Richard J. Davidson says research into how mental training like meditation affects our health throws light on what constitutes a healthy mind. Well-being – as understood by its qualities of awareness, connection, insight and purpose – is a skill that can be learned
Here I was, in a trip to Hong Kong late last year, sitting on a panel with a close friend and renowned Buddhist monk, famed actor Jet Li, one of Hong Kong’s top mental health professionals, and a forward-thinking business CEO. From diverse walks of life, we were honed in on one question: what do ancient wisdom and modern science teach us about how to nurture healthier minds, and how can we harness this to lead our best lives at home and at work?
This question is one I would not have imagined exploring with such public interest when I began my career in science more than 30 years ago, first at Harvard University and then the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States. As a neuroscientist who studies emotional well-being and the effects of mental training and contemplative practices, I believe we’ve unearthed critical information about what constitutes a healthy mind.
But how people can integrate well-being skills into the fabric of their busy lives remains a challenge in itself. The truth is we need this set of skills now more than ever, as more people experience the challenge of balancing long working hours and often a stressful work environment with the demands of an active home life that often includes parenting, caregiving and the like. These factors are in part responsible for the steep global rise in mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Though the science is still very new, there is compelling evidence to suggest that we can learn healthy habits of mind that contribute to increased well-being. Scientific and medical research is showing that well-being practices like meditation can alter the brain and body in ways we’re just beginning to measure and understand, including how these practices shape the anatomy of our brains and our immune and genetic responses to stress.
From a practical standpoint, we can think about well-being as a skill we can learn, just like we learn new languages or musical instruments. And well-being can be broken down into specific constituents. Our Centre for Health Minds is launching a major initiative to develop a user-friendly programme to cultivate well-being that is based on the nurturing of skills to enhance four key domains of well-being: awareness, connection, insight and purpose.
The first area of focus is awareness, or dedicating one’s full attention to whatever’s at hand in your current experience – the good, the bad and the ugly. Being fully present has been linked to increased levels of well-being. In one study, researchers discovered that people, on average, were only paying attention to the present moment 47 per cent of the time. Forty-seven per cent! If we can move that percentage even a little, imagine what we could collectively accomplish and how much our mental states could improve.
How can we improve our attention? Research, including that of my lab at the University of Wisconsin, suggests that mental training practices such as mindfulness meditation can improve attention as well as strengthen neural connections in networks of the brain responsible for regulating our focus.
One exercise to strengthen attention is to take a moment – whether it’s through formal meditation on a cushion, or while you’re doing chores or in between meetings at work. Check in with sensations in your body and your breathing, perhaps even count 10 breaths consecutively. Your mind will wander, and each time you bring it back, you’re practising and growing your attention.
Connection is a second key area for well-being. It is associated with the cultivation of social emotions that facilitate interacting with others harmoniously and behaving in ways that are compassionate. This is a key part of an ethical framework that’s unfortunately left out of many mainstream applications of mindfulness. But it’s vital. One study we conducted asked people to participate in a daily compassion training exercise every day for two weeks. By the end of the study, not only were they more likely to be generous towards strangers, but they also had altered connections in their brains associated with positive emotion and emotion regulation.
There’s a practice I do to build my connection with others. I do this when I’m at airports travelling: Pick someone in your field of view. Focus on them as a person with desires and challenges – just like you. Repeat internally a sincere wish that they be happy and healthy, just like you would wish a loved one to be happy and healthy.
Another element that is linked to well-being is insight – building awareness of how our minds work, particularly with regard to the narrative we all hold about ourselves. Nurturing a healthy sense of self that shows flexibility during the ups and downs of life helps develop resilience.
One way to develop more insight into how the mind works is to become more aware of our thoughts. Direct our attention to our thoughts and see them as thoughts. This is not about changing our thoughts or getting rid of them, but simply noticing them as thoughts. This is particularly helpful to do when we have thoughts about ourselves, such as “I’m this sort of person and not that sort of person…” Notice that these are thoughts like any other thought. And when we notice that we’ve been swept up in the narrative, simply come back to the present.
Lastly, purpose. Longitudinal research tracking people for years shows that purpose in life in the latter decades of life can predict whether a person will be alive 10 years later. Identifying your purpose, your larger aspirations in life, and aligning your everyday behaviour and experiences with that core purpose, is something we know can promote well-being and motivate you to do things that are meaningful to you.
Take time daily to think about what you care about most in life. Create reminders to connect to your larger purpose, and question whether your actions that day contribute or are in conflict with your purpose. And ask yourself how your activities can be reframed to support your larger purpose.
Richard J. Davidson is the director and founder of the Centre for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry