How Science Reveals That “Well-Being” Is a Skill

World-renowned neuroscientist Richie Davidson on the scientific factors that shape well-being.


Do you see the good in everyone? Outlook is the ability to savor positive experiences—from enjoying a coffee break at work to seeing kindness in every person.

“We know something about the circuitry in the brain which underlies this quality of outlook,” says Davidson, “and we also know, for example, that individuals who suffer from depression, they show activation in this circuitry but it doesn’t last—this activation is very transient.”

Whereas resilience requires thousands of hours of practice, research suggests “modest doses” of loving-kindness and compassion meditation can impact outlook—Davidson mentions a recent study where individuals who had never meditated before received 30 minutes of compassion training over two weeks. “Not only did we see changes in the brain but these changes in the brain actually predicted pro-social behavior,” says Davidson.

Here’s a loving-kindness practice from developmental behavioral specialist and mindfulness author Mark Bertin, MD.

“Well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello.” This is the conclusion that neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues have come to.

Basically: You can get better at well-being. It’s a skill you can train for.

At the recent Well-Being at Work conference, Davidson hosted a brief session—“Richie unplugged”—where he talked about four components of well-being that are supported by neuroscience. Mounting research suggests mental training in these four areas can make a difference in well-being. Additionally, the neural circuits involved in these areas exhibit plasticity—they can change in enduring ways for the better.
The four components of well-being that are supported by neuroscience are:

1. Resilience

When something bad happens, how long does it take you to recover? Some people rebound more quickly than others, and neuroscientists are measuring that recovery time.

“To paraphrase the bumper sticker, stuff happens and we cannot buffer ourselves from that stuff,” says Davidson, “but it’s really about how we recover from that adversity.”

Healthy Minds has found (based on a questionnaire) that people who report greater purpose in life may recover better than others because this purpose could help them “reframe stressful situations more productively,” according to the studyOther research suggests mental training could help people rebound more quickly as well. New research at the Healthy Minds lab asks whether the neural circuits involved in resilience can be altered by mindfulness meditation. The preliminary data suggests it would take thousands of hours:

“From the data that we have, it’s going to take a while before resilience is actually impacted. It’s at about six or seven thousand hours of practice, cumulatively, that we begin to see modulations of resilience. So it’s not something that is going to happen quickly, but this is a motivation and an inspiration to keep practicing.”

2. Outlook

3. Attention

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Davidson says, paraphrasing the subtitle from an article published by a group of social psychologists at Harvard. Those researchers also found that almost half the time, we’re not actually paying attention to the present moment.

“Folks, I’m convinced that we can do better. Can you envision a world where that number actually goes down a little?” He suggests that if we could “turn down the distractibility” by 5%, it would impact productivity, being present and showing up for others, deeply listening, etc.

Davidson mentions that the impact on paying attention is a long-held value.

This quality of attention is so fundamentally important, [philosopher and psychologist] William James, in his very famous two-volume tome which was written in 1890, he has a whole chapter one attention and he said in that chapter: “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will” then he went on to say that an education which improved this faculty would be the education par excellence. And then the next sentence in the book is “but it is easier to define this ideal then to give practical directions for bringing it about.” I think if William James had more contact with the contemplative traditions he would have instantaneously seen these as vehicles for educating attention.

Try this beginner’s guide to mindfulness meditation from Barry Boyce, Mindful’s Editor-in-Chief, narrated by Jamie Proctor, Mindful supporter.

4. Generosity

“When individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being,” says Davidson. “And these circuits get activated in a way that shows more enduring activation than other kinds of positive incentives.”

Caring for others is a “double positive whammy”—to quote the Healthy Minds website—because you benefit from being generous to other people. A recent study from the lab suggests compassion training can alter your own response to suffering.

Extending kindness—to oneself and to others—is a simple but powerful expression of mindfulness. Try this kindness practice from Mindful magazine. Recite these words slowly and deliberately, starting first with yourself, then extending to others.

May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.

Extend to others…

May the people I encounter be safe.
May the people I encounter be happy.
May the people I encounter by healthy.
May the people I encounter live with ease.

Train Your Brain

“Our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly—most of the time our brains are being shaped unwittingly,” says Davidson at the conclusion of his talk. “And we have an opportunity to take more responsibility for the intentional shaping of our own minds and through that, we can shape our brains in ways that would enable these four fundamental constituents of well-being to be strengthened.”