Can Mindfulness and a Psychology Class Make You Happier?

Mindfulness learning to be happy

By studying the effects of mindfulness on psychiatric patients, and the pursuit of happiness, can we teach ourselves how to be happier?

The term mindfulness has entered popular culture in recent years, but this ancient Buddhist practice actually began gaining acceptance in western medicine in the 1970s.

The three main tenets of mindfulness are:

  •   Intention to cultivate awareness
  •   Attention to what is occurring in the present moment
  •   An attitude that is non-judgmental

In a recent article for psychiatric times, researchers looked at how mindfulness-based treatments work for psychiatric patients, and how these therapies can enhance and even replace pharmaceutical interventions. They found a wealth of evidence that mindfulness-based therapies have overwhelmingly positive effects on patients.

With mindfulness-based cognitive therapy reducing the rate of relapse rates for patients with major depression similar to that of pharmaceuticals, they also showed reduced anxiety, depression, and increased cognition.

The researchers point out, however, that, “Despite this evidence, pharmacotherapy remains the main treatment option for many patients with mental disorders, although about 75 percent of patients with mental disorders prefer psychotherapy. Researchers recommend implementing mindfulness-based therapies in place of, or in concert with, pharmacotherapy especially as the population grows older and cognitive issues become more common.

What makes us truly happy? Fame? Fortune? True happiness may be closer than you think, and a recent study shows we can learn to be happier.

Perhaps the most famous study of happiness, the “Harvard Study of Adult Development,” began in 1938 and studied students at Harvard University. It was coupled with another study of kids from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, throughout their lives, and remains the longest-running longitudinal study of happiness and life satisfaction.

The main takeaway: happiness and satisfaction were not based on wealth, fame, or power, but on strong friendships and relationships.

But nowadays we are often more secluded. Social media friends are not always real friends and can take us away from human contact.  And comparing our lives to the curated lifestyles we see on the internet often makes us depressed. But there is a way to help cure that.

Just ask Laurie Santos, professor of Psychology at Yale University, who teaches the free online course, “The Science of Well Being” a class on increasing happiness, and ways to deal with habits that can make us unhappy as she told new scientists “for many of us, our happiness is much more under our control than we think.”

These controls include: 

  • Practicing mindfulness,
  • The use of gratitude journals to help us avoid “hedonic adaptation”, our tendency to become accustomed to a new positive life situation.
  • Talking to strangers can increase social connection.
  • Recognizing when we are comparing ourselves to others… and shifting our focus to something positive.

These tactics can be significant and long-lasting. A recent study conducted by Santos showed people who took the 10-week “Science of Well-Being” class compared to people who took a general psychology course were significantly happier, and for a longer period of time.

Santos concludes that courses like hers are, “A public health tool that could be used to improve mental health in the population.” 

And as George Vaillant, director of the Harvard Study for three decades once wrote, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

How to Weather an Existential Crisis

existential crisis concept

There comes a time in the lives of many when there is a pause to reflect on the meaning of life. When this moment of Zen turns out to be especially troubling, puzzling, or even discombobulating, we have a name for it — an existential crisis. The symptoms of an existential crisis range from mild wonderment to turning your world on its head and it can feel much more extreme than a prolonged state of confusion or mental health issue.

There are numerous introductions into the potential rabbit hole of an existential crisis, but all of them usually begin with the question “Why am I here?” or “What is the meaning of life?” If you’re going through this, you aren’t alone. 

Philosophers have contemplated the purpose of existence and existential anxiety all the way back through our collective past. Socrates had a prescription: “Know thyself.” The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi suggested asking, “Who am I?”

Why do we humans get caught up in this search for meaning, and why do we fear a meaningless life? Better yet, is there any meaning at all? Some people suggest there is a purpose to life that is bound to a sense of well-being, but the masters of enlightenment have long said that we are looking in the wrong direction — outward instead of inward.

Joseph Campbell taught that it’s better to stop searching for the meaning of life and to begin looking for the meaning in life. In other words, life deals us a certain hand of cards, and we need to find what makes us passionate about them. Campbell summed this up in three immortal words: “Follow your bliss” — and the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”

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