Happiness is a state of mind. Can we retain this state even in the case of sadness, depression, or a dire situation through training? What methods could one use in order to train the brain to retain the happy state?
I'm not sure about the trained part, but there have been cases where people have spontaneously shifted into a very enjoyable state of mind for a very long time, for example: Eckhart Tolle, who supposedly spent 2 years in utter bliss.
This is a big question, but here are a few thoughts.
While we could argue about the details, concepts around set points and the hedonic treadmill have reasonable empirical support. The general finding is that life satisfaction ratings are fairly stable from year to year (Lucas & Donnellan, 2007) which suggests that there are relatively stable individual differences in the tendency to be happy or sad and such individual differences are only weakly related to factors in the external environment (see this discussion of subjective well-being. There have also been studies that have looked at the effect of particularly negative (e.g., divorce, unemployment, disability) and particularly positive (e.g., winning the lottery) events (e.g., Lucas, 2007). Longitudinal research looking at these events tends to show a short term effect of the event on well-being followed by a fairly substantial recovery of well-being levels over time. That said, research is conflict about whether such recovery (or return to base line in the case of positive events) is complete, there are individual differences in the recovery, and the recovery may take several years.
It's also worth noting that when surveyed, most people tend to report being satisfied with their life and generally happy.
More generally, emotional experience and well-being can be viewed as a functional homeostatic process. This is related to the idea that emotions serve functional purposes (e.g., Keltner & Gross, 1999). Such theories and the empirical evidence suggest that sustained experience of extreme happiness would be very unusual and possibly maladaptive.
Of course, there is evidence for the effectiveness of drugs and psychotherapy in treating depression and related disorders, where arguably the capacity to adaptively use emotions has broken down. But this is more about restoring people to normal levels of emotional functioning.
While I can't deny the possibility that such mood enhancement training could exist, I would be highly sceptical of any programs that promised to offer you long term ecstasy.
- Lucas, R. E. (2007). Long-term disability is associated with lasting changes in subjective well-being: evidence from two nationally representative longitudinal studies. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(4), 717.
- Lucas, R. E., & Donnellan, M. B. (2007). How stable is happiness? Using the STARTS model to estimate the stability of life satisfaction. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(5), 1091-1098.
- Keltner, D., & Gross, J. J. (1999). Functional accounts of emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 13(5), 467-480. http://www.personal.kent.edu/~dfresco/CBT_Readings/keltner_&_gross.pdf
You could try meditation. Meditation practices have been shown to have an effect size similar or higher to antidepressants.
"During the course of 2to 6 months, the mindfulness meditation program ES estimates ranged from 0.22 to 0.38 for anxiety symptoms and 0.23 to 0.30 for depressive symptoms. These small effects are comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population but without the associated toxicities. In a study using patient-level meta-analysis, Fournier et al81 found that for patients with mild to moderate depressive symptoms, antidepressants had an ES of 0.11 (95% CI, −0.18 to 0.41), whereas for those with severe depression, antidepressants had an ES of 0.17 (−0.08 to 0.43) compared with placebo."
"The richness of present-moment experience is the richness of life itself."