Gaining Happiness by Losing Yourself
How altered states of consciousness make you happy.
Posted October 9, 2016
A dissolution of body boundaries during meditation leads to greater happiness, says a new study. The results provide evidence that techniques which foster the loss of a sense of body boundary can help in the treatment of mood disorders.
In the pursuit of happiness, we are often self-centered. I want an ice cream, I want to watch my favorite TV show, I want this woman or man as a partner. This hedonic principle can lead to pleasurable states when I am able to consume. But it can also lead to unpleasant situations when I don’t get what I want.
The striving for personal pleasure thereafter leads to fluctuating states of happiness depending on the contingencies of life—factors I may not be able to control. Relying too strongly on these self-related, but not necessarily controllable outer rewards can easily lead to unhappiness. The world has not been created to fulfill my personal needs—that’s at least what we have to learn when we grow up. A baby may experience such bliss in the way that every time it cries, it is fed, the world is experienced as immediately gratifying. But later in childhood, we will inevitably learn that we are not in paradise when again and again we don’t receive the gratification we hoped for. Tolerance for frustration is then needed.
With their recent happiness model, called the Self-Centeredness/Selflessness Happiness model, Michael Dambrun and Matthieu Ricard have developed an idea of how we learn to become happy grownups. In essence, they argue that self-centeredness develops when we take our condition to be more important than the condition of others; the self is experienced with sharp boundaries and as separate from the others and the world.
A more selfless existence, in contrast, is based on the feeling of a weaker separation of oneself with the surrounding world and a greater connection with other people. Selflessness also comes with beneficial emotions, such as compassion and love. The self-centered individual has a static self with rigid desires and regularly occurring disappointments. This “selfless self” is engaged with others and results from a dynamic state of acceptance of what comes and goes in life—resulting in more authentic happiness.
In fact, psychiatry research has shown how an overuse of first-person singular pronouns, such as “I” and “me,” is related to more distress in depressed individuals. An explanation of why people feel anxiety and depressed mood would be the lack of connection with significant others, which in turn results in an overly strong feeling of separateness of the self from others. Of course, not everyone who is self-centered has mental instabilities, but a strong self-centeredness does come with a cost, one way or another. Letting go of the self and opening up to the world makes you happier.
In work published in the November 2016 edition of the journal Consciousness and Cognition, Michael Dambrun empirically shows that a dissolution of body boundaries during meditation leads to greater happiness. Interestingly, the study participants were not experienced meditators, but regular students at the university. They followed either a 21-minute audio tape with a body scan meditation instruction or just spent the same time resting. In comparing the two intervention groups, it became clear that those students who had meditated felt their body boundaries to a lesser degree, and they felt afterwards happier than the control group.
What happens during a body scan meditation? You are guided to focus successively on different parts of the body. Initially, you feel a stronger sense of the body—and of the passage of time. But after a while, you lose your sense of bodily self and of time—you are in a meditative flow. What Michael Dambrun now shows is that even people not experienced in meditation within a short period of time can get into a state where the feeling of a self is less dominant, and happiness increases.
This research is important for treating mental disorders. It is known that mindfulness meditation can help treat various mood disorders. One mechanism for its effectiveness might lie in the reduction of self-centeredness and the consequent increased mood state. These findings also have implications for another approach currently investigated in psychiatry using the so-called floating tank or sensory deprivation tank. You float in a lightless and soundproof water tank with high salt concentration at skin temperature. You cannot see and hardly hear anything, except your own breathing in and breathing out. Because you float in the water at skin temperature, you lose your sense of body boundary and after a while feel relaxed and in a good mood.
I like to call this effect “instant meditation,” because after a while, you can get into states of consciousness that usually only experienced meditators have: a diminished sense of an individuated self, feeling one with the surroundings. But could this also be a future intervention technique for mental disorders? Losing the sense of your bodily boundary would be a way to induce the feeling of selflessness, timelessness, and happiness. Justin Feinstein is the director of the Float Research Collective. He has now started testing the efficacy of repeated floating exposure on individuals with and without mental disorders. Individuals may feel that they lose some of their self-centeredness, their immediate anxieties, and gain happiness.
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