Meditation and the science of happiness

What is happiness? This perennial question has seemed even more relevant in recent years as so much of what we thought we knew has been upended. Is it money, fame, a loving family? What can provide longterm satisfaction and contentment. In NeuroWisdom, Mark Robert Waldman gives an answer grounded in an intriguing blend of hard science and mindfulness meditation.

NeuroWisdom—the book’s two themes are right there in the title. From the very beginning, Waldman integrates the two themes, arguing that the practice of mindfulness and meditation is entirely scientific. The book attempts to explain how meditation taps into brain chemistry to reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus and cognitive ability, and generally elevate happiness and quality of life. To argue this he draws extensively from psychological and neurological research.

The book is built around a concept that Waldman calls the Four Pillars of Wealth—motivation, decision making, creativity, and awareness. He connects each pillar to a particular function or process in the brain and then explains how to tap into that neural process to build each particular pillar.

The book is thus thoroughly actionable by design. It is filled with different experiential exercises that the author recommends you do as you go through the book. These range from simple practices and exercises to in-depth guided meditations.

So for example, Pillar #1 – Motivation is connected to dopamine. This chemical is released by the nucleus accumbens in response to external stimuli. It turns on the rest of the brain and gets it firing on all four cylinders, so to speak. Because of this, dopamine plays a huge role in keeping us motivated and engaged with our work. A small exercise Waldman recommends is taking a 30-second break every hour or so to yawn and stretch. This releases dopamine and can heighten focus.

In terms of presentation, the book does give off some grating, “get rich quick” vibes at times. Waldman promises repeatedly in the book that following the teachings of NeuroWsidom will give you everything—wealth, happiness, romance, contentment, and a better night’s sleep, to name just a few. He arguably oversells the benefits of mindfulness somewhat in order to make his points. It isn’t a panacea.

That being said, NeuroWisdom is still a great read and an excellent introduction to meditation. It’s the combination of solid scientific research and quality exercises and meditation that makes the book really standout. There are lots of great books on brain chemistry. There are plenty of other guides to mindfulness and meditation. But NeuroWisdom integrates the two subjects better than any other book out there.

NeuroWisdom by Mark Robert Waldman is available for purchase here.

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