Quality of life (QoL) is defined for the purposes of this chapter along the World Health Organization (WHO) definitions as an individual’s physical and psychological health, their social relationships and the environment in which they live [1]. According to the criteria used in the Scales of General Well-Being (SGWB) questionnaire, the main contributing factors to an individual’s QoL are well-being criteria such as happiness, vitality, calmness, optimism, involvement, self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-worth, competence, development, purpose, significance, self-congruence and connection [2]. The importance of an individual’s spirituality and personal beliefs for their well-being, QoL and health status have been largely confirmed through numerous scientific studies [3, 4]. Personal beliefs are what an individual believes to be the truth, or the beliefs that define their individual worldview [5]. Additionally, individuals have a tendency to believe that others “feel, think and act” as they do [5]. Personal beliefs [6] are crucially linked to individual well-being and the individual’s “engagement to explore—and deeply and meaningfully connect one’s inner self—to the known world and beyond.” [7] This definition focuses on a personal search for meaning and exploration of QoL [7]. The definition provided by WHO the focuses on the “person’s personal beliefs and how these affect quality of life”.

Besides personal beliefs and their connection to a good QoL and happiness, this chapter also explores possibilities regarding self-empowered behavior change. Self-empowerment describes the way individuals “promote beliefs and attitudes favorable to deferring immediate reward for more substantial future benefit.”Footnote 1 [8] We consider behavior mainly as habit, or as an individual’s unconscious acts; therefore, producing a change in behavior involves repeated adjustment, as “changing behaviors is not about changing one act; it is about altering the routines in which the acts are embedded.” [9]

Another central component of personal-level QoL is the notion of happiness. Research has shown happiness to be a key aim for individuals [10, 11]. It has been widely shown that happiness plays a crucial role in the search for the meaning of life in religion and spiritual understanding, as well as in one’s personal beliefs (see also below). Numerous scientific studies have explored what makes individuals happy and the main factors for experiencing bliss, self-realization and QoL. However, there are important differences between how to be happy and what makes individuals happy [12]. In this chapter, happiness is defined as a constant positive feeling or subjective attitude towards one’s life [10,11,12] and is viewed on a continuum from happy to unhappy. This definition differs from others that define happiness as special moments where individuals feel bliss [10].

Happiness, as an essential component of QoL and well-being, does not only depend on the environment in which one lives. Individuals with enormous wealth and comfortable living conditions can be depressed, whereas others living in adverse conditions can manage their life circumstances to achieve a high degree of inner happiness [13,14,15,16,17,18]. Objective variables (e.g., income or lack of traumatic experiences) are far less significant determiners of happiness than intuition and the way one views their life experience [13,14,15,16,17, 19]. Indeed, social pressure and stress can occur when humans primarily consider happiness as a life achievement and unhappiness as a failure [20,21,22]. What is less clear, however, is how striving for happiness influences human belief systems [23,24,25,26,27].

In this chapter, we explore the role of thoughts, personal beliefs and emotions in the development of behavioral habits. Considering stress as an example of a factor influencing QoL that is shaped by one’s habits, we propose yoga and meditation as practices that can help individuals achieve self-empowerment by altering their thoughts, beliefs, emotions and, ultimately, their behaviors, thus resulting in a reduction of stress and an improvement in QoL. Furthermore, we discuss the potential use of technological devices and other tools for quantifying thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors as a means of further empowering behavioral change.

The chapter is structured as follows. First, we provide a short overview of some relevant concepts such as the influence of stress and emotion on the human body and mind (Section “Stress and Emotions’ Influence on Psychophysiological Factors”). Second, adopting an interdisciplinary perspective, we explore how human behavior, and therefore QoL, is influenced by the mind (thoughts), by one’s belief in the thought and by the emotions produced by one’s thoughts (Section “Thoughts, Emotions, Beliefs and Behaviors”). Next, the chapter offers a discussion that can contribute to readers’ understanding of how stress-relieving techniques such as yoga and meditation can improve QoL by changing an individual’s thinking, emotions, beliefs and related behaviors (Section “Behavior: Yoga and Meditation as Interventions for Stress Management”). Specifically, yoga and meditation are explored as techniques to (1) observe thoughts (the mind), (2) separate beliefs from thoughts (personal beliefs) and (3) understand the connections that lead from a belief to a feeling (emotion) and (4) from a conscious or unconscious feeling to a behavior (behavior). Based on several case studies, we then suggest new technology-enabled ways of quantifying thought, belief, emotion and behavior that can be used by practitioners of yoga and meditation to assess the impact of their practice on these factors that influence QoL (Section “Quantifying Thoughts, Beliefs, Feelings and Behaviors”). The possibilities of self-empowered behavior change through yoga and meditation, as well as psychophysiological assessment tools, are discussed in section “Yoga and Meditation as Techniques for Achieving Self-Empowered Behavior”. Finally, a conclusion to the chapter is provided in section “Concluding Remarks”.

Stress and Emotions’ Influence on Psychophysiological Factors

Stress can be defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” [28] Individuals consider all subjective experiences to be either pleasant or unpleasant to some extent. Therefore, an individual’s subjective experience can have a very positive or very negative impact on their overall well-being, health and QoL [29]. The mechanisms of stressful thoughts leading to disease [28] are becoming an increasingly important field of scientific research. Studies have shown that an individual’s attitude towards stress plays a crucial role in their health and well-being. However, the absence of stress in one’s life can have an equally negative influence on one’s health as can an excess of stress, since only an adequate balance between the two generally leads to greater well-being [30].

Stress itself is not an emotion, although it is often created by certain feelings [31,32,33]. Emotions “typically unfold dynamically” [32] and “have a beginning and an end,” [32] whereas feelings are present for a longer period of time [32]. Humans usually distinguish positive and negative feelings as those that create emotions and impact the “fluidity or strain of life process(es).” [34] Often, feelings are considered to lead to negative emotions when they throw life out of balance and cause struggle. Feelings are regarded as producing positive emotions when life is harmonious, efficient and flowing [34]. Familiar patterns often allow life to continue smoothly, whereas changing patterns create an unfamiliar situation that “generates feelings and emotions.” [35] The emotions that have been evaluated most often in the psychological studies are presented in Table 12.1 [36], with each one categorized according to its valence (positive, negative or unassigned).Footnote 2 [37]

Table 12.1 Most common categories of emotions [36]

Although there are numerous studies that have demonstrated the difficulties involved in relating emotions to psychophysiological reactions in the human body [36], there are examples from the literature that provide persuasive evidence regarding particular correspondences between physiology and emotional states. In particular, the studies in the latter group indicate that, on the physical level, the body reacts to any situation in its environment that creates psychological flow or strain. For example, if one part of the body is changed or influenced by a situation, as in the case where one consciously slows down one’s breath, the other body parts (such as one’s heart rate) adapt to the new situation. This reaction is indicative of “synchronized interactions among multiple systems,” [38] other examples of which, relating to heart rate, are shown in Fig. 12.1 and explained further below.

Fig. 12.1
figure 1

Example of Emotions reflected in Heart Rhythm Patterns [39]

Overall, common repetitive behaviors, such as inactivity, poor nutritional habits and alcohol and tobacco consumption, may affect the way an individual manages daily life stress [40] and can determine up to 40% of the individual’s future health state and life quality [41]. Meanwhile, there are various psychophysiological factors that can be signs of stress (e.g., galvanic skin response, respiration, blood pressure and heart rate) [36]. In this section, we have chosen to discuss heart rate as a main indicator of stress, as it has been demonstrated that one’s heart rate responds directly to momentary emotional states [42]. While an abnormally low 24-hour heart rate can indicate increased risk of heart disease and premature mortality, it is also a strong marker of stress and emotions [43], as is shown in Fig. 12.1, and thus demonstrates the “synchronized interactions between different systems in the body” [44] alluded to above. It can be observed that heart rate patterns in particular—that is, the patterns of the curves rather than specific heart rate values—often directly reflect and synchronize with an individuals’ emotional states [44].

Furthermore, the analysis of heart rate and heart rate pattern provides an indicator of neurocardiac fitness and autonomic nervous system function [42]. Some studies have even found that heart rate pattern “covaried with emotions in real time.” [44] As heart rate patterns often directly reflect emotional states, various techniques to reduce stress, such as meditation techniques, produce specific heart rate patterns; in particular, such techniques have been found to produce a coherent, fine, smooth, “wave-like-pattern in the heart rhythms.” [45] Scientists have also found that a person practicing a technique to maintain positive emotional feelings displays heart rhythms that are synchronized with their brainwaves influenced by their emotional states (see Figs. 12.2 and 12.3). In comparison with individuals who experience a high degree of stress, those who apply such techniques also exhibit more regular and stable heart rate patterns.

Fig. 12.2
figure 2

Image of Dissonant Heart and Brainwave Rhythm [46]

Fig. 12.3
figure 3

Image of Heart Rhythm and Brainwaves in sync during a Meditative State [47]

Recent research has revealed that the body is also able to develop coherence or synchronization with the physiological processes of others. For instance, a mother thinking about her in utero baby can lead to the synchronization of her brainwaves with her baby’s heartbeat [48]. It has also been shown that couples that have lived together for many years can have coherent heart rate patterns while they sleep [49].

To summarize this section, we observe that there is a synchronization between brain and cardiac activities [50, 51]. There is particular evidence of a relation between heart rate patterns and positive and negative emotions [42]. Additionally, body stress regulation techniques enable a more regular and stable heart rate pattern.Footnote 3

Thoughts, Beliefs, Emotions, and Behaviors

Behavior can be defined as “the internally coordinated responses (actions or inactions) of whole living organisms (individuals or groups) to internal and/or external stimuli.” [54] As indicated in the conceptual model presented in Fig. 12.4, behavior is influenced by (a) thoughts, (b) belief in thoughts and (c) feelings affected by beliefs and (d) decisions motivated by feelings [55]. Behavior can be influenced by “individual-level attributes as well as by the conditions under which people live.” [62] Thus, human behavior depends on the context in which it takes place [63]. Additionally, some studies state that as much as 99.9% of the decisions made by humans are shaped by other people [64]. Bargh provides further evidence of environmental influences on human behavior, stating that “our psychological reactions from moment to moment… are 99.44% automatic.” [65] Therefore, in order to better understand how an individual makes decisions, one needs to observe them within their natural environment [66] and consider contextual factors, as is indicated in Fig. 12.4. This principle must be applied when one is assessing the influence of human thinking on individual belief systems and emotions, leading to behaviors.

Fig. 12.4
figure 4

Individual and contextual factors of behavior

As mentioned above, this chapter considers behavior in relation to stress-management. In section “Stress and Emotions’ Influence on Psychophysiological Factors”, it was seen that emotions and feelings represent an important factor in stress management. The model presented in Fig. 12.4Footnote 4 conceptualizes the steps by which an individual adopts a behavior that can either increase or reduce stress, beginning with a change in one’s thoughts, beliefs or feelings.

The Influence of the Mind on Human Behavior

Corresponding to the first circle (Thought) in Fig. 12.4, thoughts are related to “one’s own individual experience.” [67] Most psychological research on decision-making over the past 30 years has focused on the logic of rational, controlled decisions (i.e., the logic behind behaviors). While logical mechanisms may describe the decision-making processes of scientific pursuits, their analysis is less appropriate for understanding the uncontrolled aspects of humans’ ordinary changes in behavior, which are based on both thoughts and feelings [56]. According to Baumeister et al., “it is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing.” [60] This also means that a description of one’s conscious thoughts alone (or unconscious thoughts alone) is rarely sufficient to explain a specific behavior.

The mind, defined for the purposes of this chapter as an individual’s collected thoughts and cognition, is one of the great influencers of behavior [68]. According to scientists such as Anderson, if someone envisions an action, it leads to an “increased intention to do it” [69] and therefore a greater chance that the action will be achieved. According to Tiller, meanwhile, individuals can influence their future with their thoughts in the form of intentions [57]. The systems of thinking, or personal beliefs, that affect one’s intentions begin to be developed in one’s youth through imitation of parents, relatives, teachers and figures in media, among others. The information one gains in the process serves to “structure that person’s understood world and purposive ways of coping in it.” [70] When an individual is confronted with a choice, they unconsciously call upon all the past experiences that have been collected and registered in their brain, recalling them as thoughts. This process has been widely studied in psychology as the “theory of planned behavior.” [71, 72]

The effect of one’s state of mind, including one’s thoughts, on the outcome of a task has been demonstrated in a study by Armor and Taylor. In this study, the authors assessed how implemental and deliberative mindsets—the former characterized by plans and thoughts regarding how to implement an action, and the latter by questions concerning the merits of the action—respectively influenced one’s performance of a task. As the authors observed, “it appears that the simple difference in perspective that mindsets create—from the uncertain query ‘Will I do X?’ to the agentic assertion ‘I will do X’—can yield substantial differences in how the considered action will be perceived and, subsequently, acted on.” [73] The authors concluded that the expected results of a task, as well as one’s predictions regarding one’s own performance, “become less favorable following deliberation and more favorable following thoughts of implementation.” [73, 74]

Additionally, results from various studies have indicated that individuals adopting the perspective of another, as opposed to simply discussing a situation from their own perspective, can be a successful strategy for producing behavioral change [75,76,77].

In summary, the mind significantly influences behavior across multiple dimensions. As is seen above, the mind retains past experiences that may be triggered by external impulses. These experiences consciously and unconsciously influence the ways individuals think, shaping their beliefs, emotions and actions. In the next subsection, we will explore how beliefs (and unbelieves) can influence human behavior.

Influence of Personal Beliefs on Human Behavior

The second circle of Fig. 12.4, corresponding to beliefs, represents a step in the process leading to behavior in which an individual evaluates whether they believe a thought or not. A belief is not necessarily true; it is simply what an individual believes and claims to be true or false or right or wrong. It is also important to note that not all an individuals’ beliefs are derived from their own experience or thinking. As Barth et al. observes, “we all extend the reach and scope of our knowledge immensely, relying on judgements based on whatever criteria of validity we embrace—above all, what others whom we trust tell us they believe.” [59]

What an individual hears and considers to be true will have a profound and long-lasting influence on their behavior. As Geraerts et al. have demonstrated, even “the false suggestion of a childhood event can lead to persistent false beliefs that have lasting behavioral consequences.” [58] To illustrate this fact, the authors conducted a study where they informed subjects that they had become ill during childhood after eating egg salad. During the period immediately after receiving this false information, and even four months later, these subjects tended to avoid eating egg salad, whereas the control group continued to eat it as usual [58].

The personal belief system that leads to such behaviors is useful, and in some cases it can serve to protect one from harm or save one’s life. This is especially important in dangerous situations, where one needs to quickly judge and react, often as part of a fight or flight response [78]. However, making quick judgements of this sort in a broader context may become problematic when an individual does not question their thoughts and beliefs and assumes that their thinking always captures the truth. These individuals might cling to their beliefs because of the familiar feeling that one experiences when the mind recognizes a situation [59]. In such cases, these feelings unconsciously lead the individual to make decisions based on their previously stored knowledge or beliefs, or “what a person employs to interpret and act on the world.” [59] However, if such an individual explores the ways they can alter their personal belief system and its impact on their behavior [79], they can ultimately achieve better QoL, especially in areas—such as physical activity, nutrition and sleep—that contribute to their health later in life [80,81,82,83].

An important example of personal beliefs includes stereotypes about the differences between different cultural, ethnic and religious groups. Such beliefs, which derive from one’s one cultural, religious or social context, are often challenged when individuals from stereotyped groups behave in ways that are unexpected. The practice of sharing beliefs between members of different cultural, ethnic and religious groups can lead to confidence-creating emotions which enable individuals to easily create relationships, as well as a willingness to cooperate with others [84, 85].

Spirituality, as a cultural concept, also significantly influences an individual’s beliefs [86]. Scientific research has attempted to measure spiritual well-being using scales, the most common of which are the Spirituality Index of Well-Being, the Spirituality Scale, and the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale.Footnote 5 These scales assess spirituality using elements which ask the individual about their beliefs.Footnote 6

Similar to spirituality, relaxation methods aim to help individuals manage stress through practices that affect one’s personal beliefs. Many proposed methods for reaching a stress-free mental state include guidelines that instruct readers in changing their behavior. These guidelines are often meant to encourage hopeful, optimistic beliefs and feelings of inner peace [87]. Some methods recommend practices such as sitting down every morning to meditate [88] or drinking a cup of lukewarm water before eating [89]. While adopting these behaviors may be effective for some individuals, not everyone will be able to attain from them the change in stress-reduction or health-improvement that they desire. Various approaches and techniques of teaching have therefore been developed, allowing each individual to determine what works best for them and what is most appropriate in specific situations [90].

In the health context, meanwhile, it has been demonstrated that healing beliefs can play an important role in health outcomes. Healing beliefs are a conscious and mindful determination one makes to improve one’s health, or an expectation that one’s health and well-being are going to improve and that one will live a meaningful, productive life. Healing beliefs are a way of understanding and giving meaning to illness and suffering through the continued belief that the patient will achieve healing and well-being [91].

Additional studies in this area have found that health expectancy (one’s personal belief regarding future health outcomes) is an important part of healing processes, especially when there is a close relationship between the healer and the patient [92]. Studies have demonstrated that a healer’s capacity to self-heal tends to have a positive influence on a patient’s health outcomes. As Schmidt notes, “practicing loving kindness and compassion toward oneself helps develop these qualities in our relationship with others.” [93] The self-healing capacity may be observed by the patient unconsciously, stimulating the patient to use the same skills to heal themself.

In conclusion, there are many studies that demonstrate the impact of personal beliefs on individual behavior. More important than the act of changing one’s mind (one’s thoughts) in order to bring about behavioral change is changing one’s belief of this thought. This occurs on both a conscious and an unconscious level. The next subsection explores the influence of emotions on behavior, especially of those emotions that arise from beliefs.

The Influence of Emotions on Human Behavior

As is shown in Fig. 12.4 , believing a thought can create certain feelings in individuals that ultimately influence behavior. Feelings and emotions are interdependent. As mentioned in section “Stress and Emotions’ Influence on Psychophysiological Factors”, feelings produce emotions and last for a longer time than emotions, which always have a beginning and an end. Emotions influence behavior because an individual is more likely to do something if it is pleasurable and not stressful or if the outcome feels positive [94]. On the other hand, research shows that “anticipated emotion, especially anticipated regret, has been shown to motivate people and change behavior.” [60] Both examples illustrate how varied emotions, from positive emotions such as love to negative emotions such as fear, affect human behavior and supply important impulses for actions.

A wide range of theoretical models of behavior have been proposed that demonstrate how behaviors leading to long-term improvements in health and QoL, such as exercise and nutritional practices, can be implemented and adopted [95]. According to these models, individuals have the ability to adopt an alternative perspective or state of mind by altering their thoughts and personal beliefs, ultimately influencing their own emotions and leading to new behaviors. According to a recent study,Footnote 7 mood is a factor that has a major influence on how effectively individuals are able to improve their behavior. Moods, which are defined here as states or frames of mind, can last for a brief moment or be present during longer periods [32, 97]. Individuals in a negative mood have been found to exhibit less attention and concentration on tasks than those in a positive frame of mind and to ultimately deliver worse results. Individuals in a negative mood have also exhibited particular difficulty adapting to tasks again after being distracted by their own thoughts. These results demonstrate that those in a negative mood commit more behavioral lapses when engaged in a task, have “task-irrelevant thoughts” with more frequency and exhibit less motivation towards attentional commitments than those in a positive mood [96]. Meanwhile, a positive mood has been found to help individuals adapt to a task after a lapse [97].

A similar study concerning the impact of emotions on behavior has confirmed that emotions have a major influence in this regard (Fig. 12.5) [98]. According to Avey et al., individuals in a positive mood were not only better able to control their own behavior, but were also able to spread positivity to those around them. Their results demonstrate that one individual’s positive mood can even influence f.ex. employees in an organizational structure. More specifically, the individual’s mood was found to influence their own psychological capital, especially in the areas of hope, efficacy, optimism, resilience and mindfulness, by facilitating relationships and positive emotions, which led in turn to changes in the behavior of the surrounding individuals [99].

Fig. 12.5
figure 5

The effects of induced mood on the frequency of attentional lapses [96]

When describing the impact of emotions on behavior, it is important to also consider how the way one is received or treated in one’s surroundings affects emotional responses and, ultimately, behavior. Positive and negative feedback from one’s environment, for instance, have been found to affect an individual’s emotions in ways that influence behaviors such as “counterproductive behavior, turnover intentions, citizenship, and affective commitment.” [100]

In summary, there is significant evidence regarding the influence of emotions on an individual’s behavior. This influence can be seen in the effects of mood on task performance, the impact of positive and negative feedback on behavioral change and the capacity of individuals to spread positivity and alter the behaviors of others, examples that demonstrate the crucial role emotions play in behavior choice and change.

Behavior: Yoga and Meditation as Interventions for Stress Management

Given the above discussions concerning the influence of the mind, belief of thoughts and emotions on behavior, this section presents behavior techniques, particularly those of yoga and meditation, that have been found in research to help reduce stress through changes to an individual’s thoughts, beliefs and emotions that lead to behavioral change [101]. Nowadays, yoga and meditation are practiced worldwide to reduce stress and achieve life satisfaction [1032,1033,104]. Yoga and meditation techniques are claimed to be especially effective at helping practitioners (1) observe their thoughts (thought), (2) disconnect beliefs from thoughts (belief), (3) understand the connection between personal beliefs and feelings (emotion) and (4) recognize how conscious or unconscious feelings lead to a behavior (behavior).Footnote 8

In this chapter, yoga is defined as “an ancient practice with origins in India, […] incorporat[ing] muscle stretching, muscle relaxing, balancing poses (asanas), breathing (pranayama), guided relaxation, and/or meditation (dhyana) to achieve harmony and spiritual growth.” [105, 106] It is a culturally based tool that can become an integrated habit in one’s life [107]. A key aspect of yoga and meditation is a concept of embodiment that is focused on self-creation, as “control of the self is a project internal to the person rather than imposed by others, and modern persons actively define themselves through lifestyle choices, rather than being passively defined by their membership in traditional groups and moral orders.” [108]

Research on the mindful body, which is an approach to the body that treats mental and physiological processes as aspects of an integrated whole, has revealed significant insight into the effect of emotions, passions and conversational practices on behavioral outcomes. As yoga and meditation seek to alter behavior through deliberate changes to one’s emotions, such findings are highly relevant to the analysis of yoga presented in this chapter [109, 110]. Meanwhile, yoga psychology is a field of research and practice focusing on the use of yoga as a psychological tool that integrates behavioral and introspective approaches to facilitate an individual’s growth [111]. Several studies have revealed benefits of practicing yoga for a certain period of time. On a psychological level, yoga has been shown to improve emotional functioning [112] and reduce negative emotions in breast cancer patients [113]. In addition, studies of embodied cognition have demonstrated that yoga “may reduce stress by affecting the way individuals appraise stressors.” [114] One study has also found that regular practitioners of yoga react to negative emotional stimuli in such a way that it “does not have downstream effects on [their] later mood state.” [115]

On a physical level, yoga reduces stress by stimulating exchange and harmonization between the body and the mind. One of the parts of the human anatomy most responsible for communication between body parts is the nervous system, particularly the vagus nerve, which corresponds to the central energy channel called “Sushumna Nadi ” in yoga [116]. According to experts, the vagus nerve communicates information mainly from the heart, gut and other organs to the brain [117]. This nerve is stimulated in all yoga postures, or asanas [118, 119]. Yoga practices are based on a distinction between the two sides of the body: the left, called “Ida,” which is feminine and lunar, and the right, called “Pingala ,” which is masculine and solar. The aim of yoga is to unite both sides within the Sushumna Nadi or vagus nerve. When the body has been trained to slow its processes using the breath (e.g., via yoga), the heart rate automatically slows down when the individual is at rest. Neurological signals are transmitted from the brain to the heart and other organs via the vagus nerve without any change in the breath being necessary [120].

As is defined above, meditation is part of yoga practice. Meditation is defined as “practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set.” [121] Meditation, like yoga, is considered a health-improving tool, and has been linked to numerous health benefits, such as reductions in pain sensation, short-term increases in blood pressure and improvements to respiratory efficiency, fluid exchange, cardiovascular system capacity and synchronization of the cells [122]. In a study of the efficacy of meditation techniques for treating medical illnesses, Arias et al. reported that “the strongest evidence for efficacy was found for epilepsy, symptoms of the premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms. Benefit was also demonstrated for mood and anxiety disorders, autoimmune illness, and emotional disturbance in neoplastic disease.” [123] As Ospina et al. have observed in their survey of meditation research, the effects of meditation include physiological changes such as the reduction of the heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol. On the neurophysiological side, meditation was also found to increase verbal creativity [124].

The calm mental states reached by practicing mindful meditation have been shown to impact the brain and emotions. As Hayes and Davis note, “There is evidence that mindfulness helps develop effective emotion regulation in the brain.” [121,122,123,128] The calm mental states associated with meditation can facilitate coherence or synchronization between bodily functions.Footnote 9 Coherence tends to produce a sense of peace of mind and emotional balance that increases overall well-being [122] and QoL. The coherence of different psychophysiological functions can be developed through training such that the body, without specific stimulation, later applies these trained techniques unconsciously [129]. A meditation practice that has provided particularly effective for the achievement of calm mental states is Transcendental Meditation. Research on this method has focused especially on its relationship to stress reduction, decreased depression, reduced anxiety and improved sleep quality [126,127,132]. Other studies, however, have shown that more desirable psychological states can be achieved with the practice of yoga paired with meditation, especially in cases of burn-out syndrome, depression and mental disorders [133, 134].

The Center for Healthy Minds, led by Professor Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin–Madison,Footnote 10 has stated, after many years of research on the topic, that well-being is a set of skills that can be learned in a way similar to playing the guitar. According to the results of their research, regular meditation can rewire areas of the brain [135] so that, although negative experiences from daily life are recognized, they affect individuals’ brain health, thoughts, emotions and actions for a much shorter time than they do for individuals who are not trained to meditate.Footnote 11

As indicated in the previous section, several studies [136] have demonstrated that positive emotions can positively influence human behavior, health and overall well-being [45]. A key factor in this process is the cultivation of coherence between emotional and bodily states. If an individual regularly practices a meditation technique that draws attention to positive emotions (such as Loving-Kindness Meditation [137]) or other techniques that are viewed as stimulating positive emotions (such as progressive muscle relaxation [136]), the body system establishes a habit. Research results indicate [134,135,140] that past experience “builds within us a set of familiar patterns, which are instantiated in the neural architecture.” [141] These patterns manifest as habits that are automatically enacted, even when the person is not actively practicing any meditation technique. External stimuli are then managed by the brain as perceptions, which automatically give rise to habitual feelings and behaviors [141]. According to one study, “the system then strives to maintain [positive emotional habits] automatically, thus rendering coherence a more readily accessible state during day-to-day activities, and even in the midst of stressful or challenging situations.” [122] In frequent meditators, stress responses are often automatically reduced the moment stress is experienced [142]. Interestingly, not every meditation technique leads to coherence between different body functions. Techniques that concentrate on positive emotions, for example, have been found to be more successful at facilitating coherent states than those that focus on the mind and thoughts (such as concentrative meditationFootnote 12) [122]. Therefore, one may assume that integrating the emotions into one’s meditation practices, rather than merely concentrating the mind on a given object, can result in more effective physiological and psychological functioning.

The approach to changing behavior through the cultivation of positive emotions is also considered in the understanding of impacts of yoga and meditation. According to the self-development perspective on behavioral change, the only way to change one’s behavior is from within oneself [143, 144]. Individuals may need help from outside sources, such as other humans or their external conditions, but managing one’s behavioral changes is the responsibility of each individual. This is also confirmed by the results of research on intrinsic behavior change and motivation. Self-determined motivation in particular, an attitude which yoga training aims to cultivate and draw on, has been found to have a direct effect on behavior [145].

Both yoga and meditation are promising tools that can influence well-being and QoL by changing one’s relation to one’s thoughts, personal beliefs, feelings and emotions and behavior (as conceptualized in Fig. 12.4). Results from a variety of studies have confirmed these benefits; nevertheless, the exact mechanism by which meditation affects QoL is still unclear. It is known that meditation influences cognitive processes; however, there are other factors that also influence well-being [146], such as “cultural differences, socioeconomic status, health, the quality of interpersonal relations, and specific psychological processes.” [146]

In summary, the current state of research indicates that yoga and meditation can be helpful techniques for individuals to observe their own thoughts and make sense of the beliefs their thoughts give rise to. Furthermore, yoga and meditation affect the emotions and one’s resulting behavior in a positive way by reducing the stress caused by an individual’s environment.

Quantifying Thoughts, Beliefs, Feelings and Behaviors

This section has been mainly written by Prof. Katarzyna Wac.

When yoga and meditation are practiced as techniques of self-empowerment, as will be discussed in section “Yoga and Meditation as Techniques for Achieving Self-Empowered Behavior”, it can be beneficial for the practitioner to assess changes to their thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors through reliable means. This section therefore discusses how each of these variables can be quantified leveraging recent developments in personal, miniaturized technology such as smartphones and wearables to evaluate and ultimately improve the effectiveness of one’s practice. The table (Table 12.2) presents methods of quantifying these concepts using various data sources that are categorized in the manner defined by Mayo et al. in the context of patient care [147]. In this case, the tools and methods are adapted for the use of any individual in or outside of care settings. The first data source that is considered is self-reported data that the individual provides on their own. This includes information on both internal, unobservable states and external, observable states that is collected via patient-reported outcome (PRO) surveys for a given recall period (e.g., the last month) and in shorter ecological momentary assessments (EMAs) [148]. The second data source includes data reported by other individuals, such as a friend, family member or caregiver, on the individual in question’s perceived internal and observable states. This information is collected in the form of observer-reported outcome (ObsRO) surveys and/or peer ecological momentary assessments (PeerMAs) [149], the content of which may differ from the PRO surveys and EMAs depending on what is being reported upon (e.g., internal, unobservable states or external, observable states). The third data source includes technology-reported outcomes (TechRO) datasets collected via wearable devices that record aspects of the individual’s psychophysiology and their movements and via smartphones that record information concerning the individual’s context and their interaction with their context.

Table 12.2 Examples of methods for the quantification of thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors via technologies

At present, the measurement of thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors using the tools mentioned in Table 12.2, especially the technology-reported datasets, is only a hypothetical proposal. Concrete experimentation is still needed to ensure the accuracy, timeliness and reproducibility of the assessments of these variables [36] and the overall quality of the data collected. That said, these methods of quantification indicate a possible set of tools practitioners of meditation, yoga and other behavioral techniques might use to measure the effectiveness of their practices on their behavior and the variables—namely thoughts, beliefs and emotions—that ultimately shape behavior.

Yoga and Meditation as Techniques for Achieving Self-Empowered Behavior

Based on the research presented in this chapter up to this point, this section assesses yoga and meditation as techniques of individual empowerment through which one might change one’s health behaviors to live a happier life. In particular, this section focuses on the use of yoga and meditation techniques for stress management as a means of enacting behavioral change. Self-empowered changing of one’s health behaviors also implies an attempt to change one’s perspective towards health and illness. Such a change might involve adopting the view held by Antonovsky, who stated, “We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease, but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence (i.e., sense that life is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful) and ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationships with their environment.” [150] A similar definition of health that one might adopt is “the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical, and emotional challenges.” [151]

Yoga and meditation can improve one’s ability to generate thoughts that are capable of leading to positive emotions. Although cognitive methods by themselves can contribute to stress management [152], individuals can achieve better results when they integrate emotions into their methods. Recent studies indicate, for instance, that individuals adapt their behaviors more easily when they integrate emotions into behavioral change techniques [153]. One reason for this is that positive feelings towards a new situation can facilitate physiological and psychological acceptance of a change and of the new situation that results. Overall, it has been shown that when emotions are a focal point of behavioral change practices, individuals are more likely to successfully change their behavior and better able to improve their overall QoL. When practiced regularly, yoga and meditation can help induce unconscious shifts towards stress-reducing behavior and facilitate synchronization (coherence states) of a body’s heart rate and brainwaves.

Yoga and meditation can train one to develop an ability to change perspectives by being aware of one’s personal beliefs, which allows individuals to make choices regarding how they progress towards change. When individuals are able to change perspectives and show competence in empathy, they are ultimately more likely to change their behavior. For example, it has been demonstrated that an individual who wants to start doing more exercise to improve their QoL, better understands their negative emotions during moments when they are not exercising.

Yoga and meditation can empower individuals to change their perspective towards situations that are considered stressful. Some studies have demonstrated that one’s attitude towards stress plays a crucial role in the effort to reduce stress. Those who consider stress as something positive are more likely to manage it successfully than those who view it negatively.

Self-observation with meditation and yoga helps to raise awareness and activate unconscious processes; raised awareness is a result of logging emotional states [154]. Meanwhile, developing an emotion-focused understanding of stress allows one to better understand what is happening when one is dealing with undesired behaviors. Yoga and meditation increase awareness and understanding at critical behavioral moments. Meditation in particular also helps individuals to enter a state in which they are less focused on thoughts so that they can approach their emotions as an observer.

Individuals who wish to empower themselves may utilize technology for the self-assessment of their states and behaviors. As discussed in the previous section, miniaturized devices such as smartphones and wearables can be used to gather relevant quantitative data. The result of using these tools is what is called, in the study of technology, the quantified self [155], a term that equally describes the practitioner of yoga and meditation. There exists a myriad of personal digital devices [156] that can automatically gather information regarding physiological processes and hard-to-observe behaviors [156]. The use of these devices and the data they provide may motivate individuals to better understand the way certain thoughts, beliefs or feelings lead to specific behaviors. Researchers have found that individuals find it easier to internalize such knowledge when using technology and, consequently, are able to realize behavioral changes almost instantly [154]. In general, the idea that technology can enable the assessment of individual behaviors and health and produce improvements in life quality has been expressed before [157]. The next step in the process is to leverage these technologies to potentially focus on the assessment and improvement of the individual’s internal states—particularly their thoughts, beliefs and emotions.

Concluding Remarks

In this chapter, we have examined the role of personal beliefs, together with thoughts and emotions, in the development of behavioral habits. Considering stress as a reaction that is influenced by behavior, we discussed yoga and meditation practices as possible interventions to alter personal beliefs and influence behaviors and thereby reduce stress, leading ultimately to an improvement in QoL. In addition, we suggested the use of technological devices and other tools for quantifying thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors as a means of further empowering behavioral change.

Many benefits of yoga and meditation have been uncovered in recent research, including their effect on stress reduction. It has been specifically shown that managing stress and adapting one’s behavior to live a more meaningful and fulfilled, healthier and happier life, depends very much on each individual’s thoughts, their personal beliefs and related emotions. Yoga and meditation, as techniques in which individuals seek to understand their perceptions and reactions towards stress and the outer world, are promising, learnable skills that can lead towards self-empowered behavioral change. Once the body has learned these skills, it reacts (i.e., thinks, believes, feels and behaves) unconsciously and without effort, even when the individual is not consciously paying attention. Studies have shown that, in such cases, behavioral change can then occur unconsciously.

Scientific research is now beginning to map the bioenergetic communication systems between the “inside” and “outside” of the body (including physiological functions, cognitive processes, emotions and behavior) that influence one’s health, happiness and QoL in the long term [158]. More research is expected to be carried out in the future concerning this important, interesting and impactful topic.