spend equal amounts of these convincing everyone that they are not happy enough and deserve more. The western relationship to happiness is indeed an odd one. And, it is into this odd relationship that adolescents are inducted as one of the many unspoken rites of passage into adulthood.
The problem is this: with the quest for happiness, as it is socially and culturally defined in most western nations, comes heightened risk for addictions of all sorts - particularly for youth. The science of addiction reveals that whether someone struggles with substance abuse or one or more of the large variety of process addictions present in our culture such as food, sex, gambling, self-harming behaviors, or even excessive Internet usage or workaholism, the pay-off is the same: increased levels of "feel good" chemicals. All of these behaviors increase levels of circulating "happiness" chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, endogenous opiods, and norepinephrine - at least for a short while.
Of course, like most drugs, we require more over time to get the same rush. Unfortunately, meeting the body's ever-increasing demands for more is unsustainable and unhealthy - one look at changes in obesity prevalence across the US (see http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html#State for trends over time) and concomitant levels of obesity-related disease provide evidence of this fact. And, as we all know, withdrawal is unpleasant and depressing - literally - since circulating levels of our natural "feel good" chemicals drop off to lower-than-ever levels before eventually leveling out again once more.
Although the human thirst for readymade happiness provides significant job security for those who make their money exploiting these appetites, it primarily serves as a distraction from meaningful inquiry into how to help ourselves and our youth acquire practices capable of cultivating sustained levels of inner contentment and peace - one of the deepest of all human desires. Although the science of happiness is nascent (and much less developed than the study of pathology), increased understanding of the neurology of contentment suggests that practices such as meditation and contemplation may hold the key to real and lasting happiness.
Studies of long-term meditators by researchers such as Richard Davidson from the UW-Madison Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience show that meditation is linked to significant activity in the left prefrontal cortex - areas of the brain linked to positive emotion. Studies of the effect of meditation on mental health typically show meditation linked to significantly less trait anxiety and negative affect, enhanced levels of circulating antibodies and the high-frequency gamma waves associated with higher mental activity. Indeed, some experienced meditators show the most powerful gamma waves ever documented in a human being. Similarly, as reviewed in Stefan Klein's book, The Science of Happiness, long-term compassion-focused meditation has been linked to the most intense left-sided, happiness-related brain activity ever recorded. Moreover, studies show that these changes are likely to be permanent.
What does this have to do with kids? Everything. As it turns out, the attention circuits affected by meditation are those involved in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - the most prevalent psychiatric diagnosis among children in our country. Although we lack empirical study of the effects of meditation on ADHD, such findings hold promise. Similarly, one of the neurological effects of activity in the left prefrontal cortex is to reduce emotion-related disorders - conditions which affect nearly 20% of adolescents at any given time.
In a world where even the most potent of our antidepressants are performing no better than placebos in reducing depression among mild and moderate depressed individuals (see recent study by Fournier and colleagues in the January 5, 2010 issue of JAMA), it has come time to consider alterative understanding and treatment of human suffering - a condition most Buddhist and Yogic scholars identify as an essential, but not irrevocable, part of human life. One of the most interesting implications of the Fournier depression study is that the key to lasting happiness (and illness) resides largely in our own minds and bodies. Placebos often work because we think they work. That is truly a paradigm shift - one we have yet to fully explore and exploit.
What keeps us from teaching ourselves and our children how to make use of the parts of their brains capable of providing more than a fast-fading and ultimately unsustainable rush? While making meditation and contemplation a regular part of school, work, or family time seems unthinkable now, I wonder if it will always seem so out of the ordinary. While meditation alone may not be enough to ease the passage of youth and adults navigating the harried labyrinth of western life, it is a start. And, when coupled with coping strategies that emphasize optimism over pessimism, an ability to accept and appreciate each of life's fleeting moments, the ability to honor and accept emotions, and the capacity to effectively identify and question core beliefs, meditation becomes part of a powerful set of tools capable of heightening individual and collective consciousness, happiness and peace.
Maybe we need the proliferation of addiction to pave the way to more than the synthetic and fleeting happiness solutions on which we now lean. As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. And if we are waiting for science to sanctify ancient wisdom about the path to lasting contentment, the time has arrived.