Happiness as a Critical Health Issue

Dr. Chartier, using the smartphone-driven Muse feedback device.

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It’s a fair question: Is attaining a sense of happiness in life a critical health issue?

For Dr. Dan Chartier, one of the area’s leading psychophysiologic psychotherapists, the answer to that query is an unequivocal “yes.” He has devoted decades of his life guiding people along the path of self-regulation, self-discovery, and self-awareness.

“Simply asking the question, ‘What is happiness?’ (a Buddhist perspective on life and living) has the potential to move us along a path to some really rich and important discoveries, especially of self,” he says. “Anyone who spends any time with that thought quickly comes to realize that their happiness is not expressed in ownership of things, however grand they may be. Keep asking the question, and it may lead to rich personal internal work and discovery.”

Health&Healing: For example?

Dr. Chartier: One interesting example was conducted at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where they studied what happens to human brains in meditative states. They worked with a group of advanced meditators—mostly Buddhist monks—who had been meditating for decades. The normal resting brainwave pattern for these monks included a high percentage of gamma brain activity. These are the brainwaves most of us are likely to experience only during those brief moments of joy when we hear our number called at a raffle for something we really, really want, or when we score the winning point in a game. It’s that burst of positive, good energy.

These experienced meditators, however, walk around all the time with this elevated gamma brainwave activity and when they meditate, their gamma level is even higher.

The critical ingredient in their meditative focus is compassion—meditating on a compassionate sense of well-being for self and all others—heart-centered compassion.

Later, a group of college students entered the study. Each was measured for typical brainwave activity, and then they were taught this simple, compassion-focused meditation and were asked to practice it every day for about a half hour. They were tested again a few months later, and every participating student began to show a similar emerging gamma brainwave pattern.

The point is, moving to this higher state of consciousness is teachable. It can be learned and cultivated as a critically important element in creating happiness. Happiness doesn’t mean being disease-free or trouble-free. It means that even in the face of such difficulties, happiness can still exist or co-exist with life’s events, no matter how difficult they may be.

Health&Healing: Do you teach this skill in your practice?

DR. CHARTIER: Yes. Building those skills is an important part of the healing process. Biofeedback and neurofeedback tools provide both visual and auditory feedback about the level of coherence between heart, mind, and body.

This kind of feedback is invaluable. It permits us to know what is happening in our bodies, whether it’s our peripheral temperature, measuring blood flow throughout the body, heart rhythms, or muscle tension feedback or brainwave feedback. It is all information that is critical in developing the process called “self regulation.”

It’s up to the individual to take that information and use it in an intentional way to bring about a positive change in their physical, mental, emotional, or even spiritual well-being. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and the process of self-discovery and gaining the skills of self-regulation never loses its fascination, as we discover again and again what we are capable of accomplishing to promote our own personal happiness.

It requires a commitment of time, because it’s clear that while it’s possible to train our brains to produce more gamma—and gamma is directly associated with higher states of consciousness and a state of well-being—it takes time to accomplish the goal. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Happily, this process has become much easier in recent years. One of the remarkable—and revolutionary—advancements in my field is the recent development of a host of personal neurofeedback devices—such as The Muse, Mendi, and HeartMath. They’re referred to as wearables and use smartphones or tablets connected to a device on your head to guide the neurofeedback process. I consider this revolutionary because it makes the tools that help develop self-regulatory skills available to anyone with a smartphone—much like a personal GPS guidance system for stress management.

Health&Healing: Of course, many of your clients—perhaps most—come to you seeking relief from a physical ailment, rather than pursuing higher levels of consciousness.

DR. CHARTIER: True. I meet people where they are, and I don’t make assumptions about what a person needs other than what they bring to me or what their referring physician has shared. They may, for example, come with a pain problem—migraine headaches, back or jaw pain—and we begin to do targeted work focused on the potential causes of the pain. Is there excess muscle tension—which can be measured—or anxiety states that underlie the physical problem?

What I have experienced many times over the years is that as clients begin to work on something as simple as relaxing tense muscles, they begin to have relevant insights and awareness. On their own, they often begin to connect the dots. They may remember a childhood trauma that contributes to the reason they keep their jaw clenched most of the time. We are, in fact, a transcript of our life experiences. We carry with us in our various musculature and neural responses the experiences of our lifetime. If we have to unpack some of those experiences in order to be healthier, that emerges in the process.

It also occurs, fairly frequently, that people reach a point where they go “Oh. I really feel much better and my symptoms are gone or are much less intense. What else is there?” This is the client who has moved from being sick to being well, who is expressing interest to going beyond simply recovering to achieving higher states of consciousness. That’s the spectrum that plays itself out quite often.