The Practice of Well-Being

In honor of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson, Ph. D., maps out four actions to take for creating enduring positive change.
Photo by Mario Silva

by Richard J. Davidson, Ph. D

What if our world were a kinder, wiser, more compassionate place? A place where we exercise our minds just like we do our bodies? A place where transforming our minds can improve our well-being and extend to benefit the people around us?

These questions drive me as a neuroscientist. Here is what I have concluded based on years of brain research: Well-being is a skill. Well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello. If you practice well-being, you’ll get better at it.

Well-being has four constituents that have each received serious scientific attention. Each of the four skills below is rooted in neural circuits, and each of these circuits exhibits plasticity. If we exercise these circuits, they will strengthen to create enduring change in our lives.

Awareness

In short, awareness is being fully connected to our present experience. Mindfulness-based practices of all types have now entered the mainstream. The popularity of mindfulness meditation has resulted in a variety of resources to cultivate and practice the skill on one’s own via health-care programs, online apps and local meditation communities.

Data show that when people are really focused on what they’re doing, and their minds are not wandering, they actually feel better about themselves. One study points to why this is important. Its conclusions suggest that the average person is not paying attention 47 percent of the time. There’s certainly room for improvement and greater well-being.

In addition, studies show that mindfulness—being in the present moment—can lessen our tendency to want and desire the things we don’t have.

Connection

Nurturing connection with other people plays a significant role in our well-being, as loneliness is now considered one of the biggest threats to our mental health. The ability to empathize, behave compassionately and express gratitude are skills that can not only be learned, but also can make us feel good.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that engaging in acts of generosity is an effective strategy to increase well-being. We call it a double-positive whammy because, by being generous to others, you benefit them and yourself. Studies, including one from our lab, show that compassion training—in which one generates positive wishes for another being—primes a person’s ability to empathize with others and leads to pro-social behavior aimed at decreasing others’ suffering.

Insight

Insight is having a deep understanding of how our minds work. In particular, this understanding applies to our thoughts and emotions, and how our beliefs and expectations shape our experience. The practical skills that foster insight help us to loosen rigid beliefs and form a flexible sense of self that can adapt to changing circumstances. This fluid sense of self, in turn, promotes well-being by increasing resilience and prompting transformative realizations about the nature of the mind, relationships and experience.

The psychological flexibility that these skills engender is beginning to receive scientific attention as a fundamental aspect of well-being. Seeing oneself as growing and expanding is linked to higher well-being—and is thought to bolster well-being in part by helping us navigate life’s challenges in a constructive way. In contrast, overly rigid forms of thinking can be a sign of mental health dysfunction.

Purpose

Purpose is what motivates, inspires and drives us in life. One study found that if you have greater purpose in life, you’re less likely to be dead 10 years later. Whether you’re older versus younger or if you have a chronic condition or disease, cultivating a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life has been shown to have far-reaching benefits, including to our physical and mental well-being.

Realizing and acknowledging what gives you meaning and purpose is important. If deep-down something is important to you, but you ignore that feeling, it can harm your well-being. As one of our researchers has said: “Think about what gives your life meaning. Do what makes you happy or makes you fulfilled, and make sure to save time for it.”

Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, is the keynote speaker at the Hope For Depression Research Foundation’s Annual HOPE Luncheon on Nov. 6 at the Plaza Hotel; centerhealthyminds.org