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Four Fundamental Constituents of Well-being According To Professor Richie Davidson

Professor Richie Davidson is a leading neuroscience, probably best known for his work with the Dalai Lama and his study of the neuroscience behind meditation and mindfulness. This article focuses on a talk he gave (available on YouTube, see below) setting out an important, profound and radical conclusion from his work: well-being is a skill that can be intentionally trained, just like any other learned skill, and practice is key.

Davidson's research has focused on identifying the brain circuits critical to emotional well-being. In the talk he sets out four key constituents of well-being, all of which have known brain circuits underpinning them. Davidson's and others' research demonstrates that all these brain circuits are plastic, which means that they can grow and change in time (and often surprisingly little time), and that intentional practice is key to this neuroplasticity.

Before I list the four constituents of well-being, here is the video of Professor Davidson's talk:

The Four Fundamental Constituents of Well-being

1. Emotional Resilience

This means the ability to recover rapidly and easily from emotional knocks and set-backs. Such emotional upsets, and stress in general, can't be avoided - but you can learn to return to your mental emotional equilibrium quickly and easily.

2. Emotional Outlook

By outlook Davidson means something like having a positive and optimistic set-point or attitude towards life. It means the ability to savour and appreciate the good things that happen, and the good in other people.

3. Attention

This is a surprising one - you probably wouldn't expect to find that emotional well-being is linked to your ability to pay attention, but as Davidson states, research clearly shows that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Why should that be so? When the mind wanders, the brain's Default Mode Network becomes active, and we start going over memories of past interactions, and expectation about future events, and with this comes inevitably a certain amount of evaluating or judging, particularly self-evaluation, which is very often negative. When we're focused in the present moment, we tend to be less judging.

4. Generosity

Research show that engaging in generosity reliably activates brain circuits that support well-being.

How To Train Well-being

Davidson's conclusion (let me say it again: well-being is a skill that can be learned) clearly has profound implications for the world of psychological therapy and coaching. But how do you go about training and strengthening the constituent skills of well-being? What are the best tools and methods?

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness practice is useful for supporting at least the first three of the above, but especially attention. There is abundant evidence that it helps a wide range of problems such as anxiety and depression, and moreover Davidson tells us that it induces neuroplastic change in the brain circuits that he identified. Not only that but it can even influence gene expression (epigenetics).

Compassion Training

Davidson mentions compassion training in relation to emotional outlook - he describes an experiment that compared compassion training to another well-supported psychological therapy, cogntive reappraisal. Compassion training was more effective in producing measurable changes in the brain circuit associated with emotional outlook.

The form that compassion training takes is a meditation practice where you focus on individuals who suffer and attempt to generate good will towards them (it's a variant of the Buddhist practice of metta bhavana or the development of loving-kindness).

Biofeedback & Neurofeedback

Davidson himself doesn't mention biofeedback or neurofeedback but I believe they are among the best tools available for building the skills of resilience. There is even research evidence that neurofeedback training of left-right EEG asymmetry in the brain, which is a marker for Davidson's neural substrate of emotional resilience, produces lasting benefits for mood.

What Are The Neural Substrates of Well-being?

Professor Davidson doesn't spell them out in the above talk, and they're taking us beyond the scope of this article (which really is only about the conclusion that well-being is a trainable skill or set of skills) but you can learn more by reading Davidson's book, "The Emotional Life Of Your Brain" (with Sharon Begley) or watching other videos on YouTube such as this one:

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