How Can I Be Happy? What Science Tells Us About Happiness

The Expert… Richie Davidson: What Science Teaches Us About Well-Being

One of my research heroes is the prolific Richie Davidson. He has an article in today’s Huffington Post… “What Does Science Teach Us About Well-Being?”

Here are a few key excerpts:

As we finalize our preparations to receive His Holiness the Dalai Lama for a dialogue on Global Health and Well-being, an event co-sponsored by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Global Health Institute, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it is appropriate to reflect on what science is teaching us about well-being.

1. Well-being is a skill.

By conceptualizing well-being as a skill, we appeal to modern insights from neuroscience where the study of neuroplasticity has informed us that the mind and brain are highly changeable and that the brain is constantly being shaped by experience and training.

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Happiness & well-being are skills that can be learned

Viewed from this perspective, well-being is the product of skills that can be enhanced through training and is also subject to environmental influences that impact our brain, especially over the course of development.

2. Well-being is associated with specific patterns of brain activity that influence and are influenced by the body.

Recent findings establish that specific patterns of brain activity involving the prefrontal cortex and limbic (below the cortex) regions are associated with reports of well-being.

Brain patterns associated w happiness

Positive psychology can lead you to a happier brain and mind.

Through this bidirectional communication between the brain and body, pathways have been identified that provide the beginnings of an understanding of why our emotional and physical health are intimately intertwined.

3. Equanimity and generosity both contribute to well-being and are associated with distinct patterns of brain and bodily activity.

The Dalai Lama has frequently urged us to be kind toward others and has suggested that kindness is a direct route to happiness.

Modern research has borne this out and indicates that kindness and compassion toward others is associated with peripheral biological (i.e., biology below the neck) changes that are salubrious.

Equanimity can be cultivated through simple contemplative practices and is associated with being attentive to the present moment and not getting lost in worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.

Modern research indicates that the average adult American spends nearly 50% of his waking life mind wandering–not paying attention to what he is actually doing.

average adult spends 50% of time with mind wandering

The average U.S. adult spends 50% of time with mind wandering

By learning to remain aware of the present moment, we can free ourselves from being slaves to the past and future.

Experiments have been conducted in which participants are randomly assigned to one of two groups–in the first group, they are provided with money and told to go out and spend the money on themselves and to purchase things for themselves only; in the second group, they are provided the same amount of money as the first group but they are told to spend the money only on others.

Since I’m writing about this, I’m sure you can guess which group showed much greater increases in happiness over the course of the day–of course, it was the group instructed to spend the money only on others.

Another amazing thing about generosity and kindness is that a growing body of evidence suggests that such behavior is good for our biology.

It helps to reduce inflammation and the molecules responsible for increasing inflammation.

4. There is an innate disposition toward well-being and prosocial behavior.

Organisms orient toward stimuli and situations that promote well-being.

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Moreover, recent research indicates that human infants in the first six months of life show a preference for prosocial and cooperative situations compared with aggressive and antagonistic ones.

If this indeed continues to be replicated across a wide range of cultures, it would invite the view that we come into the world with an innate preference for good and we obscure that innate propensity over the course of development as we become socialized within our modern culture.

When we engage in practices to nurture compassion, we are not really learning a new skill so much as unlearning the noise which is interfering with our ability to connect with a fundamental innate core of goodness.

As these ideas become more widely known and appreciated, it is my fervent aspiration that our culture will pay more attention to well-being, will include strategies to promote well-being with our educational curricula and within the healthcare arena, and will include well-being within our definitions of health.

To life, love and laughter,

 

 

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

Author of the award-winning Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought

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About John Schinnerer

John Schinnerer, Ph.D. is a U.C. Berkeley-trained emotion expert and founder of Guide To Self, a company that focuses on coaching individuals and groups to their potential using strengths-based development and positive psychology (the science of optimal human functioning). His private practice is located at 913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280, Danville, CA 94526. He may be reached at John @GuideToSelf.com. Most recently, Dr. John hosted Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology. Dr. John has been a coach and psychologist for over 10 years. Dr. John’s areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development to parenting. He is a noted writer and speaker on topics such as employee engagement, emotional intelligence, making a good brain great, and creating a healthy and efficient workplace. His award-winning book is on proven ways to lead a meaningful and happy life and is entitled, “Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought.” He has written articles on corporate ethics and EQ in the workplace for Workspan magazine, HR.com, and Business Ethics. He has given numerous presentations and consulted with tens of thousands of people for organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, Pixar, Sutter Health, SHRM, NCHRA, KNEW and KDIA. For over 17 years, Dr. John has been a loving father to four children.
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