As Happy As Monks

Anyone with even an amateur interest in psychology will quickly be able to impart that the brain is a fascinating organ. The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that allows us to consider past memories and ponder what the future holds. It also imparts the ability to perform complex reasoning.

Aside from its gifts, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for enabling us to over-analyze and to retain emotional responses well past their time of potential usefulness. Paradoxically, the same part of the brain that has bestowed us with the means to think more has also given us the opportunity to blunder, worry, and fear. This not only affects our thought processes themselves, but our overall happiness.

Enter Madison University Communications Psychology professor Richard Davidson. Davidson’s  journey to helping develop new tools for greater mental control and well-being began with a visit to the Dalai Lama. The exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama exemplifies the Buddhist values of peace, compassion, collectedness, and happiness.

The Dalai Lama symbolizes wholeness despite his forced absence from his homeland. Davidson’s study subjects where handpicked by the leader. Davidson wanted to investigate how monks’ mental exercises and daily practices physically effected their brains. He was assisted with the help of several Tibetan Buddhist masters, all of whom had spent tens of thousands of hours meditating.

On those sections of the brain associated with emotional well-being, Davidson recorded remarkably high levels of activity. Brain activity was measured via MRI. After the study, Davidson trained a group of subjects to employ the monks’ tactics for mental control and maintaining day-to-day consciousness.

Davidson found that after only two weeks, significant changes had taken place in related brain areas. The professor continues to develop new studies to gain insight into the links between acknowledging and controlling our emotional excesses and brain activity. He organizes workshops and lectures to help people adopt those strategies the monks themselves have understood for ages.

© Copyright 2009 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Holly


    February 13th, 2009 at 11:26 AM

    Maybe I would be that content as well if I knew that I had all day to devote to prayer and meditation, as well as feeling so close to God at all times. I think that many po us do not have the time to do this though.

  • Kate


    February 13th, 2009 at 9:38 PM

    Staying calm and collected is a challenge that I face constantly. I realised that after having a baby, I grew increasingly tense, anxious and depressed. The one thing that I was advised by doctors and friends was meditation and yoga. Definitely explains why monks are calmer and thus happier than most of us.

  • Joely


    February 14th, 2009 at 1:51 PM

    The life of a monk or a nun spent in all of that quiet reflection and study would drive me insane! I am much more of a people person and that is how I stay happy- spending time with my friends and family. Too much quiet makes me feel like I am going crazy. I know that it must take really special people to be able to endure completely and happily this sort of life. But I know it ain’t for me!

  • April


    February 16th, 2009 at 5:41 AM

    A monk’s life is definitely one to be studied and evaluated. I have never understood how they can go through the day in silence and meditation, for it does seem like that would be more than a little maddening. But I guess that for many of them it is the perfect lifestyle. I have thought about though how many of the people in these roles are using this as an escape from a life and world that is scary to them in other ways. That would be interesting to learn if anyone could ever delve and do the research on that I would love to hear the results. I do think that so many of us would benefit if we could do more like they do, in that we should all probably devote more time to study and prayer rather than always being so caught up in the material goods of the world. Is this even a possibility? It would be hard.

  • Derek


    February 20th, 2009 at 4:41 PM

    Twenty minutes of meditation is all it takes to see improvement. We can all find this time somewhere in the day. Even if it is 20 minutes less sleep, wouldn’t it be a great trade off for more peace of mind throughout the day? You don’t need to get formal with it and you don’t even need 20 minutes straight. Do four 5 minute sessions. Find somebody to start you out in the right direction. It certainly is worth it. I am speaking as a 15 year meditator with 2 small children. Really, try it for 3 months. The Dalai Lama is probably busier than most of us on a daily basis. He still finds time for meditation and is happy regardless of what conditions arise.

    As far as a study on monks using spirituality to escape conventional life goes, I believe it would be no more interesting than a study about therapists avoiding the troubles of their own life by surrounding themselves with the problems of other people’s lives. The point of the Buddhist contemplative lifestyle is not to escape the problems of the world, but to experience the world as it is – as opposed to how one thinks it is or wishes it would be. One may think praying and meditating all day would bring contentment, but discontent will rear its head no matter what path you take in life. The grass is always greener… Stories abound of people escaping the world by becoming a monk/nun only to find themselves face to face with… the self.

  • Henry


    February 27th, 2009 at 6:38 AM

    I loved reading your comment Derek. It is so true that discontentment is in human nature. I think most of us come up with excuses when we say we dont have time to do this or that. It probably is because we are lazy, not motivated enough and secretly content with the lousy day.

  • Tina


    February 28th, 2009 at 6:35 AM

    I do think regular life gives us a lot of downs than ups. I dont think people in Nirvana have a clue about what it means to actually be responsible for someone other than yourself. That one thing makes us positive or negative people depending on our struggle between ego and responsibilities.

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