Getting Better at Wellbeing
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
There is now a huge amount of research and articles about wellbeing - it can be easy to get lost, and it's difficult to know what to take on board. I found these two great videos on YouTube of Richard Davidson, one of the researchers most responsible for bringing mindfulness into the neuroscientific research field, which bring together what we know so far about what factors modulate wellbeing.
In this clip Davidson describes wellbeing as a skill and that just like learning to play a musical instrument, we need to practise it to get better at it. He outlines 4 neuroscientifically validated constituents of wellbeing, all of which exhibit plasticity – the capacity of neural circuitry to be shaped by practise and experience i.e. by purposefully practising them our brains get better at them:
1. Resilience. The rapidity with which we recover from adversity. We can’t stop life’s challenges from coming but we can bolster our capacity to manage them.
2. Positive Outlook. The ability to see the positive and innate goodness in others and savour positive experiences. In depression, activation of this neural circuitry happens but it lasts only for a short time. Loving kindness meditation practise can modulate this circuitry relatively quickly – with as little as 7 hours of training - 30 mins of practise a day for 2 weeks. Changes predicted pro-social behaviour.
3. Attention. Being able to be present with whatever we’re doing. Davidson quotes a study carried out by Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert (2010) which indicated that 47% of an adults waking life is spent not paying attention to what they’re doing and that they are substantially less happy when they were not focused on what they were doing. I wrote about this research in an earlier blog post which can be found here.
4. Generosity. Davidson states that there’s now a “plethora” of data suggesting that altruistic behaviour activates key wellbeing circuitry in the brain.
Davidson concludes that we can take responsibility for our own minds, to intentionally shape our brains as a means to strengthen these 4 fundamental constituents of wellbeing, reiterating the skill aspect of wellbeing.
In this video, at 26.10 mins Davidson takes over the discussion. Again he references the Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) research mentioned above. He describes 4 themes in modern science that are currently occurring and are providing a foundation for this valuable and insightful work to continue:
1. Neuroplasticity. The idea that the brain can change in response to experience.
2. Epigenetics. The equivalent of plasticity in genetics, that the genes we are born with are not expressed in a fixed way, rather they can be turned up and turned down (up-regulated or down-regulated) based on our experiences. So although we may be born with a disposition for certain characteristics or disorders, the genes can be modulated. Research has shown that a change in gene expression can occur over the course of 8 hours. Yep, 8 hours.
3. Bi-directional communication between brain and body. Changes that occur in the brain affect the body and changes in the body impact our minds and brains. This is why body based therapies may have beneficial effects, modulating brain activity and vice versa
4. That human beings are born with innate basic goodness. Research with 6 month old babies indicate that we have an innate preference for warm-hearted altruist encounters v’s selfish, aggressive interactions. Through meditation we have the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the basic nature of our minds, the place where the innate goodness resides, which modern research suggests is indeed apparent.
It’s not always the case that scientific research translates easily to real world application however this is not the case with research on mindfulness and kindness. Davidson goes on to discuss ways in which the lab work is being applied to real world settings such as learning and education, (social, emotional and attentional skills) and healthcare and outlines ways in which the work needs to be furthered e.g. looking at the links between regular meditation practises and decreases in prescription drug costs. Fascinating and important stuff!