Well-being can be learned

Una Meistere

Conversations — 05.06.2023

An interview with Richard J. Davidson, the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds

Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, is best known for his groundbreaking work studying emotion and the brain. Davidson is not only one of the world’s leading neuroscientists studying meditation’s impact on the brain, but has also played a crucial role in making the study of meditation a recognised part of modern neuroscience and psychology today. In other words – closing the gap and building a bridge between ancient meditation techniques and modern neuroscience.

Although Davidson’s interest in meditation began as a student at Harvard, his meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992 was a catalyst for his further work, which later developed into collaboration and friendship. It was the Dalai Lama who challenged Davidson by saying: “You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to mostly study anxiety, depression and fear – all these negative feelings. Why can’ t you use these same tools to study qualities like kindness and compassion and equanimity?” Davidson had no real answer at the time, but the question did serve as a wake-up call. Among other things, he promised the Dalai Lama that he would do his best “to put compassion squarely within the crosshairs of rigorous science.” In the 1980s and early 1990s it was impossible to find the word “compassion” in an index of psychology books – today, it has become almost commonplace.

With the permission and support of the Dalai Lama, Davidson has repeatedly conducted research with Buddhist monks – experienced meditators who have spent an average of 34,000 hours in mental training. The brain scans showed that “compassion is a kind of state that involves the body in a major way.” Specifically, the brain systems that “support our well-being are intimately connected to different organ systems in our body, and also connected to the immune and endocrine systems in ways that matter to our health.” These studies have also shown that the most effective way to activate the positive emotion circuits in the brain is through generosity.

Davidson’s research uses a wide range of methods including different varieties of MRI, positron emission tomography, electroencephalography, and modern genetic and epigenetic methods. Besides expert meditation practitioners, his studies have included persons of all ages, from birth through senescence, and have also included individuals with emotional disorders such as mood and anxiety disorders and autism.

Davidson received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and has been at Wisconsin since 1984. He has published more than 602 articles, numerous chapters and reviews, and edited 17 books. He is the author (with Sharon Begley) of “The Emotional Life of Your Brain”, published by Penguin in 2012, and with Daniel Goleman, the co-author of “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body,” published by Penguin Books in 2017.

Davidson is the recipient of numerous awards for his research, including the year 2000 recipient of the most distinguished award for science given by the American Psychological Association – the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. In 2006, Davidson was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine.

Davidson believes that “the key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind.” In 2008 he founded the Center for Healthy Minds, whose mission is to cultivate well-being and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind. The centre conducts rigorous scientific research on healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, altruism, forgiveness, mindfulness and well-being. Its work is rooted in the insights of neuroplasticity – the discovery that our brains change through our lives in response to experience. Well-being is a practice that can be learned by being aware of and understanding how our mind works, and by training it with purpose. In 2014 Davidson also launched the Healthy Minds Innovations programme, of which the Healthy Minds Program App is a key component – a free app that includes a set of everyday tools to support people’s mental health in various life situations.

Davidson outlines the following key pillars of well-being that people can be trained in: awareness, connection, insight and purpose. Our conversation is also about the ability to sustain attention and the importance of training it in an age of disjunction and all manner of distractions. “If your mind is distracted, it exacts a toll on your well-being.”

We all understand that the cultivation of well-being is an urgent public health need. How close are we to the moment when mental exercises will be viewed as being on the same level as physical exercise? It appears we have yet to reach this point.

Yes, I would agree with you that we’re not at that point yet. Clearly. But I do think we are getting closer. I think that the scientific evidence is becoming more compelling, more widely appreciated, and more widely known. And I think this is something that is helping. We are also seeing indicators of ill-being that are quite devastating, and I think that’s a kind of wake up call. And finally, we are becoming more knowledgeable about the associations of psychological well-being with physical health. For example, in terms of its impact on health, loneliness is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day – it has real biological consequences. These are the kinds of findings that I think will help kindle a more proactive approach among a broader segment of the population.

We are becoming more knowledgeable about the associations of psychological well-being with physical health.

In your book “The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live – and How You Can Change Them,” you speak about the importance of purpose in life. About purpose being the most important indicator of longevity and cardiovascular events. The sign of our times is uncertainty, and that creates confusion. What makes purpose so crucially important from the viewpoint of our overall health?

Having a strong sense of purpose is, indeed, extremely important. We know it’s the single most important psychological predictor of longevity among people who are in their 60s and 70s. So it’s exceedingly important. And certainly, I think, we are seeing some social conditions, like climate change, really posing existential threats to people and undermining their sense of purpose. And yet I think that without too much difficulty, it’s easy for people to reconnect to a sense of purpose. If nothing else, to a sense of purpose surrounding their family and their community. I think once they begin to appreciate that element, it’s easy to begin to broaden it more widely.

Do you think that well-being is something we can learn as a skill?

It’s not just something I think, I know that we can – the scientific evidence is incontrovertible at this point. This doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be an Olympic athlete in well-being, but it does mean that well-being can indeed be learned. Everyone can do better. And we know how to do that. I mean, there’s still a lot to be learned – more effective and faster ways, and more individualised approaches may be discovered – but the fact that well-being can be learned is now incontrovertible for anyone who knows the scientific literature.

The fact that well-being can be learned is now incontrovertible for anyone who knows the scientific literature.

What is the role of the power of the mind to change the patterns of the mind? For a very long time we were fed the dogma that the adult brain is fixed, and now we know about neuroplasticity. Speaking about the latest discoveries in neuroscience, are there limits to neuroplasticity? Or is this something we still don’t know?

Well, I have a few things to say. One is that it’s definitely not unlimited. We know that there are going to be constraints, and we don’t know what those constraints are in certain situations. There’s still a lot to be discovered there, but we do know that neuroplasticity is present throughout life and it never ends. There are periods when the brain is more sensitive to change, but neuroplasticity exists until the last days of life, and there’s really good evidence for that now – very hard-nosed scientific evidence. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t constraints; there are indeed going to be constraints, and we have to work within those constraints. That’s why I said earlier that not everyone is going to be an Olympic athlete in their cultivation of well-being, but the fact that well-being can be learned by anyone is saleable at this point in time – there’s robust evidence for that. But some people may be able to improve a lot, while others may be able to improve to a much lesser extent. We also need to learn more about what works for which kind of person most effectively; we don’t really know the answer to that.

Neuroplasticity is present throughout life and it never ends.

I think this is also a huge problem in the autism community because the spectrum is so broad that it’s hard to define, and it’s also hard to find the best way to deal with each particular case in real life. Autism is a growing mental health issue all over the world, including here in Latvia. Many people are looking to psychiatric drugs, which in many cases is not a solution nor a way to move forward. Sometimes just managing symptoms is enough. Autism has also been one of your research areas. Where are we now in terms of autism research – how much do we know about it?

Well, there are a few things to say here. One is that at the present point in time, the most effective way to alter brain circuits is through behavioural training, not through medication. We can produce more specific biological changes through training your mind than you can by taking any drug. So that’s the first thing. Drugs are blunt – they have many side effects because of that and there is not the same kind of specificity as you can achieve by training your mind. In terms of autism, like most other psychiatric issues, it is a very heterogeneous disorder. It presents very differently, and it definitely has a genetic contribution, although the number of genes involved is likely to be vast. And it is not simple. But that’s true of depression and anxiety as well. So, I don’t think autism is necessarily fundamentally different in that way. All these disorders are complex disorders. And I think all of them have been shown to benefit from training the mind. But one size is not going to fit all because there is no single uniform presentation of autism, just as there’s no uniform single presentation of depression, or anxiety.

We can produce more specific biological changes through training your mind than you can by taking any drug.

At the Center for Healthy Minds, you have developed a well-being toolkit for educators, parents and caregivers of children. In addition to tips and audio and video practices, it also includes a mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum and Awareness Practice for Kids. Do you have any data on how many schools have included this toolkit in their programme? If we care about future generations and the future of our planet, it’s very important to learn these practices in childhood and incorporate them in our daily routines – as you said, if we devoted the same amount of time we spend brushing our teeth to mental health, the world would be a better place.

Yes, I think that’s a really important question. And you are pointing out something that I think is extremely noteworthy – that we need to begin to cultivate these skills early in life, when the brain is more plastic, when change is easier. We know, for example, that kids can learn a second language more easily, they can learn to play a musical instrument more easily, and they can learn these social and emotional skills more easily. So I think that that’s something extremely important. You asked how many schools are using these programmes – I don’t think that we’re in a position to be able to answer that right now because record keeping is not really good in this aspect, particularly globally.

More than half the states in the United States actually have laws that require the teaching of social and emotional skills, but they don’t indicate how those skills should be taught. Some school systems are incorporating mindfulness-based methods, while others are teaching it in different ways. One of the conclusions that we’ve come to over the last few years is that the most strategic leverage that we can have within schools is actually by training the teachers and not directly training the students. Because every teacher teaches many students, and if you can train a teacher, you can potentially have a multiplier effect, and thereby benefit all the students that that teacher teaches. This is also really important because if you’re teaching mindfulness by bringing in a [special mindfulness] teacher, but the children’s regular classroom teacher doesn’t understand and doesn’t embody it as well, then it’s not going to be very effective. That’s why our strategy has been to go in and train teachers. We’re doing that in many different places in the United States, and we’re also doing it in some other countries now, too. We’re doing a lot of work in Mexico, where we’re developing similar programmes in areas that are more diverse and much lower income than we’re seeing in the United States, and they’re very effective there. I think all of this is very encouraging.

If we’re going to reach the largest number of teachers, one of the things that is also necessary is that we use technology to help with this because we don’t have enough mindfulness teachers, if you will, to go and teach to all the teachers throughout the world. But we can deploy technology in ways that can be enormously helpful. And this is where we’re putting a lot of our energy these days – in developing an app and a digital platform that can be disseminated in school systems and that we think can really be beneficial for teachers. We’ve done research to show that that if teachers do these kinds of practices for even just five minutes a day, it can be enormously beneficial in improving their well-being and improving the well-being of the kids that they serve.

If teachers do these kinds of practices for even just five minutes a day, it can be enormously beneficial in improving their well-being and improving the well-being of the kids that they serve.

It’s kind of a paradox that in the western part of the world, we need scientific approval to implement the kind of mindfulness practices that have been present in Tibetan and Indian cultures for more than 15,000 years. Science is an important currency in our culture, and the Dalai Lama acknowledged that when during your first meeting with him in the early 90s, he asked why can’t you use the same tools that you use for studying stress, fear and anxiety to study kindness. Now that there is enough research proving the benefits of meditation and mindfulness for our overall health, will western minds start implementing it in our culture as a practice?

First, there are a few important things to say. One is that if you look at our approaches, particularly over the last ten years, we actually don’t use the word mindfulness very often – we don’t call it a mindfulness approach. And it’s not a mindfulness approach. We believe there’s a lot of evidence to show that in order to promote human flourishing and to cultivate well-being, we need a lot more than just mindfulness. Mindfulness is one ingredient, but it’s one of many. The other ingredients are just as important, and we shouldn’t privilege mindfulness – it would be like going to the gym and just working out on your biceps. If that’s all you did, well, it would be good for your biceps, but after a while, it’s going to lead to some imbalance. And the same is true of mindfulness. If that’s all you did, it’s not going to be very helpful. So that’s one important element.

The second is that framing it as a programme to promote human flourishing and well-being is better language because everyone wants well-being. It’s much more well understood. People don’t really understand mindfulness, and they often misinterpret what mindfulness is, so I think that talking about it as well-being, first of all, is more accurate. And secondly, it’s much more understandable. And it can be therefore scaled in ways that are less problematic than mindfulness programmes.

There is a beautiful old Zen story that is mentioned in your book as well – a student comes to Master Ichu and asks, “Please write me something of great wisdom.” The master picks up his brush and writes one word: “Attention.” The student asks if that is all, and the master writes, “Attention. Attention.” The student is not satisfied and becomes irritable. In frustration he demands: “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?” Master Ichu replies, “Attention means attention.” We know that an average adult spends 47 percents of their working life not paying attention on what they are doing. Of course, this is toxic and it doesn’t make them happy. Why are so many of us just letting life pass by and not living it with full attention and presence?

Well, I think the reason why is because we haven’t strengthened those skills of attention, of awareness. You know, it would be like someone who is in really bad physical shape, who doesn’t have any core muscle strength, you tell them to stand up. They’re not going to be able to stand up straight because they don’t have the right core muscle strength. So you can’t tell a person who has not cultivated these skills of their mind to just simply pay more attention – they’re not going to be able to do that. They don’t have the skills that enable them to do that. This is why it’s so important that we begin to cultivate this early in life. It’s really, really critical. You know, attention is the building block for all other forms of learning. And the fact that we don’t teach our kids how to strengthen their muscle of attention it just a moral failing among education in the west. I think we really need to wake up and do that; we know how to do that. It would help our kids be less susceptible to the multiplicity of distractions that they are subjected to on a daily basis.

Attention is the building block for all other forms of learning. And the fact that we don’t teach our kids how to strengthen their muscle of attention it just a moral failing among education in the west.

At the same time, we are very slow in making changes, despite the fast pace of time and the many global issues we are experiencing right now – including the climate crisis and war. All of this should be producing a massive wake-up call. 

It’s true, it’s very difficult for humans to do this. Economists call this temporal discounting, where you need to take into account the long-term consequences. And so people make decisions that may bring some pleasure in the short term, but in the long term, they are detrimental to their mental and physical health. That’s a challenge. It just reinforces the need to begin this kind of training early in life, and to encourage and reward children for cultivating these kinds of skills.

Perhaps we should teach in schools how our brains work.

Yes, absolutely. That could help.

What is more, anxiety is connected to the problem of our lack of attention – as you wrote in your book, anxiety is connected to the future, and to decrease anxiety, one must live in the present moment. Since we’re not paying enough attention to the present moment, it’s no surprise that anxiety is such a pervasive problem nowadays.

That’s absolutely true. We really become hijacked by worries of the future. Fundamentally, it is a function of our inability to control our own mind. We have given over the control of our own mind to the forces around us, to our external conditions, rather than strengthening our internal compass, if you will.

We really become hijacked by worries of the future. Fundamentally, it is a function of our inability to control our own mind.

Yes, we are not ready to go inside and discover our internal world because we are afraid of what we might discover there, or, we are afraid that we will not know how to navigate the things we might discover.

Yes, I think that’s true for some people. I also think that another reason is simply that people don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to begin this journey. Many people would agree that it’s something important, but they don’t even know where to start. So, one of the important agendas on our plate is to bring to the world simple strategies that are widely accessible, that can help people with this.

What would be your practical suggestion for those people? What should be their first steps in the right direction?

Well, my suggestion is to piggyback training the mind on other activities of daily living that you do on a regular basis. For instance, every human being eats every day. And this is a wonderful opportunity to do a few things. One is, before you eat, simply spend a minute appreciating all the people it took to bring this food to your table. Just spend one minute reflecting on that – it gives you a sense of your interdependence, how everyone is so intimately connected with so many different parts of the world, and it also allows for that sense of appreciation to arise. It’s really kind of a miracle that we all are able to get food on a daily basis to sustain ourselves. And having some reverence for that, some sense of appreciation, can be enormously helpful. Remind yourself of this every time you sit down to eat. If you do this every day, and do it for 30 days, I guarantee that your well-being will change.

Before you eat, simply spend a minute appreciating all the people it took to bring this food to your table.

Nevertheless, many are still looking for some kind of a magic pill. And despite scientific evidence that there is no magic pill, there is still the ongoing problem of over-prescribing anti-depressants in situations when other tools could be more helpful.

Yes, that’s a challenge. And I’m not someone who’s anti medication. There are certain situations that might require it, but I also think it’s overused tremendously. Again, it really has to do with the fact that people just don’t know what to do. It’s a lot easier to find a pill to take than it is to train your mind because people just don’t know what to do. I often use the analogy of brushing our teeth. Virtually every human being on the planet brushes their teeth, and this is not part of our genome. This is something that we’ve all learned to do. And if we can learn to brush our teeth, we can learn to train our mind – we don’t even need a toothbrush. We don’t need anything other than what we already have. We just need to educate people and provide easy access to simple practices that allow the majority of people to do this. It doesn’t take much. And I think we’ll get to that tipping point within the next ten years.

If we can learn to brush our teeth, we can learn to train our mind – we don’t even need a toothbrush.

You once said that study of the brain is the study of impermanence. How much do we know about our brains now?

On the one hand, we know a lot more than we did 100 years ago. On the other hand, we are still in kindergarten; we are still at the early stages with the so-called “hard problem”, which is how our experiences arise from the brain. If we’re honest with ourselves, I don’t think we’ve made any progress on that question in the last 100 years, but there are a lot of things we have made progress on, so we need to be patient. Science moves slowly. But we’re making incremental progress. And I think that it’s healthy to have a sense of not knowing, to have a sense of humility in the face of the unknown and in the face of the complexity of the brain.

You’ve spent many years working with Buddhist monks. Can contemporary science explain the mechanism that makes these ancient practices and traditions work? Even if there is not yet enough data, could synergy or compatibility between age-old knowledge and modern science be advantageous?

I think we know enough now to act just like climate scientists do. It doesn’t diminish their commitment to science – they’re still collecting data. But most climate scientists would agree that we know enough about climate change now that we need to act. I would say we know enough about the circuits in the brain that are important for well-being and their plasticity to say with 100% confidence that well-being can be learned. And if this is true, we need to act. It’s a moral responsibility, I believe. And it doesn’t diminish our commitment to continue doing the scientific research. But I do believe we know enough right now to act. And failure to do that is really unacceptable in my view.

In some way it could be a failure of our civilization.

Absolutely. I think the very future of humanity is at risk here. That is why I feel that for me, it’s a moral calling. I don’t feel we have a choice in this. I think it’s really mandatory that we act.

The Dalai Lama has said, with a smile on his face, that because of global warming, this world will come to an end in one or two centuries. Up to that point, he thinks, we should live happily. Do you share the same outlook? As we well know, evolution has always been cyclic.

There are cycles. I’m more agnostic about the years humanity has left. I don’t know, I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another. But what I do have a strong opinion about is the importance of acting now. Because we do have enough evidence to show that training the mind really will make a difference – it will make a difference for our well-being, it will improve our brain health, it will improve our physical health. And it will decrease polarisation. I think the kinds of skills that we’re talking about are critical for democracy itself; there are so many aspects of the world that I think can be improved by this.

We are living in the 21st century, but in some ways, our minds are still following patterns that were set back in the Stone Age. The current war in Europe is just one example. Since we now know more about how the human mind works, could we reprogram ourselves? I recently had an interesting discussion regarding this with John Bargh, Professor of Psychology at Yale University; he was not optimistic because our evolutionary past is tribal and the basic human brain is designed for survival and reproduction. The way we survived was to form tribes and groups to fight off threats, i.e. other tribes and groups. Quoting John Bargh, “Evolution just does not have a reason for making people happy and joyful. Unfortunately. So we have to overcome that and transcend it.” Do you agree that there is this kind of trauma that we must overcome?

I know John, I admire his work, but I don’t agree with him here. I agree that human beings are born to be kind, that we have innate basic goodness. I think the evidence for that at this point is growing and quite robust. It’s not to say that we don’t learn to do all these negative things – I think we do learn them, but it’s not in our genome. It’s actually in our genome to cooperate, and to be warmhearted. Raising a healthy human infant requires warmth and love – it doesn’t require anger and selfishness. People sign up for courses to learn how to become more happy; they don’t sign up for courses to learn how to become more angry. So the evidence is just overwhelming, in my view, if we simply open our eyes to it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems – I think there are a lot of problems, but to say it’s in our genome is a complete misunderstanding of the science, in my view.

You once beautifully said that we meditate to benefit others – that “putting your but on the cushion” is an act of generosity. In a way it really is, because it’s a vibration you’re sending out to the world.

Yes, I completely agree. I know that I invoke that every single day when I meditate. I believe it helps, and the scientific evidence shows that it helps. I think everyone could do that. It’s really quite simple. And you don’t need to go to a special place to do it. You don’t need to be in a special posture – you can do it anywhere, anytime.

Richard Davidson with Matthieu Ricard. Credit: Jeff Miller / University Wisconsin-Madison

What are the most important lessons you have learned as a human and as a scientists from your encounters with the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard?

From people like the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard, I learned that these are living human beings who have trained their mind to a very great extent. You can see the fruits of this kind of training embodied. And these are people who are wonderful people to be around – in my experience, people who are in their presence feel their best, including me. This is a signal that it is possible to train your mind in this way, and it has a really significant impact on all with whom you interact. So these living examples are very inspiring and very powerful.

From people like the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard, I learned that these are living human beings who have trained their mind to a very great extent. You can see the fruits of this kind of training embodied.

So it is crucial for us all to learn how to take care of our brains...

Yes. When people understand that when they train their mind it actually improves their brain, that’s a helpful fact that may be motivating to some people. The Dalai Lama told me that he often reflects on how when he meditates every day, he’s likely changing his brain, and that’s kind of inspiring to him. So even for the Dalai Lama, it’s meaningful.

What is your daily routine to keep yourself centred? Do you meditate every day?

I meditate every single day. Typically for about 45 minutes.

Is that how you start your day?

Yes, I meditated for 45 minutes today.

If you look back, has your meditation practice changed you as a person in any way?

It’s gradual. It’s step by step. You know, I’ve been at this for a long time, but I’ve definitely noticed a change over time. Unquestionably.

You’ve devoted a huge part of your life to study the neuroscience of happiness. What is happiness? Is it a state of mind, or perhaps something else?

First, we prefer the term well-being, or flourishing, because it’s not about being happy all the time. If there were a tragedy and you lost a loved one, it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to be happy. But you can still have high levels of wellbeing and be sad. I would say that to flourish and to have high levels of well-being is to really harness one’s full potential. It is also an embodiment of this quality of basic goodness – you see others as having basic goodness, and recognise the basic goodness in yourself. And when you can connect to another person’s basic goodness, that really is what love is about. I think that to be flourishing and to have high levels of well-being is really to be in love with the world.