Four Keys to Well-Being

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

Are you ready to change the world by changing your response to it? According to Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison “Well-being is a skill…fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello. If one practices the skills of well-being, one will get better at it.“ So here’s another proof that it’s not what happens to you but how you deal with what you’ve been dealt!

At the Greater Good Science Center’s Mindfulness & Well-Being at Work conference Davidson recently explained that each of these four keys relates to neural circuit activity, which means plasticity or changeability is involved. Whoops! It looks like well-being is going to depend not on how life treats us or what we do but how we process it. So, friends, if you go to the gym to work out and feel better, are you prepared to exercise your emotional response to life as well? If so, and if practice makes perfect, here is how we can change our lives.

The first key is RESILIENCE. As Davidson details it, “stuff happens. We cannot buffer ourselves from that stuff, but we can change the way we respond to it. Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity; some people recover slowly and other people recover more quickly. We know that individuals who show a more rapid recovery in certain key neural circuits have higher levels of well-being. They are protected in many ways from the adverse consequences of life’s slings and arrows.

“Recent research that we’ve conducted in our lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—very new work that’s not yet published—asked whether these specific brain circuits can be altered by regular practice in simple mindfulness meditation. The answer is yes—but you need several thousand hours of practice before you see real change. Unlike the other constituents 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.

“The second key to well-being—OUTLOOK—is in many ways the flip-side of the first one. I use outlook to refer to the ability to see the positive in others, the ability to savor positive experiences, the ability to see another human being as a human being who has innate basic goodness. Even individuals who suffer from depression show activation in the brain circuit underlying outlook, but in them, it doesn’t last—it’s very transient…Research indicates that simple practices of lovingkindness and compassion meditation may alter this circuitry quite quickly, after a very, very modest dose of practice. We published a study in 2013 where individuals who had never meditated before were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group received a secular form of compassion training and the other received cognitive reappraisal training, an emotion-regulation strategy that comes from cognitive therapy. We scanned people’s brains before and after two weeks of training, and we found that in the compassion group, brain circuits that are important for this positive outlook were strengthened. After just seven hours—30 minutes of practice a day for two weeks—we not only saw changes in the brain, but these changes also predicted kind and helpful behavior.”

The third key is ATTENTION, and to convince us of its importance, Dr. Davidson points us to a Harvard study published several years ago by a group of social psychologists in which researchers queried people on their smart-phones, in the middle of their busy day in the world, asking them three questions:

  • What are you doing right now?
  • Where is your mind right now? Is it focused on what you’re doing, or is it focused elsewhere?
  • How happy or unhappy are you right now?

As Davidson points out: “Across a large group of adults in America, researchers found that people spend an average of 47 percent of their waking life not paying attention to what they’re doing…Can you 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 two-volume tome The Principles of Psychology, has a whole chapter on attention. He said that the ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. And he went on to say that an education that sharpens attention would be education par excellence. But, he continues, it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about. Today, we have practical steps for educating attention. And I think if James had had more contact with contemplative practices, he would have instantaneously seen these as vehicles for educating attention.”

Number Four is GENEROSITY. Davidson affirms that there is plenty of data today which indicates that when people are generous and altruistic “they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering 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. When we engage in practices that are designed to cultivate kindness and compassion, we’re not actually creating something de novo—we’re not actually creating something that didn’t already exist. What we’re doing is recognizing, strengthening, and nurturing a quality that was there from the outset

“Our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly—most of the time unwittingly. Through the intentional shaping of our minds, we can shape our brains in ways that would enable these four fundamental constituents of well-being to be strengthened. In that way, we can take responsibility for our own minds.”

OK folks. The experts have spoken. Now it’s up to us to change the world by changing our response to it.

FYI, Richard J. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain and The Mind’s Own Physician. He blogs at

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