The next time you’re stuck in traffic, take a look around. Chances are at least one driver will be fuming and fidgeting, another talking distractedly on a cell phone, and a third sitting serenely, as if perched on a meditation cushion. A fourth will see his chance to get ahead and cut in front of you while your head is turned.
We all handle stress differently. Some of us, it seems, are just born hot-tempered, easily distracted, or selfish. And certain circumstances, like a bad day at work or a lifetime of good or bad luck, can dial our reactivity up or down.
Richard Davidson, PhD, believes temperament is about more than genes or circumstances. He views well-being — the ability to be happy and healthy while contending with life’s slings and arrows — as a skill. “Like playing the violin,” he says.
And, like playing the violin, it’s something we can learn, he believes.
A professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds (CHM), Davidson has spent the last 15 years studying the brain’s response to mindfulness training and the brain circuitry linked with well-being. This growing body of research has revealed four traits — resilience, positive outlook, focus, and generosity — that contribute to our ability to be well.
For most of us, developing these traits requires some brain training, usually with meditation and other mental exercises that help reroute habitual impulses (like cutting people off in traffic). And, according to Davidson, our brains are indeed capable of learning new tricks.
S0 while good genes and good luck are nice, we don’t need them. To achieve lasting well-being, we need to practice — namely, we need to hone the skills that support the four traits of well-being. And while this will likely make us more content, it can also do much more than that. “Transforming our mind,” says Davidson, “will change the brain in ways that have real benefits for physical health.”
We’re Always Changing
Neuroscientists once assumed that our brains were largely fixed by adulthood, but today we know that the brain “changes in response to experience and in response to training,” says Davidson. Repetitive experiences, whether chosen or happenstance, modify our brains.
This capacity, known as neuroplasticity, can be both positive and negative.
Posttraumatic stress disorder, for instance, shows how the brain’s fear response can become so overdeveloped that even nonthreatening signals will trigger the sympathetic nervous system to react as if a tiger were leaping for our throats.
Conversely, we develop a mental habit of resilience when we practice meditation, sitting still with our stressful thoughts and simply witnessing our reactions. This supports the brain by building neural pathways to equanimity that are easier to locate — a useful skill when life inevitably tosses you into a traffic jam, or worse.
Like our brains, our genes are mutable. Epigenetics research has shown how experiences can influence gene expression, counteracting the common assumption that DNA is destiny. In a 2014 study, for example, Davidson’s team found that just eight hours of intensive meditation during a one-day retreat affected gene expression in participants, making it less likely that their bodies would activate disease-producing genes.
These discoveries seem to dispel any lingering doubts about the separation of mental well-being and physical health.
The 4 Traits of Well-Being
Well-being consists of four basic traits: resilience, positive outlook, focus, and generosity. What follows are studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Healthy Minds (CHM) that demonstrate what happens in the brain when we exhibit each of these qualities, along with some strategies for training our own brains to be well.
“One important constituent of well-being is the ability to rapidly recover from adversity,” says Davidson.
One CHM study showed how research subjects were able to moderate their responses to pain. Participants, matched by age and gender, were separated into two groups: one consisting of experienced meditators (with a minimum of 10,000 hours of formal practice) and the other with no meditation experience. Subjects received a warm-heat signal (essentially a warning) followed by a brief high-heat sensation; MRIs measured their brains’ responses to both cues.
The nonmeditating subjects had no fun at all. Their neural pain circuits went bonkers the moment they felt the warm cue and spiked again during the zap of high heat. So the moment these subjects anticipated pain, they became anxious; they also habituated to the pain more slowly than the expert meditators.
“Their pain circuits kept activating,” Davidson explains. “They didn’t recover.”
By contrast, the pain circuits of the meditators showed little or no response to the warning, responded significantly to the pain stimulus, then returned almost immediately to a baseline level when it ended.
In other words, the meditators didn’t freak out before or after the pain. They did not anticipate or dwell on it.
Notably, these same neural circuits activate when we experience pain of any kind, including emotional, so the meditators could access mental habits of resilience that would enable them to recover quickly from adversity of all sorts.
How to Cultivate Your Resilience
Meditation helps, but it is not the only tool for improving resilience. A firm sense of purpose can also help you reframe stressful situations. For example, a writer who’s deeply committed to her craft can usually accept rejection slips calmly. Her purpose is writing, not receiving praise from publishers. “Cognitive reappraisal training” also helps build resilience: Asking appraising questions — “The car is totaled, but are we really financially ruined?” — engages the prefrontal cortex. Over time, this strengthens the brain’s capacity to maintain perspective. (For more, see “The 5 Best Ways to Build Resiliency.”)
When Davidson talks about the value of a positive perspective, he isn’t referring to that alarming form of denial that pretends things are fine when they’re really not.
He’s talking about the ability to savor positive experiences and trust the fundamental goodness of others, even those who sometimes behave badly.
“Human beings come into the world with innate basic goodness,” he says, citing research that used infrared tracking to follow the gaze of 6-month-old babies. When the babies were presented with friendly and unfriendly adult interactions, they typically turned toward the altruistic encounters and away from the selfish, aggressive ones. This suggests that we may come into the world with a strong preference for kindness.
“When we engage in practices designed to cultivate kindness and compassion, we’re not actually creating something de novo,” Davidson points out. “What we’re doing is recognizing and strengthening a quality that was there from the outset.”
How to Improve Your Outlook
Developing a more positive outlook can be as simple as slowing down and deliberately savoring positive experiences, such as lingering over a great meal or reminiscing about a wonderful concert or film for a few hours after it ends.
Each time we do this, Davidson explains, it allows the brain to sustain activity in the ventral striatum, an area associated with reward. Once the circuits in this part of the brain grow strong through practice, we spend less time searching for another “hit” of pleasure and more time feeling content.
If seeing the best in others is hard for you (maybe your line of work requires you to spend a lot of time with people at their worst), practicing compassion meditation can help. (For a tutorial on compassion meditation, see “How to Build Your Generosity” below.)
Multitasking is a quintessentially modern phenomenon. We check our phones, scan social media, and have half-present conversations, all at once. And studies have found that this lack of focus can make us unhappy. Davidson describes distraction as a “dysphoric state.”
He cites a 2010 Harvard study that used a smartphone app to track participants’ levels of happiness. It turns out they were happiest when they were completely focused on whatever they were doing, and unhappiest when they felt distracted. And sadly, distraction consumes about half of our time, according to the research.
“The average American adult spends 47 percent of his or her waking life not paying attention to what he or she is doing,” Davidson says.
Still, he notes that mindfulness meditation “educates” the attention, which can be enormously beneficial. The 19th-century psychologist William James put it this way: “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.
How to Focus Your Mind
Meditation builds mental focus by training the mind to stay present with a chosen object, like a mantra or the breath. One easy practice is to stay focused on the breath and time your inhale and exhale. Inhale four counts; exhale eight. Do this 10 times. (One side benefit of a longer-exhale practice is that it calms anxiety.)
Another simple focus builder is to practice monotasking — doing one thing at a time. When you check social media, only check social media. When you have a conversation with someone, only listen to her. This practice helps develop focus, and it increases your satisfaction with the present moment.
(For more ways to cultivate concentration, see “Find Your Focus.”)
It may seem counterintuitive, but becoming more generous to others is one of the easiest ways to improve your own well-being.
“The most effective way to activate circuits in the brain associated with well-being and positive emotion is through generosity, and the data are really strong,” says Davidson.
Multiple studies have shown that the pleasure centers in the brain light up when we give, whether this involves loaning a few bucks to a friend, volunteering help, or donating large sums to an organization. And a 2013 CHM study showed we can increase our capacity for generous behavior in a relatively short time.
Study participants were split into two groups. The control group completed two weeks of compassion training while the other took a course that taught them to reframe stressful thoughts.
At the end of the two weeks, members of the group who received the compassion training were more generous with their money than their counterparts in an economic-exchange game. And MRI scans showed changes in the parts of their brains related to empathic behavior and positive outlook.
How to Build Your Generosity
We often associate generosity with material giving, but it doesn’t require robust finances. Choosing to forgive someone who has hurt your feelings and cutting someone a little slack when she needs it are also forms of generosity.
You can also try compassion meditation, which involves a well-wishing mantra such as “May Caroline be happy. May she have good health. May she be free from suffering.” You can repeat this for one person for the duration of your session — or for a list of people, or for the benefit of all beings. Why not?
Meanwhile, you can also enjoy the fact that generosity is, in Davidson’s words, a “double positive whammy” — it contributes to greater well-being for giver and receiver. In this game, everybody wins.
This article was based on a talk delivered by Richard Davidson at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco in February 2015.