Study: Can a 9-Month Program Teach Happiness?

Portrait of positive young Asian woman with eye closed, enjoying sunlight under blue sky and clouds.

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Key Takeaways

  • A study found that a nine-month program focused on improving happiness helped lessen anxiety and increased levels of life satisfaction.
  • Experts stress that happiness is something you should work at and cultivate throughout your life with certain techniques.
  • Mindfulness is one of the key tools introduced through the program, which you can incorporate into your daily life.

While happiness is often thought of as an emotion that just happens to us, we're learning more and more about the ways it can be cultivated and learned through daily life.

A small new study coordinated by the University of Trento suggests that happiness could potentially be taught through a nine-month program. But experts say you don't need a structured retreat to apply some of these principles to your own life.

In this study, 29 participants in Italy completed the Institute Lama Tzong Khapa's "The Art of Happiness" program. Of the participants, 72% were women, all participants were White, and all were volunteers who were not compensated. The study was published in the Frontiers of Psychology journal in February.

Once a month, people in the study either participated in a weekend activity, called a module, or went on a retreat. The lessons presented at the modules and retreats encompassed both Mahayana Buddhism and Western contemplative traditions, as well as scientific research. Some of the topics explored in the program include:

  • Effects of mental training and meditation
  • The psychology and neuroscience of well-being and happiness
  • Neuroplasticity
  • Mind-brain-body interactions
  • The brain circuits of attention and mind wandering
  • Empathy

"If we're not working towards wellness, we're not really experiencing our lives in the best way that we can, in the most fulfilling way that we can," William Chum, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist based in New York City, tells Verywell. "It's so important to work towards happiness and kind of choose happiness and make that a priority."

Teaching Happiness

Participants in the program took surveys to measure their level of happiness before, during, and after the program was completed.

The researchers found that there was a "progressive increase" in volunteers':

  • Levels of life satisfaction
  • Capacities to reach non-judgmental mental states
  • Abilities to act with awareness
  • Abilities to non-react to inner experience
  • Abilities to exercise control over attention to the internal state of anger

The participants also reported feeling lower levels of anxiety and anger after the completion of the program.

The study evaluated happiness by looking at infrequent negative emotions, frequent positive emotions, and cognitive evaluations of life satisfaction. However, Chum says evaluating happiness by infrequent negative and frequent positive emotions only scrapes the surface. "A person can experience happiness, even when there is negative effect, even though they are feeling bad," he says.

At each module or retreat, volunteers engaged with presentations, individual and group activities, and take-home exercises.

Previous research has shown a link between happiness and the quality of interpersonal relationships, a factor that was not included in the study. "I didn't see any measures that focused on a change in the quality of interpersonal functioning as a result of participating in the program," Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, tells Verywell. "It's important that any study of psychological well-being [or] happiness actually provide some evidence that there's a bit of benefit or change to the quality of human connection."

What This Means For You

In order to work at increasing feelings of happiness in your life, you don't need a specific program. There are proven tactics like incorporating mindfulness exercises, meditation, and expressing your gratitude that can all help improve your daily mood.

Small Steps You Can Take Toward Happiness

Both Chum and Simon-Thomas stress that anyone can work to increase their happiness. "There's a perception that happiness, which is often referred to as subjective well-being, or psychological well-being among scientists, is kind of an endowed upon quality or characteristic of our life that we have no control over," Simon-Thomas says. "There is a possibility that their happiness level can change as a result of effort and practice and exercise."

One of the key aspects of this recent study was to teach volunteers how to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be practiced in people's day-to-day lives and does not require a nine-month commitment. Different practices involved in mindfulness, such as meditating, have been shown to improve people's happiness over time. Chum says he loves to teach his clients how to use mindfulness to "embrace and accept the things that come into our lives."

"The world could be on fire, the world could be tumbling down, there could be a pandemic going on," he adds. "If a person is able to recognize those emotions, recognize how that's impacting them...[mindfulness] can help a person be able to find safety, even in just this moment."

In order to start to address our happiness, reflection is crucial. "The first step to embarking upon a path or trajectory or a journey towards increasing happiness begins with self-awareness, begins with a reflection on our current level of happiness, and the sorts of moments that we experience on a daily basis that either contribute to or detract from our own happiness," Simon-Thomas says.

From there, Simon-Thomas recommends that people try to practice six sustainable happiness skills, including the aforementioned mindfulness:

  • Gratitude
  • Human connection
  • Positive outlook
  • Purpose
  • Generosity
  • Mindfulness
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Campos D, Cebolla A, Quero S, et al. Meditation and happiness: mindfulness and self-compassion may mediate the meditation–happiness relationshipPers Individ Dif. 2016;93:80-85. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.08.040

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.