“Well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello.” This is the conclusion that neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues have declared.
Well-being is a skill.
At the 2015 Well-Being at Work conference, Davidson hosted a brief session—“Richie unplugged”—where he talked about four components of well-being that are supported by neuroscience. The mounting research suggests mental training in these four areas can make a difference in well-being. Additionally, the neural circuits involved in these areas exhibit plasticity—they can change in enduring ways for the better.
The four components of well-being that are supported by neuroscience are:
When something bad happens, how long does it take you to recover? Some people rebound more quickly than others, and neuroscientists are measuring that recovery time.
“To paraphrase the bumper sticker, stuff happens and we cannot buffer ourselves from that stuff,” says Davidson, “but it’s really about how we recover from that adversity.”
Healthy Minds has found that people who report greater purpose in life may recover better than others because this purpose could help them “reframe stressful situations more productively,” according to the study.
Other research suggests mental training could help people rebound more quickly as well. Research at the Healthy Minds lab asks whether the neural circuits involved in resilience can be altered by mindfulness meditation.
The preliminary data suggests it would take thousands of hours:
“From the data that we have, it’s going to take a while before resilience is actually impacted. It’s at about six or seven thousand hours of practice, cumulatively, that we begin to see modulations of resilience. So it’s not something that is going to happen quickly, but this is a motivation and an inspiration to keep practicing.”
Do you see the good in everyone? Outlook is the ability to savour positive experience—from enjoying a break at work to seeing kindness.
“We know something about the circuitry in the brain which underlies this quality of outlook,” says Davidson, “and we also know, for example, that individuals who suffer from depression, they show activation in this circuitry but it doesn’t last—this activation is very transient.”
Whereas resilience requires thousands of hours of practice, research suggests “modest doses” of loving kindness and compassion meditation can impact outlook—Davidson mentions a recent study where individuals who had never meditated before received 30 minutes of compassion training over two weeks. “Not only did we see changes in the brain but these changes in the brain actually predicted pro-social behavior,” says Davidson.
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Davidson says, paraphrasing the subtitle from an article published by a group of social psychologists at Harvard which later became the topic of a Ted talk by researcher Matt Killingsworth. Those researchers also found that almost half the time, we’re not actually paying attention to the present moment. Davidson mentions that the impact on paying attention is a long-held value.
This quality of attention is so fundamentally important, philosopher and psychologist
William James, in his very famous two-volume tome which was written in 1890 'The Principles of Psychology' , has a whole chapter on attention and he said in that chapter:
“the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will”
then he went on to say that an education which improved this faculty would be the education par excellence.
“When individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being,” says Davidson. “And these circuits get activated in a way that shows more enduring activation than other kinds of positive incentives.”
Caring for others is a “double positive whammy” because you benefit from being generous to other people and the study also suggests that compassion training can alter your own response to suffering.
Extending kindness—to oneself and to others—is a simple but powerful expression of mindfulness. Try this kindness practice that has been recommended by Mindful magazine. Recite these words slowly and deliberately, starting first with yourself, then extending to others.
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.
Extend to others…
May the people I encounter be safe.
May the people I encounter be happy.
May the people I encounter by healthy.
May the people I encounter live with ease.
Train Your Brain
“Our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly—most of the time our brains are being shaped unwittingly,” says Davidson at the conclusion of his talk. “And we have an opportunity to take more responsibility for the intentional shaping of our own minds and through that, we can shape our brains in ways that would enable these four fundamental constituents of well-being to be strengthened.”