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Well-being can be learned – neuroscientist

Emotions are our internal compass. They guide us through life’s complexities but may get overwhelming in the process. We talked about this with Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Richard Davidson professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. It's really great to have you with us. I mean, we've been really looking forward to this. So in your presentations, you often raise a question, why are some people more vulnerable to life's challenges and others are more resilient to them. Have you found an answer? 

Richard Davidson: Well, this is a question that has been with me from the start of my career and still is very vibrant, and present. And I would say that we are progressively learning more and more about the answer. And what we also have been especially focused on over the last 10 years is what kinds of training and what kinds of strategies a person might engage in, that may promote positive qualities that enable them to become more resilient. And that has led us to focus on wellbeing, to focus on the constituents of wellbeing and has led us to a very simple but very radical conclusion and that is that wellbeing is best regarded as a skill. It's a skill that actually can be trained.

SS: We're going to talk about that skill a lot today. Before that, I wanted to ask you that our brain is constantly changing. It's constantly developing. And your neuroscientist colleagues call it ‘neuroplasticity’. So can you explain, how exactly does that neuroplasticity work? 

RD: Yes, neuroplasticity is really a foundational concept and what it means is that the brain changes in response to experience. And I often say that the brain is changing wittingly or unwittingly, meaning that it can change intentionally or unintentionally. Most of the time, our brains are changing unwittingly. Most of the time we are unaware of the forces around us that are shaping our brain and those forces are ones over which we have little control. And the invitation in all of this work is that we can actually harness the power of neuroplasticity to change  our brains for the better. And so the very mechanisms of neuroplasticity that enables stress to get under the skin and to have a negative effect on our mind and our body - those same very mechanisms can be harnessed for the good to promote resilience, to promote flourishing. 

SS: So does this mean that our brain always is in this neuroplasticity mode by default? 

RD: Yes, the brain is constantly changing. It is what brains do. So there are things that will affect the overall extent to which the brain is plastic, but it is widely recognised that plasticity is one of the core features of the brain. And so our brains are constantly being shaped and that is a basic human property - every human being shares this basic characteristic. And so neuroplasticity is neutral with respect to whether it’s good or bad, it depends. If you are in a toxic environment, it's going to have an impact on your brain, it’s going to shape your brain if you’re exposed to traumatic events, it will shape your brain through neuroplasticity and have negative consequences. And so the opportunity here is that we can harness the power of neuroplasticity for the good. 

SS: And it happens at any age? Let's say if I were to decide at age 41 that I want a  harnessed neuroplasticity and I want to focus on the skill of becoming happy, that can happen for me as well? Or does it mean that we have to be doing that since we're born and nurturing that in our children? 

RD: It's a very important question. And I would say that the answer is both. So neuroplasticity happens throughout the lifespan. And there's very good, hard-nosed scientific evidence to indicate that. It is present as long as you are living. However, having said that, we also know that there are what scientists call ‘sensitive periods of development’. These are periods in the first 20 years during which the brain is especially susceptible to influence, especially plastic. There are three major sensitive periods in early development. One is around the time of birth. The other is around the onset of schooling between roughly the ages of five and seven years. And the third is around adolescence. And we know that during these periods the brain is especially sensitive. And so if we can develop interventions for children during these sensitive periods, the promise is that they will have multiplicative effects as the child develops, and you will be able to achieve more substantial and enduring change if the interventions occurred during these periods. But to go back to the first point, it doesn't mean that a 41-year-old developing her mind is not going to have an influence. It will. And so the good news is that this is something that everyone at any age can do. 

SS: Amazing. You know, I’ve always thought that stress is a killer. And I've heard a lot that if you stress, it's very psychosomatic, you're really killing your health as well. But it turns out that it also activates our muscle strength and makes us think sharper and some neuroscientists believe this is when the most powerful changes happen in our brain. So would that be an overstatement to say that some amount of stress and anxiety is actually a good thing for the brain? 

RD: Well, this is an interesting and important question. There's actually evidence that bears on this and as a scientist I am always persuaded by data. And what the data show is that your intuition is right up until some point. So moderate amounts of stress can be helpful in promoting resilience. Too much stress is going to be deleterious and have a negative effect. So it's what we call an ‘inverted U-shape function’. The optimal amount is somewhere in the middle, too little stress or too much stress is not good. But the fact is that life involves suffering and none of us can be fully buffered from stress, stress happens. And it is how we respond to it that really is the most significant in determining these long-term outcomes. And we can learn to harness moderate amounts of stress in a way that will maximise our ability to regulate our emotions, and promote resilience. 

SS: So, if stress, right amount of stress, mobilises our cognitive function, does that mean that now during the pandemic when we're in the permanent state of alertness and brain plasticity, you know, thanks to stress, is really the best time to master new skills, learn new languages, etc.? 

RD: It depends. I would say that it really depends on a person's circumstances. There's a huge amount of variation in how people are responding to the pandemic. And we know the already published papers are showing extraordinarily high increase rates in serious anxiety and depression and suicide in response to the pandemic and to its consequences. So it really depends. There may be people who have moderately elevated levels of stress in a way that could be productive. And it could be an opportune time for them to harness the moderate amounts of stress and put it to good use. But it's also the case that for quite a large segment of the population, I would say, it's very difficult. And so I think that one of the most important issues is framing the public health mandates that we're being asked to adopt across the world, for example, physically distancing ourselves and so forth, reflecting on those public health recommendations as opportunities for generosity and for contributing to the greater public good. When we engage in physical distancing it's not only a benefit to ourselves, but it's a benefit to all the others we might come in contact with, and help to prevent the spread of the virus. So when we conceptualise it in a way that goes beyond ourselves, we know from good scientific evidence that having these what psychologists have called ‘self-transcendent values’, values that include not only actions for our own benefit, but actions to benefit others, that is a powerful instigator of improved well-being. 

SS: All right. What about that skill of being happy? The one that can be learned, you're saying. How can it be learned?  

RD: Well, first of all, we talk about well-being, rather than happiness being learned. You can have very high levels of well-being and not necessarily be happy. In fact, research shows that being happy all the time is really not the point, and maybe counterproductive and actually inappropriate. So if you are in a situation where there's genuine loss, loss of a loved one, for example, it would not be appropriate for you to be happy. You can be sad and at the same time have high levels of well-being. So that's the first thing. We describe four major components of well-being. The first we call awareness, which is being able to focus your attention and also knowing what your mind is doing. Most of the time, people think they always know what their mind is doing but I'm sure many viewers have had the experience of reading a book where they're reading words on a page and after a few minutes, they may realise they have no idea what they've just read. That's an example of not knowing what your mind is doing and that is we know from hard-nosed research not conducive to well-being. The second component of well-being is connection. Connection refers to qualities that nurture positive social relationships, healthy social relationships, qualities like appreciation and gratitude and kindness, compassion. The third pillar of wellbeing we call insight. An insight is about self-knowledge, knowledge of the narrative that we all carry around about ourselves, who we are, our beliefs about ourselves. And at the very extreme there are people who have very negative self-beliefs, and who actually hold those beliefs to be a true description of who they are and, of course, that's a prescription for depression. And finally, the last pillar of well-being is purpose. And purpose is about finding your true north, finding the direction in which your life is headed, and aligning your everyday behavior with that sense of purpose, and particularly finding a purpose which goes beyond oneself, which psychologists have called a ‘self-transcendent purpose’. Each of these four pillars of wellbeing is based on circuits in the brain that we know exhibit plasticity, and so they can be shaped by experience. They could also be shaped by intentional training, and we've developed a training program to train each of these four constituents of well-being, and actually we’ve put it recently into an app, which is freely available to anyone anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, now it's only in English. But if you speak English, you can access it. It's called the Healthy Minds Program. 

SS: So, all those four aspects, four pillars, you're saying, they're in us, right?  

RD: Yes. 

SS: And if we train it, that means that happiness is something that only comes from within.  

RD: Yeah. 

SS: Does this mean that external factors do not really have any effect on our being happy or unhappy? I'm not saying sad, like you said, loss of the loved ones and everything, but happiness - is it something that purely comes from within by training those four aspects, or does it still somewhat depend on external factors? 

RD: It would be inappropriate to deny the influence of external factors completely. They play some role, but they play a very modest role. We know, for example, that income is related to happiness up to a low threshold. Beyond that it's not. We know from research in the United States with lottery winners who win $5 million, who otherwise were lower-middle-class people, it produces a boost in their happiness initially, but then they rapidly come back down to baseline, in fact, many of them end up less happy. And so there's a lot of evidence to suggest that the things we think may make us happy in terms of external causes, actually do not. 

SS: Okay. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is meditation. I mean, you're friends with Dalai Lama. You've studied the impact of meditation on our brain for years and years, you wrote books about it. What exactly does meditation do to our brains? I mean, it's general knowledge that it's a good thing. And it's like a fashionable thing to do. But I don't really think that people fully understand its impact and what it really does to your brain. 

RD: Well, first of all, meditation is a word that can apply to many different techniques and strategies. It's kind of like the word sports. We know that there are many different kinds of sports. There are also many different kinds of meditation. Not all forms of meditation do the same thing to our mind and our brain. That's the first thing. There are meditation practices which can cultivate each of these different four pillars of well-being: awareness, connection, insight and purpose. So depending upon what strategy of meditation you use, it will have different effects. So meditation can be used to train attention, it can be used to enhance kindness and compassion, it can be used to develop insight into your own mind and self and it can also be used to strengthen your alignment with your sense of purpose. So meditation is... you can think of it as a broad range of mental exercises, which can exercise different facets of the mind. And what scientific research has shown is that when you do that, it will influence different circuits in the brain and this can have a profound effect on our well-being, because it leads to changes that are enduring. You know, unlike a material external thing, or unlike taking a drug, these are the kind of changes that endure, they stick and they impact all the aspects of our daily life. So that's one of the reasons why we're particularly interested in the application of meditation, because it leads to what we have called ‘altered traits of consciousness’, and a trait being something that is more enduring. And in a book that I wrote with Dan Goleman not too long ago, the title of the book was called ‘Altered Traits’ in English. And we use that title to convey the idea that what we're talking about are changes that are transformational, that endure over time. 

SS: But I think for a lot of people who flirt with meditation, the decisive argument to actually go into it full on would be if its effect on a brain could be maybe scientifically measured or proven. Is there such a thing? Or will it always be sort of in a place of unknown? 

RD: No, there are already hundreds of scientific papers showing beneficial effects on the brain. We have contributed many papers over the last 15 years. There's just a very robust corpus of scientific evidence showing beneficial effects on the brain. One of the things that I remind the public is that when human beings first evolved on this planet, none of us were brushing their teeth. And I'll bet every viewer of this program brushes their teeth at least a couple of times a day. This is something that all of humanity has learned. This is not part of our genome. This is something that we do because we know it's good for our physical health. What we're talking about we believe is something good for your mental health, mental hygiene. And I think most people would agree that their minds are even more important than their teeth. So when that becomes more broadly recognized, even if we took three minutes a day, it will change our minds and our brains, and this world would really be a different place. 

SS: Okay, so do we agree that meditation is rather something that takes care of your mental hygiene, but then it can't really help you cope with serious problems like health issues or job loss or ruined plans and stuff like that? 

RD: Well, what it does is to help you cope better with you're talking about job problems, job loss. Those are adversities, they're stresses and as we spoke earlier, stress arises, that's part of the human condition. We're never going to buffer ourselves completely from stress. But what we can do is change our relationship to stress, we can change how we cope with stress. And this is where meditation can really be helpful. 

SS: Another thing is the global mental health and its state, it's a real issue these days. I mean, depression, loneliness, statistics is really gloomy, every year it's getting worse and worse. Suicides rates are rising. How do you explain this wave of blues over people? I mean, is it only that we didn't care much for depression in the 50s and now we diagnose it, or is the situation with our mental health really worsening these days? And if yes, then why? 

RD: I believe it is really worsening. I don't think it is explained fully by the increased sensitivity to these problems. I believe it's worsening because we're seeing a globally increased divisiveness. In many parts of the world, we're seeing global economic stresses, global increasing disparity between rich and poor. We are also seeing increased stress as a consequence of exposure to a much higher density of information through the internet. All of these factors, I think, are contributing. And so it is unquestionably a real challenge. And I think that what we need are starting in young children to educate our children in a way that includes teaching them skills to help them cultivate their own well-being so that when they become adults and when they enter the workforce, they will do so equipped with tools to help them better manage their own well-being. 

SS: Richard, thank you so much for this wonderful insight on how to become happy. Tell me the name of the app again because I'm going to download it. 

RD: It's called the Healthy Minds Program and if you go to the website, try healthy minds.org, you can read all about it. 

SS: Thank you so much and good luck with everything in the future with all your future endeavors. It's been a pleasure talking to you. 

RD: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me. 

SS: Take care.

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