Does mindfulness increase happiness?

In 2020 respected economist Richard Layard made sweeping claims about the relationship between mindfulness and human happiness. How does his thesis appear from a cognitive perspective?

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Book Review: Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics by Richard Layard (Penguin, 2020)

In another week of challenging events, the task of reviewing any book on happiness offered a welcome contrast to depressing accounts of pandemic, politics and poverty. Not that Covid-19, economic decline and the threat from climate change are not important issues, but because the book title suggested solutions to many of the intractable problems we face. Indeed, Layard offers hope that ‘despite appearances, a new gentler culture is emerging’.[1] The musings of our royal princes was used as evidence of this seismic shift, the first of many confusing ideas employed to bolster uncertain and at times speculative science. But let me be clear, there’s much to respect in Layard’s work generally. An opinion former in the economics of happiness, he writes and speaks extensively on the subject. And as a scientist and academic committed to researching the relationship between health and happiness I wanted to be impressed, I wanted to learn more. It didn’t happen.

poverty

In the book’s introductory road map, the paths to greater happiness are explained simply. We inherit two genetic ‘traits’, altruism and selfishness, and by attenuating selfishness and augmenting altruism we increase individual and collective happiness. The omission of evidence to support this model was the core limitation of the whole work. I’m also concerned by the tone of the book, that the happiness of society rests largely on just one concept ‘say no to selfishness’. There’s little acknowledgement of individual psychological differences, epigenetic limitations or the host of external factors that create variability in human behaviour. Several of the illustrative examples provided uncoupled effects from causes. So, while school is more influential in a child’s happiness than their grades, the links between the quality of a school and income or privilege were not discussed. Similarly, the evidence linking poverty to the mental health of school-aged children was generally ignored. [2] If you separate the conditions most likely to cause unhappiness, it can makes scientific models seem more reliable, but this reductive approach doesn’t help us get to the root causes of why people are so desperately unhappy to begin with.

Over 14 chapters Can we be happier? offers a view of how society might transform into a benevolent paternalistic state. It describes the ways each of us (parents, teachers, scientists, politicians, managers, economists, etc.) needs to act to support his (Layard’s) vision. Layard combines his manifesto for a kinder and happier society with an idiosyncratic catalogue of happiness projects, a constellation of ideas originating from sources as diverse as the Dalai Lama and the World Economic Forum. These ideas are loosely grouped around several themes. One of the most persistent is that an increase in income accounts for a minuscule change in people’s experience of happiness (a maximum of two per cent). Leaving aside the scientific reliability of this claim, I’m unsure of its narrative function in a book based on the benefits of altruism. It also tends to the dualistic world view that dominates scientific enquiry into meditation and mindfulness. While almost all of us studying the science of meditation as a long term project would agree materialism per se’ isn’t always correlated with happiness, the effects of long term poverty significantly reduce our potential for positive physical and mental wellbeing.

Hundreds of citations from peer-reviewed scientific papers document essential work in the field of happiness and wellbeing. But the individual insights don’t coalesce; there isn’t a coherent framework. The notion that we have two competing neural networks, altruistic and selfish, mediated by choice isn’t evidenced.[3] As a neuropsychologist, I have grave concerns about using psychometrics to infer universal brain function and structure, no matter how well-intentioned the project. Layard is a knowledgeable and credible source; his motivation is to be praised. But by stretching his field of expertise to cover both Buddhism and neuroscience, his thesis becomes unstable. The main difficulties for the reader arise in trying to understand the vision, how the multiverse of compassionate strands form a unified cord. For brevity, I’ll highlight the two areas of most significant uncertainty.

A balanced view?

Even in popular science, I expect to see arguments for and against a hypothesis, particularly in areas of human behaviour as complex as happiness. That’s what separates evidence-led from opinion-led claims. Testing our ideas is one way to increase both our knowledge and the reliability of our thinking. But even accepting the popular nature of this work, Layard fails to indicate the difference between scientifically reliable and speculative concepts. His use of contested experimental evidence lacked meaningful contrast or clarification. In extolling the virtues of mindfulness meditation, the growing concerns of the scientific community about its methodological reliability are absent.[4] To promote the use of mindfulness beyond its evidential basis risks stalling the progress of this crucial human technology further. There is currently an opportunity to reset the trajectory of meditation research towards new productive areas and not repeat the mistakes from the 1970s and the 1980s. But for this to happen, we need to filter out aspirational science. We have seen over the last fifty years that merging the theoretical frameworks of Buddhism and psychological science causes critical ontological failure. If we are to be serious about a compassionate revolution, we must hold our nerve and face the limits of our current understandings. It’s over a century since Paul Carus embarked on his project to combine ‘the best’ of psychology and spirituality in a monistic philosophy. History shows us that this approach leads to scarcity more often than surplus

Throughout the book, Layard uses mindfulness as an example of an approach able to support his happiness revolution. But by acknowledging criticisms that mindfulness may not generate altruism; Layard creates an impasse that undermines his central claim. By failing to establish a scientific link between mindfulness, altruism and happiness, the reader is left in limbo. By the book’s end, it is still no clearer (scientifically) if mindfulness training might lead to increased or reduced happiness. Similarly, the importance of positive psychology to health and wellbeing is highlighted. Yet there is no mention of the extensive body of self-compassion research that promotes self-care as a route to happiness. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the potential confusions if both altruism and self-compassion both lead to increased happiness. I’m not an opponent of secular mindfulness nor positive psychology, but I don’t think the selective use of evidence can be the foundation for a new, kinder era.

The lack of any meaningful reference to the historical development of the science of meditation is a sad omission. An analysis of the foundational studies in the field has much to tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of secular meditation.

The need for an ontology  

thinking about ontology

The range of resources used in Can we be happier? is commendable, but understanding their overarching theoretical frameworks is challenging. In order to bring people together to support the goal of collective altruism, there must be a clearer vision. Layard offers insights that signpost opportunities and challenges, but fundamental contradictions diffuses his passion. He fails to establish the scientific evidence for his central argument, that humans have trait altruism and selfishness, that can be mediated by will alone. We are presented with a highly personal view of individuals and society, a view I found disjointed and often anecdotal. The book is dedicated to the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist ideas are present throughout the text. It’s a given that HH The Dalai Lama is an exemplar of kindness and compassion. But what is the conceptual relationship between ordained Buddhist monks and the dominant economic paradigms which limit happiness in the UK? If Buddhism is part of Layard’s strategy for happiness, he needs to share his thoughts of which Buddhist schools, teachers, ontologies and epistemologies he thinks will help. Buddhism isn’t one set of ideas or practices, rather like views on happiness; it’s a rich spectrum.

The title of the book, Can we be happier? reveals the underlying uncertainty present in the text. We can, of course, be happier; relative happiness is a state mediated by a range of constantly shifting internal and external phenomena. A better focus for this project would have been What I know about happiness. Millions share Layard’s wish that people become happier through altruism. His motivation and commitment to the eradication of ‘misery’ are impressive. But throughout my reading, I was longing for the voices of real people, rather than statistical aggregations of misery to emerge from the data.

We are not yet at the point where science can deliver absolute truths regarding the human condition. A key element in the training of Tibetan Buddhists and contemporary psychologists is the recognition that our own opinions are relative. As such, reflexivity (reflectivity) and a balanced approach to knowledge creation are essential qualities, both for scientists and those that would use science for the common good. I sincerely hope that Layard’s ‘compassionate dawn’ is coming. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be altruistic or work for a more compassionate society today. But it is essential that we understand more about the long term effects of brain training (meditation) before secular mindfulness becomes integrated within social policy as a universal panacea.


Bibliography

[1] Richard Layard, Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics (London: Penguin, 2020). p1

[2] Emla Fitzsimons and others, ‘Poverty Dynamics and Parental Mental Health: Determinants of Childhood Mental Health in the UK’, Social Science and Medicine, 175 (2017), 43–51 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.12.040&gt;.

[3] James W.H. Sonne and Don M. Gash, ‘Psychopathy to Altruism: Neurobiology of the Selfish-Selfless Spectrum’, Frontiers in Psychology (Frontiers Media S.A., 2018), 575 <https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00575&gt;.

[4] Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589&gt;.

Mindfulness’s lack of judgement

Definitions of MBIs typically include an element of ‘non-judgement’, even thought this is inconsistent with traditional forms of meditation. Is this important and does it help us to understand the mindfulness journey?

Contemporary mindfulness is often characterised by a non-judgemental approach, what does this mean for meditators?

What do we mean by a lack of judgement?

Although definitions across contemporary forms of mindfulness are varied, we usually find mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are explicitly non-judgemental. In the context of meditation technologies, we think about ‘non-judgement’ being both operationalised in the meditation practice itself, as well as in the wider ethical context surrounding the meditation. This lack of judgement in MBIs appears to have been one of its foundational principles, present since its introduction into clinical/scientific settings1. This absence of judgement is somewhat surprising given the presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist forms of mindfulness, where judgement and ethics provide stable theoretical frameworks.

Is it important?

Scholars2 and practitioners3 have considered how the ‘non-judgemental’ approach in MBIs, position them in relation to traditional forms of mindfulness. However the questions from a history of science perspective are more linked to how and why things developed this way. What does the apparent paradox (judgemental practices translated as non-judgemental), mean about the scientific context in which mindfulness was established and now flourishes? There are concerns that the removal of judgement and/or a wider ethical context, reflects a distance between contemporary practices and the traditional forms. This debate has been illuminated recently by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, who wrote that meditation alone is not enough4. That an understanding of the ontology and epistemology of the practice is an essential part of the process. Although Rinpoche was talking specifically about Buddhist meditation, his view supports the notion that meditation stripped of its ethical and judgmental elements may become something quite different. We should be clear that although there are Buddhist methods which operationalise a non-judgemental view, they are typically conducted within an ethical/judgemental setting.

“If we use these precious resources to examine things critically, we can understand both the way things appear and the way they truly are.”

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche4

Does non-judgement change the result of meditation?

Why a lack of judgement?

From a psychological point of view, the idea that meditation should not be separated from a judgemental and ethical context raises three important questions. Firstly, are students of MBIs getting some ad hoc judgement/ethical context from their mindfulness teacher or other sources to fill the gap? Secondly, judgement and reflection require engagement with important processes in the brain’s intrinsic networks, therefore there are likely to be differences between the results obtained from judgemental and non-judgemental approaches. And finally, if judgement is regarded as being central to meditation technologies, why has it been removed from contemporary practices? It is this last question that holds the greatest significance.

What does it mean from a history of science perspective?

In one sense, psychology is free to develop whatever forms of meditation it sees fit to invent, it can also investigate established meditation methods. But the creation of contemporary mindfulness interventions, based on an existing form invites different questions. If the specific traditional practice(s) mindfulness has emerged from are known, cognitive psychology should be able to investigate their theoretical and operational components. Then by making comparisons with contemporary mindfulness, a clear understanding of what has been added or lost can be established. It appears that this kind of foundational work has not taken place so we do not really know the extent to which mindfulness is rooted in any traditional practice. Therefore, although contemporary mindfulness stresses a close relationship with Buddhist meditation technologies, this is not generally supported at a theoretical or operational level. So why and how did things turn out this way? If the scientific origins of mindfulness are uncertain, why has it been so robustly supported by the scientific and clinical communities?

Framing the questions

There is ample evidence that there are fundamental problems in the science of mindfulness. However these claims are still controversial, not least because of the important role mindfulness has occupied in contemporary society. But acknowledgement of limitations with the scientific reliability does not necessarily mean that mindfulness does not work, or it does not have an important role to play. Rather it highlights that there has been a separation of the intervention from the level of evidence normally expected in this field. How and why this approach to the science of mindfulness has been sustained over 40 years is likely to be dependent on a range of factors, not all explicit at this stage.


Taking about mindfulness

“The early papers on MBSR cited not just its Theravada roots (Kornfield 1977; Nyanaponika 1962), but also its Mahayana roots within both the Soto (Suzuki 1970) and Rinzai (Kapleau 1965) Zen traditions (and by lineage, the earlier Chinese and Korean streams), as well as certain currents from the yogic traditions (Thakar 1977) including Vedanta (Nisargadatta 1973), and the teachings of J Krishnamurti (Krishnamurti 1969, 1979) and Ramana Maharshi (Maharshi 1959).”

Jon Kabat-Zinn1

References

1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 281-306 here.

2 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham here.

3 Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39 here.

4 Nyima Chokyi. “Why Meditation isn’t Enough.” Lion’s Roar (2019). https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/ here.

5 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61 here.

The science of mindfulness

How can we understand the science of mindfulness, if claims regarding problems in theoretical frameworks and methodological treatment prove to be reliable?

Reliable measurement is a central tenet of experimental psychology, but deciding what to measure is a much more complex question.
Accurate measurement is crucial to science, but deciding what to measure may be a more challenging question in mindfulness research

How do we understand mindfulness?

As a universal human capacity, mindfulness can be viewed from many conflicting, coexisting and complimentary perspectives. However, the exponential growth in the science of mindfulness sits primarily within the positivist ontology of experimental psychology. Positivism creates understandings linked to established tenets. In particular, it (a) assumes psychological phenomena follow deterministic (causal) patterns, (b) that explanations for behaviour can be generalised beyond narrow experimental settings and (c) elaborate explanations are rejected in favour of parsimonious accounts. In addition, (d) that complex human behaviours and cognitive states can be understood through reductive investigations, (e) delivering data which can be reliably measured. In many respects, this positivist approach has successfully contributed a great deal to our understandings of human behaviour. However, its ability to explain and evaluate mindfulness is facing challenges from within the scientific community1.

Mindfulness and experimental psychology

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt – Founder of experimental psychology

The architect of experimental psychology is considered to be Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wundt became one of the first researchers to conceptualise and investigate psychology as a field of science rather than philosophy2. But Wundt was also very clear about the limitations of the experimental approach, that complex human behaviours were not accessible to methodologies rooted in positivism3. Given the spectrum of human experience, Wundt’s position seems to hold some merit. How can experiments be created that fully explain and generalise highly individual, nuanced behaviour? Behaviour created and maintained within abstract inner worlds, which are mediated by unique environmental conditions? One of the issues that Wundt’s concerns highlight is ‘fitness for purpose’. That experimental psychology requires (among other things) at least two stable fixed points that can be reliably measured in order to meet the requirements of empiricism. Criticisms of the science of mindfulness include the contention that establishing ‘fixed points’ is problematic. That is not to say that individual studies cannot establish their own fixed points for the purposes of generating data. But the extent to which different studies use the same, constructs, scales and understandings is uncertain1.

Precision in definitions of mindfulness

Reviews of the scientific literature have indicate that there are multiple understandings of the mental states and traits described as mindfulness. That congruence between contemporary and traditional forms of mindfulness have not been established at operational or theoretical levels. And that there are widespread methodological problems in how mindfulness is engaged with in scientific settings. But uncertainty surrounding mindfulness is not a new issue. The term mindfulness in the context of contemplative science, was first translated into English in 1881. Since which time understandings have been proposed, developed, corrected and reconsidered4. And today contemplative science appears no closer to a clear definition of exactly what mindfulness might be, or how interventions are able to meditate it. The pressing question is how can positivism alone make sense of behaviour that defies authoritative definition at the theoretical and operational level?

 

What do you think?

That mindfulness exists, and that it may be able to offer benefits to some practitioners is not disputed. But a lack of precision in defining the meta-cognitive state of mindfulness should raise concerns among scientists and clinicians. There are a number of potential solutions to these apparently intractable problems, but some may be beyond the scope of the ontology underpinning experimental psychology. Such as an understanding of implicit and explicit non dual states, or the creation of instruments able to integrate comprehensive, first, second and third person experience. But as the first article of this blog, the author wishes to pose two open questions. How has the ‘mindfulness revolution’ been fuelled without reliable understandings in place? What does this suggest about the way science intersects with society in general?


Taking about mindfulness

The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling, reminding and presence of mind that can seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT.

Rupert Gethin4

References

1 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

2 Danziger, Kurt. “The positivist repudiation of Wundt.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, no. 3 (1979): 205-230.

3 Wundt, Wilhelm. “Über Ausfrageexperimente und über die Methoden zur Psychologie des Denkens.” Psychologische Studien 3 (1907): 301-360.

4 Gethin, Rupert. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 263-279.


Notes

Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Critical mindfulness

The Critical Mindfulness blog went live in September 2019. It is a forum to explore the relationship between science and society through the transition of meditation into mindfulness.

Meditation to mindfulness, what changed??
Meditation to mindfulness, what changed?

Mindfulness has existed in many forms for thousands of years, attempts to study and systematise contemplative practices are nothing new. However, the focus of Critical Mindfulness is to explore the transition of traditional spiritual meditation into contemporary health and wellbeing interventions. In the twentieth century, several Eastern technologies such as meditation and acupuncture were adopted by Western medicine. Note I don’t mean studied or researched; instead, they have become part of our systems of health and wellbeing.

Taking technology from one knowledge system, such as Buddhism and locating it within psychology is not a simple matter; it presents many practical problems. For example, psychology has very different ways of understanding the mind compared to Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions. Therefore the appropriation of Buddhist meditation methods requires significant ‘adjustment’ to fit within contemporary psychology. Contemplative scientists have emphasised links between modern mindfulness and Eastern mystical practices. However, little is known about the processes underpinning the led the transition of meditation as mindfulness.

Change is inevitable; the many different expressions of meditation in spiritual and philosophical traditions bear witness to the fluidity of human ideas and practices. The adoption of religious and spiritual methods by psychology is part of the ongoing exchange between different knowledge systems. But there is a pressing need to understand how meditation has altered in its journey from Buddhism to psychology. This process will illuminate the crucial elements of the science creation process, the cultural norms for establishing the boundary between science and non-science.

While experimental psychology lacks the flexibility to analyse technologies originating in ‘alien’ cultures, it does have powerful tools able to measure the effects of meditation-based interventions. As a consequence, we have extensive information about changes brought about in meditation experiments but know much less about the overarching meaning of this data.

Critical Mindfulness is a PhD research project that is using the history of science as a heuristic to explore the development of mindfulness. Establishing how its use as a scientifically validated therapy was achieved, and what this tells us about human relations with knowledge creation processes. I welcome thoughts about the science of mindfulness from all perspectives. Visitors are welcome to contribute material, highlight perceived weaknesses in my knowledge and signpost resources that might enrich the content of this blog.