The short phrase—well-being is a skill—is a simple yet radical conclusion that comes from more than 25 years of research. Just like any other skill, if you practice it, you will get better.
Plasticity, a Key Insight from the Biological Sciences
The changes that come from any practice happen through learning. Neuroscience research has taught us that there exist two fundamentally different kinds of learning: declarative learning and procedural learning. Declarative learning is conceptual. It is learning “about.” We can learn about the value of well-being or kindness, but this will not necessarily improve our well-being or make us a kinder person. For genuine transformation to occur we also need procedural learning. Procedural learning is skill-based learning, it is acquired through practice, and it involves completely different brain systems compared with declarative learning. Both forms of learning are necessary and important, but our culture privileges declarative learning. Our schools mostly consist of declarative teaching, making it necessary to complement this dominant form of learning with procedural practices.
There is another great insight from modern neuroscience that is fundamental to this area of research: plasticity (which means the ability to change). There is both neuroplasticity and epigenetics, a form of genomic plasticity. These processes are so important because they provide a mechanism through which contemplative practice may operate on the brain and body, and this mechanistic understanding is essential for bringing these practices into mainstream science.
Plasticity—both in the brain and epigenetically—occurs all the time, be it wittingly or unwittingly. Most of the time our brains and bodies are shaped by forces around us that we’re not very aware of, and we can’t really control. The invitation from contemplative science is that we can take more responsibility for the shaping of our own brains and bodies, at least to some extent. The extraordinary finding is that when we cultivate healthy habits of mind, our brains and bodies change. And these alterations sustain the beneficial changes that we see in our daily lives, so they persist. This is what we mean by an ‘altered trait’ of consciousness.
At the 2013 Mind & Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Richie Davidson describes the concept of neuroplasticity and its potential as a pathway out of suffering.
The Four Pillars of Well-being
With this as a background, at the Center for Healthy Minds we sought to examine the traditional contemplative literature in conjunction with modern biobehavioral science, to determine the key constituents of well-being that are influenced by experience and can be strengthened through training. With this as our lens, we find four key constituents or pillars of well-being,1 each of which exhibits plasticity: Awareness, Connection, Insight, and Purpose.
Awareness: None of the current popular conceptions of well-being in the research literature include awareness as a component, yet we name it as our first pillar. The title of a very well-known scientific article2 puts this crisply: “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” The level of distractibility in our culture today is skyrocketing, diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are steeply rising, and the tech companies are masterminds at competing for our attention. Research shows that when we are distracted, we are often less happy. And when we are in the company of others and not fully present, it negatively impacts those we are with. Distractibility is infectious.
Research shows that when we are distracted, we are often less happy.
There is a second component of awareness that is especially important and deserves emphasis: meta-awareness. Meta-awareness is the capacity to know what our minds are doing. This may seem a bit strange, as we often assume that we always know what our minds are doing. But actually this is not often the case. For example, how many times have you been reading a book, and you might read one or two whole pages before you notice that you have no idea what you’ve just read? Though you were ‘reading’ each word, your mind was elsewhere and you were not processing the meaning of the words. The moment when you recognize that your mind is lost—that’s a moment of meta-awareness.
Research demonstrates that we can train our awareness so that we are less distractible, and have improved meta-awareness. William James in 1890 wrote that an education which improves attention would be “the education par excellence” but at that time, he had no suggestion for how to do this. The contemplative traditions give us a simple technology for strengthening all of the core components of awareness.
Connection: Connection is about caring and being cared for. It includes qualities that are important for healthy social relationships such as appreciation, gratitude, kindness, and compassion. A growing corpus of scientific evidence reveals that expressing kindness and other prosocial characteristics toward others increases the happiness and well-being of the person doing the expressing. This has been repeatedly confirmed in a variety of different ways, in different age groups and contexts. Moreover, research shows that contemplative training in kindness and compassion leads to increases in prosocial behavior, decreases in measures of bias and polarization, and systematic changes in the brain.
Insight: Insight in our framework refers to a curiosity-driven investigation and understanding of the narrative we hold about ourselves. Each of us has a narrative in our minds that represents our beliefs and expectations about ourselves. What is this entity we call our ‘self’? When we apply contemplative inquiry to investigate the nature of this self, we discover that it is a constellation of experiences, and we can learn to see how our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations shape our reality and literally sculpt how we perceive the world. This insight is critical in liberating us from the constraints imposed by a reified sense of self. What appears essential for well-being is not so much changing our narrative, but rather shifting our relationship to this narrative.
Purpose: Purpose refers to our sense of direction in life, a quality of knowing where our life is headed. And most importantly, as we use purpose in this context, it is about clarifying our values and finding meaning in the activities that we are doing. How can we connect with our core values and sense of purpose in our daily activities, including in the activities we might consider mundane or routine? Research shows that even very short interventions can help to remind us of our values and purpose, and can have profound and long-lasting effects.
Richie elaborates on what we know and don’t know about how meditation
changes the brain, and the value of training well-being.
Complexities in the Understanding and Measurement of Well-being
There are a number of conceptual and methodological challenges in the study of well-being. At the Center for Healthy Minds, our approach has been to integrate insights from both the contemplative traditions and from modern psychology and neuroscience. One conceptual issue concerns the relationship between well-being and happiness. Is a person with high levels of well-being always happy? Here we draw upon our direct experience of individuals universally acclaimed to be exemplars of well-being, such as the Dalai Lama. I have seen the Dalai Lama express deep sadness in response to a tragedy, but quite quickly he can also let the sadness go. It turns out that for well-being, what might be especially important is how fast one returns to a baseline positive state. Sadness might be expressed in a context-appropriate way, but immediately following the expression of sadness there is a rapid return to baseline. Indeed, the speed with which one returns to baseline is one of the ways we define (and measure) resilience.
The measurement of well-being is particularly complex and challenging. Virtually all current approaches to measuring well-being use a retrospective self-report questionnaire. Such a measurement strategy accounts for the vast majority of the scientific research literature on well-being. However, there are many potential problems with relying exclusively on such measures. For one, there are “demand characteristics”—this refers to what the participant believes the experimenters might expect from them, or that they “should” respond in a certain way. In this case, demand characteristics could mean that people filling out a questionnaire will feel like there is some expectation that they respond positively; thus their report may not be fully accurate. Second, although the wording of questions often instructs a participant to respond according to how they feel about their life in general, research indicates that local contextual factors can affect how a person responds on such questionnaires. For example, people report that their “life in general” is more positive on sunny days versus rainy days. Findings such as this call into question the idea that the questionnaire is measuring what we think it is measuring. Finally, and highly relevant to a contemplative perspective, asking a person to make inferences about how well they are feeling is inviting them to introspect and interrogate their own mind. For many people, this activity is quite foreign, and they have developed little facility in making such inferences. Therefore, how they respond to such questionnaires may be deeply influenced by their ideas of how they should feel, rather than their direct experience. Again, this would lead to inaccurate responses.
Another issue that poses significant conceptual and methodological challenges is that there may not be a “one size fits all” approach for well-being training. What is maximally effective for one person will be different from what works for another. One of the key areas for future research is to empirically determine who will benefit most from which types of practices. This question offers a rich opportunity for sophisticated new research using machine learning methods to make predictions about training strategy based upon deep phenotyping at baseline.
Another exciting opportunity on the horizon is the development of purely passive measures of well-being. Passive measures do not require any explicit user input. An example might be a physiological measure that can potentially be recorded from a wireless sensor, or behavioral data extracted from a smartphone. Today there is no scientifically validated passive measure of well-being, but we believe that within the next five years, such measures will be available and widely deployed. We regard this development with great enthusiasm and believe it will be a game changer in the science of well-being.
Where do we go from here?
Vivek Murthy, the current Surgeon General of the United States, has stated that well-being is an urgent public health need. I couldn’t agree more. Many of the most significant challenges in the world today stem directly or indirectly from a failure to nurture the key pillars of well-being. This leads to excessive self-centeredness, increased ‘othering,’ political polarization, and a failure to flourish. One of the key challenges for the future is scaling. His Holiness the Dalai Lama frequently reminds us of the seven billion people on the planet and the need to plan boldly to reach as many as possible.
Many of the most significant challenges in the world today stem directly or indirectly from a failure to nurture the key pillars of well-being.
Is such a massive change in mindset possible? I would say emphatically, yes. Consider that when human beings first evolved on the planet, none of us were brushing our teeth. Yet I imagine every one of you reading this essay brushes your teeth. This simple act of personal physical hygiene is not inborn, it’s not a part of our genome. We’ve all learned to do this, and now incorporate teeth brushing into our daily routine. I also suspect that most of you would consider your mind to be even more important than your teeth. Yet most people in the world today do not spend even as little time each day nourishing their mind as they spend brushing their teeth. Our research, as well as studies by others, clearly indicates that even very short amounts of contemplative practice can make a big difference in one’s well-being. What is a short amount of practice? Our work demonstrates that even 5-6 minutes per day of practicing the skills of well-being can dramatically decrease standardized measures of distress, and improve measures of well-being and social connection. Our affiliated non-profit, Healthy Minds Innovations, has created a freely available app called Healthy Minds Program to help train the four pillars of well-being.3
Moving forward, we hope to scale this even more by partnering with an entire city, and with different community groups and stakeholders within the city, to massively scale the well-being intervention we’ve developed. This would allow us to examine the impact of training well-being at scale on key performance indicators across a city, ranging from life expectancy, to prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse, to crime rate. I’m excited to see what possibilities for transformation may emerge.
The science of well-being has benefited significantly from a close collaboration with the contemplative traditions. The hybrid understanding afforded by this partnership has focused on the plasticity of well-being, and developed training methods to cultivate each of the four key pillars of well-being: Awareness, Connection, Insight, and Purpose. There remain important conceptual and methodological challenges that must continue to be addressed as the science and practice proceed. The fact that well-being is an urgent public health need is more apparent today than ever before in human history. Indeed, the very future of humanity as we know it depends upon this.
Dahl, C. J., Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2020). The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(51), 32197–32206. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2014859117
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1192439
Goldberg, S. B., Imhoff-Smith, T., Bolt, D. M., Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., Dahl, C. J., Davidson, R. J., & Rosenkranz, M. A. (2020). Testing the efficacy of a multicomponent, self-guided, smartphone-based meditation app: Three-armed randomized controlled trial. JMIR Mental Health, 7(11), e23825. https://doi.org/10.2196/23825
Hirshberg, M.J., Frye, C., Dahl, C.J., Riodan, K.M., Vack, N.J., Sachs, J., Goldman, R., Davidson, R.J. , Goldberg, S. B. (2022). A randomized controlled trial of a smartphone-based well-being training in public school system employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Educational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000739 [Free preprint]