Feeling good is a skill we all can practice. And the more you practice, the better you will get. It’s no different than learning to play a musical instrument, says leading neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson. Research shows that well being has four factors that have each received serious scientific consideration. Outlook is one, which should come at no surprise for optimists out there. Both generosity and resilience play key roles, and attention is the last factor, as we’ve heard a wandering mind will lead you nowhere. So well being can be practiced and strengthened by developing your outlook, generosity, resilience and attention.
We all know too well how life can put bumps in our road when we least expect it – and stuff happens. We cannot usually prevent bad things – but we can change the way we respond to them. Resilience is the skill with which we recover from life’s adversities – some people recover slowly while others recover more quickly. People who show a more rapid recovery in certain key neural circuits of the brain have higher levels of well being, and they are protected in many ways from the adverse consequences of life’s slings and arrows – because they have stronger resilience skills. Recent research conducted by Dr. Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison asked whether these specific brain circuits can be altered by regular practice in simple mindfulness meditation. And the answer is yes—but several thousand hours of practice is needed before you see real change. Unlike the other factors of well being, it takes a while to improve your resilience. It’s not something that is going to happen quickly—but this insight can still motivate and inspire us to keep meditating with stronger resilience as a prize.
The second key to well being is outlook, and it is in many ways the flip-side of the resilience. Outlook can refer to the ability to see the positive traits in others, the ability to savor positive experiences, and outlook is also the capacity to consider other people as having innate basic goodness. Even people who suffer from depression show activation in the brain circuit that underlies outlook, but for them, it doesn’t last and is a rather temporary factor. Here, unlike with resilience, research shows that simple practices of loving-kindness and compassion meditation may alter this circuitry quite quickly, after a very modest dose of practice.
The third building-block of well being – attention – may surprise you.
Several years ago a group of social psychologists at Harvard offered their research finding: “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” This study found that across a large group of adults in America, people spend an average of 47 percent of their waking life not paying attention to what they’re doing. Let’s envision a world where that number goes down a little, by even 5 percent? Imagine what impact that might have on productivity, on showing up, on being present with another person and deeply listening. This quality of attention is so fundamentally important that William James, in his very famous book The Principles of Psychology, said that the ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. Yet he continued, it is easier to define this ideal attention than to give practical directions for bringing it about. But today we have the practical steps for strengthening attention – through Mindfulness Meditation.
There is lots of data showing that when individuals demonstrate generosity and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to promoting well being. These circuits get activated in a way that is more enduring than the way we respond to other positive incentives, such as winning a game or earning a prize. Human beings come into the world with innate, basic goodness. So when we engage in practices that are designed to cultivate generosity, kindness and compassion, what we’re doing is recognizing, strengthening, and nurturing the quality of generosity that was there from the outset.
So we can see how our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly—most of the time unwittingly. And through intentional practices – such as Mindfulness Meditation – we can shape our brains in ways that enable these four fundamental keys of well being to be practiced and strengthened and then we can smooth out some more of those bumps in life’s road.
(Information for this blog derived from a talk given by Richard Davidson, neuroscientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison)