Richard Davidson, leading neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently outlined four constituents of well-being in a presentation given at the Greater Good Science Center’s seminar on Mindfulness and Well-Being at Work.
Davidson states that neuroscientists can measure the plasticity of the brain circuitry underlying these four constituents. Research in his lab has led him to the empirically validated conclusion that these four constituents of well-being are learnable skills. The skills take effort and practice, like learning to play the cello. But that, with practice, we can create enduring change in the neural substrate that supports well-being. His 13 minute video is well, well worth watching to learn the practices we can use to create those four skills of well-being in the brain.
His research lab has mapped the circuits in the brain that can create enduring traits of resilience, positive outlook, attention, generosity, and identified specific practices that can harness the neuroplasticity of the brain to do that. When we cultivate these practices, we get better at these skills.
1. Resilience: defined specifically as how rapidly circuits we use to recover from adversity can return to baseline. The faster we can recover our baseline, the more well-being we experience. This resilience even protects from the full impact of the adversity. The key practice is mindfulness, which directly strengthens those circuits over time. (This could take quite a bit of time – 6,000-7,000 hours of practice.)
2. Positive outlook: Being able to perceive and savor positive experiences, especially perceiving the innate goodness of other people. Depressed people may be able to savor positive experiences but they are transient in the brain; they don’t last long. We can cultivate practices that create lasting traits in the brain. Skill-building here is much quicker than for resilience. Davidson found that 7 hours of loving-kindness practice, 30 minutes a day over two weeks, even if people had never meditated before, was enough to create measurable and enduring activation of the circuits that create a positive outlook. And, in fact, predict more positive social behavior in general.
3. Attention: Davidson cites a study published by social psychologists at Harvard that found “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Lots of reasons for that, of course. But distractibility does derail our well-being. Mindfulness training again, focusing our attention again and again, helps us focus our attention more consistently more of the time. Being fully present, deeply listening to other people, measurably increases our well-being.
4. Generosity: More and more research data is documenting that altruism, giving to others, strengthens the circuits in the brain that generate experiences of well-being, more effectively than other positive emotion practices.
Because these skills can be cultivated and “learned” by the brain, Davidson suggests we have a responsibility – to take responsibility for the intentional shaping of our mind. No short cuts; sustained practice is what leads to sustained traits. We can choose to do that, and we will see the effects of it.