We have an extraordinary capacity to change our mind - neuroplasticity, brain's capacity to change physically & functionally

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Happiness is basically a state of mind or feeling such as contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy. Philosophers and religious thinkers have often defined happiness in terms of living a good and peaceful life, rather than simply as an emotion (Wikipedia). Direct measurement of happiness is very difficult however; research has identified a number of correlates with happiness. These include religious involvement, parenthood, marital status, age, income and proximity to other happy people. In fact, we all have a mean level of happiness, around that level our general happiness state fluctuates. For example, if someone wins a big lottery, his or her happiness would return back that original level after some days.

What exactly is happening inside the brains of people experiencing joy and happiness? Dr. Richard Davidson, who has made a life's work out of studying "happy brains." at the University of Wisconsin is devoted to understanding how much of our joy level is set at birth, and how much we can control. People with happy brains have their parents to thank, to a certain extent, not only for happy genes, but also for loving childhoods. Studies have shown that angry or critical parents can actually alter a child's happiness level until its set around age 16. But can adults adjust their own feelings of happiness?

Scientists have known for decades that a large part of our temperament is genetically predetermined; by studying the personalities of identical twins they've now found that about 50 percent of our happiness or unhappiness can be traced to our genes. Adding the 40 percent that we can control with our daily thoughts and actions still leaves about 10 percent unaccounted for. This remaining 10 percent is related to our life circumstances, such as where we live, how much money we have, our marital status, and how we look.

Richard Davidson is one of a handful of scientists whose work is overturning this conventional wisdom, and shedding light on what is called 'neuroplasticity', the fact that the brain is much more flexible, adaptable, and trainable than anyone had ever thought. Much of our "hardwiring" isn't so hard after all, this research shows. And just because your brain is doing something doesn't mean that's what your brain must do. This is one of the things Davidson has been showing in his lab over and over. The adult brain, now scientists realize, continues to make about 5,000 new cells per day. It is ever changing, or "plastic," throughout life. "Traits formerly considered to be fixed are really not," said Davidson. "They’re characteristics that can be changed through training."

In other words, human beings have more control over our minds than previously thought. And one way of training the brain is meditation — another main focus of Davidson’s work. "We have far more control over our wellbeing, over how we respond to the world, than a simplistic, deterministic view would permit," says Davidson. "This work leaves us with a much more hopeful and optimistic message. It also places more responsibility on us. In some sense, this work is really a call for us to take ownership over our own minds."We have an extraordinary ability to transform our minds, if we so choose."Experiments have shown that meditation can increase activity in areas of the brain associated with happiness; that long term meditators have increased "gamma waves" in their brains; that meditation can increase your attention span and help your immune system. It is a body of work that rivals and may eclipse Davidson's earlier work on the emotional brain.

"The brain is the organ that is built to change in response to experience more than any other organ," Davidson says. "It is built to learn. It's a learning machine. It forms new connections. It grows new cells. All of this work is very, very new and it provides an understanding of the mechanisms by which self-regulation, training through meditation, and other kinds of strategies involve changing the brain."This is really a case for the exercise of a certain kind of free will, which we can use to change our minds, and thereby change our brains."If our brains can change, we can change. The implications of these discoveries will be far-reaching. They can be social, because people can take more responsibility for the lives they build around them. They can be political, because if the individual can change, society can change. They can be personal, because we can have more say over (and responsibility for) our lives, our minds and our happiness