Friend and confidant of the Dalai Lama, Richard J. Davidson is an expert in contemplative neuroscience, the branch that studies the impact of meditation and other similar practices in our brain.
This neuroscientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin devoted more than 10 thousand hours studying the brains of great Buddhist masters, among them the French monk Matthieu Ricard and the Buddhist Master Mingyur Rinpoche.
Davidson concluded that there are 4 essential qualities to achieve well-being, that state of inner peace that we all yearn for but it seems so elusive, especially when we have to deal with day-to-day problems.
In fact, for Davidson mental well-being is not a state to reach but a skill to develop. It is an interesting paradigm shift because it implies that, with practice, everyone can develop this skill.
The key lies in stimulating four other skills at its base, rooted in the neural circuits. By strengthening these circuits, we will also be developing wellness.
How to develop a state of well-being and lasting inner peace?
In an impermanent world in constant change, to us occur many unpleasant things. We can’t always avoid them, but we can always change the way we react to them.
Resilience is the ability to recover from adversity and emerge strengthened from them. Davidson relates it to “non-attachment”, because it implies the ability to flow and not get stuck in those negative experiences.
The most resilient people, who recover faster, show higher levels of well-being. The interesting thing is that the more resilient we are, the more protected we will be in adverse situations of life and the more we will trust in our ability to overcome those potholes.
Davidson discovered that the brain circuits of resilience can be modified with mindfulness meditation, although it is necessary to dedicate it many hours before a change occurs in those circuits.
- Positive perspective
The second key to well-being is perspective. It is the ability to see positive things even in the midst of the storm, the ability to enjoy positive experiences and to perceive the others as good persons.
Even people suffering from depression show activation in the cerebral circuit underlying positive perspective, the problem is that the activation is very fleeting, it doesn’t last long enough to improve their mood.
Unlike resilience, Davidson’s research suggests that the practice of meditation and compassion can quickly alter this circuit. He contrasted the results of a group of people who practiced compassionate meditation with another group that received training in cognitive restructuring learning to develop a more positive perspective.
They analyzed the brains of people before and after two weeks of training, and found that in the compassion group, the brain circuits at the base of the positive outlook were strengthened. It took seven and a half hours per day for two weeks.
- Full attention
A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Researchers from Harvard University turned to mobiles for people to indicate when their mind wandered. They had to answer three questions:
What are you doing now?
Where is your mind at this moment? Are you focused on what you are doing or is your mind elsewhere?
How happy are you at this moment?
They discovered that people spend 47% of their lives without paying attention to what they are doing. And the worst of all is that wandering aimlessly mind was associated with a state of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
The ability to gently guide attention to the present is one of the keys to well-being. Not only does it allow us to pay attention to what we’re doing but it also helps us appreciate the small details and relax.
Therefore, when a Zen teacher is asked what the path to enlightenment is, he often responds: “When you walk, walk. When you eat, eat.” It seems simple, but it is not.
Many researches shown that there is more pleasure in giving than in receiving. Generous and altruistic behavior actually activates key circuits in the brain to well-being. And the interesting thing is that these circuits are activated more durably than when we receive a reward or a gift.
A very interesting study developed at the University of Lübeck analyzed functional magnetic resonance imaging in a group of people who had committed to spending money over the next 4 weeks for other people compared to another group that spent that money on themselves. Neuroscientists discovered that generous decisions activate areas of the brain such as the ventral striatum, which has been linked to high levels of happiness.
Davidson has also proven that being generous and helping others has a boomerang effect, reverts to us quickly generating a state of well-being, mental balance and happiness.
Park, S. Q. et. Al. (2017) A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nature Communications; 8: 15964.
Davidson, R. J. (2016) The Four Keys to Well-Being. In: Greater Good Magazine.
Davidson, R. J. et. Al. (2013) Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychol Sci; 24(7): 1171–1180.
Gilbert, D. T. & Killingsworth, M. A. (2010) A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science; 330(6006): 932