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No matter how much we lust after worldly objects and material pleasures, in the end, we all just want to be happy. But despite our efforts, happiness often eludes us. Now the ranks of science have stepped in to help unravel the secrets of this precious state of being. And they’re discovering what yogis have known all along.
Happiness, it seems, has a biological component. Groundbreaking studies conducted by University of Wisconsin psychologist Richard Davidson over the past decade have shown that people who report high rates of happy feelings have a larger and more active left prefrontal cortex than their depressed counterparts. Other studies have concluded that happiness may be a matter of genetics. A 1996 study of 1,500 pairs of twins at the University of Minnesota found that, on a self-report happiness scale, adult twins were highly matched in their scores despite variations in income, marital status, and education.
Happiness also seems to lie outside the limits of material wealth and life events. Winning the lottery may tip the emotional scales at first, but most people return to a certain grade of happiness within three months. This is nothing new to the practitioners of yoga. As Dr. R.M. Matthijs Cornelissen of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India, explains, “In the Vedic tradition, ananda, or delight, is seen as being present in the essence of everything that exists. Happiness is thus not something that depends on what you have, but what you are.”
In fact, many studies suggest that yoga can effect positive states of mind, despite life’s highs and lows. In 1993, a British team measured the effects of three relaxation techniqueschair sitting, visualization, and yogaand found that yoga resulted in the greatest increase in alertness, mental and physical energy, and lust for life. Likewise, a 1994 German study, which compared a group of women practicing hatha yoga to a second group that did not, found that the yoginis showed markedly higher scores in life satisfaction, and lower scores in aggressiveness, emotionality, and sleep problems.
“Yoga primarily changes your consciousness, which includes your way of looking at things,” says Cornelissen. “In the process, many aspects of your physical functioning also change, including your brain chemistry.”
Whether we use yoga or some other self-affirming behavior, it’s clear that even born-to-be-negative types can choose to cultivate happiness. Just as a bad mood can become a bad habit that perpetuates unhappiness, so can nurturing positive feelings lead to a more permanent positive state of mind.