Throughout the Western industrialised world, we have more psychological data than ever before, yet many nations are experiencing declining levels of happiness, particularly among young people. In the UK, as many as 25% of young women demonstrate signs of clinical depression. In the USA happiness scores, have been on a downward trend for decades. However, despite the importance of happiness, psychological understanding of the concept is limited. In particular, a paradox exists between our individual experience and scientific models. Experimental psychology uses objective measures to establish levels of happiness/unhappiness in groups of people. In reality, the happiness of everyday life is a unique and personal phenomenon. Several scientific studies have demonstrated the potential of modern mindfulness to influence happiness, but there’s almost no replicated evidence that the effects are permanent or long-lasting. Conversely, many traditional forms of meditation do not have the inbuilt paradox because there are not based on a dualistic world view; their goal is to address the long term causes of unhappiness rather than just the symptoms.
Traditional meditation is essentially nondual in nature; it allows an individual to mediate their own happiness. Medicalised or psychologised forms of meditation are dualistic, aggregating individual experience and thus categorising the world’s population into archetype models of human behaviour. Although this dichotomy is a limiting factor in meditation research, it’s not new to psychology. William James raised the question over a century ago; noting that observing a psychological phenomenon is not the same as the experience of that phenomenon. Meditation research is still wrestling with this problem; how can individual experience be understood using generalised measures? The obstacle of generalisability occurs because of the ontological nature of psychology; it is based on positivism, which is dualistic. It allows the artificial separation of people from their lived experience. Traditional meditation methods are generally nondual, so it seeks to address the problems encountered by people without reference to abstract, generalised models.
If we continue to emphasise treating symptoms rather than causes of unhappiness, there is a risk that chronic unhappiness will become normalised. Such a process might lead to sections of the population fluctuating between chronic and acute sadness for their whole lives. For people experiencing critical mental health problems, immediate action is necessary and desirable. But if we don’t attend to the underlying causes, we risk creating a treadmill of relative despair. For thousands of years, meditation has been used as a life-changing technology rather than a psychological bandaid. Despite the rise of meditation interventions within psychology, there are almost no operational models of traditional meditation describing their theoretical frameworks. This lack of understanding means that we still don’t know how traditional meditation works despite the publication of over 7,000 scientific studies during the last 80 years. Therefore the curative potential of spiritual types of meditation is still hidden from psychology.
Traditional meditation typically seeks to cure problems, to offer permanent solutions. By comparison, medicalised forms of meditation target a symptom rather than a cause, allowing new symptoms to manifest over time. These ideas of permanent and temporary solutions are central to the differences between nondual and dual forms of meditation. In psychological sciences, we tend to think about people from an objective perspective, even though we know mental health and human consciousness are, by their nature, subjective. Trying to understand the personal subjective experience by generalised objective measures is problematic on many levels.
Researchers have been aware of this issue for several decades. When Ruut Veenhoven considered if happiness was relative in 1990s, his conclusions suggested that processes may have commonality but individual circumstances play an important role.
Happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction depends only partly on comparison, and even standards of comparison do not fully adjust to circumstances.Veenhoven, Ruut. “Is happiness relative?.” Social indicators research 24, no. 1 (1991): 1-34.
Unfortunately, psychology is still a long way from understanding what happiness is and how it is regulated. Medicalised meditation methods generally fall within this paradigm. Earlier this year Jennifer De Paola, Wolfgang Wagner, Anna-Maija Pirttilä-Backman and Josetta Lehtonen published a study researching understandings of happiness among Finnish Women. Their findings reflect some universal truths about how psychology evaluates human behaviour. Observing happiness is not the experience of happiness; this is an area of contrast between traditional and modern understandings of the mind. The failure of science to recognise the real-world importance of the subjective is visible in medicalised forms of meditation.
The two take away points from this short discussion are i) psychology’s understanding of happiness is at a preliminary stage and that, ii) traditional knowledge systems have a much more holistic appreciation of the human experience. It is precisely for these reasons that I usually recommend traditional meditation methods for people who are looking for solutions rather than treatment. Modern methods could harness the health and wellbeing potential of Buddhist forms of meditation. But first meditation scientists need to take a more systematic approach to the study of Eastern non-positivist models of meditation and mind.