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.

Positive psychology coaching w john schinnerer phd
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.

how can i be happy? learn positive psychology with john schinnerer phd

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

Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville CA 94526

(925) 575-0258

Get a free copy of John’s award-winning self help book at GuideToSelf.com

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Can You Learn to Manage Your Mind?

This is a recent article by a research hero of mine, Richie Davidson, one of the premier neuropsychology researchers in the world…

Originally Published on Big Questions Online (https://www.bigquestionsonline.com)

 


Can You Learn to Control Your Mind?

Richard Davidson February 19, 2013

Many people believe that it is not necessary to learn to control one’s own mind because they think they already have such control.  Others, based on casual introspection and analysis of forces constantly impinging upon our minds, believe that we will never have control of our own minds and that such control is simply an illusion, though it may well be an illusion with important adaptive consequences.  The view the question invites is somewhat more nuanced.  It asks whether we can learn to control our mind, and thus assumes that there is a gradient of control ranging from little to more, and that individuals may vary in where they fall along this continuum.  Further, it implies that control of one’s mind is a skill and as with other skills, it can be trained. 

When we refer to controlling our mind what do we typically mean?  If you are reading this essay, you can say to yourself that I can decide to stop reading this at any moment and get up and get a drink of water.  This is a form of controlling one’s mind.  Does the control of one’s mind require that we control our overt action, as in this example?  What about the control of attention, or the control of emotion?  To varying degrees, each one of you can decide to direct your attention to your right foot and to notice the sensations that are present in this body location.  You might notice tingling or pressure or warmth and you can isolate these sensations to your right foot, with varying degrees of success. 

Do we emerge at birth endowed with this ability?  Or does this ability develop over the course of maturation?  Is it associated with the development of specific circuits in the brain?  To what degree are individual differences in this ability present early in life and what environmental and genetic influences modulate this ability?  These are all important questions that bear on the larger issue of whether we can learn to control our mind.  To address these questions requires that we consult scientific findings in a diverse range of areas that indirectly bear on our central question. 

Insights from Developmental Considerations

Can newborns control their minds?  Most scholars considering this question would say no.  The requisite neural machinery has not yet matured for infants to exert voluntary control.  Their attention, for example, is captured rather than directed.  Their emotions are stimulus-driven and not voluntarily modulated.  It seems reasonable to assume that voluntary control of one’s mind requires that a requisite competence be available and that such competence maybe an innate potential of human beings in the same way that language is an innate potential, but it is not present at birth and requires the maturation of particular neural systems likely involving the prefrontal cortex. This brain region undergoes slow development and is not fully anatomically mature until the mid 20’s.  Insofar as the prefrontal cortex is critical to our capacity to control our mind, this fact suggests that there will be developmental changes in our capacity to control our mind that will not reach adult levels for quite some time, likely post-adolescence.

Default Mode of Brain Function, Mind Wandering and Voluntary Control

Neuroscientists noticed that when participants are given challenging cognitive tasks and activation patterns in response to the tasks were compared with a resting (uninstructed) control condition, not only are certain brain regions activated, but there were reliable de-activations in another set of brain regions.  In such brain imaging studies, a contrast between two conditions was performed to isolate brain activations specific to the task. These de-activations during the task indicate that those de-activated regions were more active during the resting period.  This provided the first clue that the brain “at rest” showed a lawful pattern of activations and this pattern has been referred to as the default mode.  The presence of such activity suggests that it is misleading to think that the brain is quiescent until a specific task activates it.  Indeed, even a mere casual introspection would suggest that there is a lot of endogenous mental activity occurring within the mind that seems to be there when we are not doing very much and pay attention to our interior dialogue.  Recent findings indicate that this “mental chatter” is associated with the default mode (Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, & Schooler, 2009 [1]) and that such mental chatter is often self-focused rumination about the past and the future.  A recent study using experience-sampling measures (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010 [2]) reported that the average American adult spends 47% of their waking life mind wandering, that is not attending to the task at hand.  Moreover, these periods of mind wandering were accompanied by reports of unhappiness.  Killingsworth and Gilbert conclude that “…a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.  The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”  Is this an obligatory state of affairs?  Can we learn to mind wander less and control our minds? Related Questions

These findings imply that we are not in control of our minds for a significant fraction of our waking lives since mind wandering is typically reported as a process that is involuntary.  Our minds wander.  We do not usually choose to engage in mind wandering. 

Individual Differences

The research mentioned above on mind wandering suggests that people differ in how much their minds wander.  The flip side of mind wandering is mental control and these findings indicate that some people have more control than others (Heatherton, 2011 [3]).  In studies of the default mode of brain function, scientists have discovered that people who report mind wandering have greater activation in sectors of the default mode that are particularly implicated in narrative self-relevant processes.  The fact of such individual differences raises the possibility that some of these variations among people might have arisen, at least in part, as a consequence of learning. 

Training the Mind Can Improve One’s Ability to Control the Mind

In his very famous chapter on attention in the Principles of Psychology, William James (1890) stated:

“And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

Educating attention is a core feature of controlling one’s mind.  If we can effectively control our attention, many other aspects of mental control will follow.  We can view the control of attention as a core foundation upon which other aspects of mental control are based, such as the control of emotions. 

What is the evidence that we can learn to control our attention?  Here the technologies provided by the meditative traditions which fundamentally concern the training of attention, are noteworthy.  Hard-nosed behavioral and neuroscientific research over the past 5 years has clearly established the possibility of training different aspects of attention through simple mindfulness meditation practices.  These practices generalize to standard tasks for assessing subcomponents of attention and they are associated with alterations in brain function.  One example from our own research concerns the learning of selective attention—the ability to focus on a chosen object and to ignore other distracting objects.  We (Lutz et al., 2009 [4]) tested participants before and after an intensive three-month retreat during which they practiced mindfulness meditation on a daily basis and compared them to a control group just learning these practices.  We found a significant improvement in the meditators ability to selectively attention to stimuli compared with the control group.  Moreover, these behavioral changes were predicted by specific changes in prefrontal brain function that was measured before and after the three-month retreat.

These findings suggest that we can indeed learn to control our attention and by extension, learn to control our mind.  Findings such as this lead us to the view that controlling the mind should best be regarded as a skill that can be enhanced through training.

Summary and Conclusions

The ability to control the mind differs across development and varies among individuals.  The developmental differences provide us with clues about the necessary neural machinery that is required to come “on-line” that is a prerequisite for controlling the mind.  Sectors of the prefrontal cortex appear critical to this process and are not fully mature until the mid 20’s.  Adult individuals also vary considerably in their ability to control the mind.  Such differences likely are due to a myriad of factors including genetic and experiential influences.  Mind wandering is the flip side of mind control and appears to occur involuntarily.  It is associated with the default mode of brain function and is frequently accompanied by reports of dysphoric affect, perhaps a consequence of not paying attention to the task at hand. 

This state of affairs, while typical of the average adult in our society, is not obligatory and this essay invites the view that we all can indeed learn to control our minds.  Humans are endowed with the capacity to learn to control their minds and such learning should be accompanied by a decrease in mind wandering and by corresponding changes in brain function in the default mode.  The ability to attend to the present moment in the absence of distraction appears to be intrinsically rewarding and people report increases in positive affect when this occurs.  Many humans seem to have a propensity to place themselves in difficult and/or dangerous situations in order to fully capture their attention, which effectively, though transiently, eliminates mind wandering.  Often referred to as “flow”, people report that such experiences are highly positive. 

An important implication of the perspective advanced in this essay is that we do not need to place ourselves in such difficult and dangerous situations to experience flow.  The quality of awareness characterized by being fully present in the moment is a skill that can be learned and does not require a specific context or challenge to be expressed.  In light of the known sensitive periods for neuroplasticity early in life, this perspective invites the suggestion of implementing training for mental control in the early years of life, as the prefrontal cortex is developing.  Such early training may take advantage of the increased neuroplasticity evident at this time and lead to more enduring changes in our ability to control our minds.  Research focused on this question is critically needed and if the outcome is as implied here, the findings would provide an important foundation for a call to include within the regular preschool and elementary school curriculum, methods to train the mind in such ways.  The modest investment in the mental capacity of our children will likely pay off in a multiplicative way later in life as a consequence of improved adult outcomes based upon this early life training.  The possibility of such an outcome demands that we marshal the resources to subject it to serious scientific test.

Questions for Discussion:

At what age can children start learning to control their minds?

Why do people mostly report unpleasant emotions when they are mind wandering?

Are some people better able to learn to control their minds than others?

What are the most effective strategies to teach people to learn to control their minds?

How is neuroplasticity related to the ability to control our mind?

.

 


Source URL: https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/content/can-you-learn-control-your-mind

Links:
[1] http://www.pnas.org/content/106/21/8719.full
[2] http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6006/932.abstract
[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3056504/
[4] http://www.jneurosci.org/content/29/42/13418
[5] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/mind
[6] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/meditation
[7] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/self-control
[8] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/habits
[9] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/mindfulness-meditation
[10] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/topics/behavior

Have a fantastic day,

John

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

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

Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville CA 94526

GuideToSelf.comWeb site

WebAngerManagement.com – 10-week online anger management course

DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com  Awarded #1 Blog in Positive Psychology by PostRank, Top 100 Blog by Daily Reviewer

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SuperAgers – Keeping Your Brain Young for Life – Positive Neuropsychology?

Secret Brains of ‘SuperAger’

80-Year-Olds with Brains That Look and Act As If They Were 30

From ScienceDaily (Aug. 16, 2012)

Medicine has looked at what is wrong with us for over a hundred years. Yet with the advent of positive psychology, researchers are beginning to ask what is right with us. Northwestern researcher Emily Rogalski asked what goes right in the brains of the elderly who have terrific memories. And, do such people — known as cognitive SuperAgers — even exist?

Rogalski’s latest study has identified for the first time ever a resilient group of people over the age of 80 whose memory and attention are as functional as people 30 years younger.

In particular, the vitality of the SuperAgers’ cortex was impressive. The cortex is the outer layer of the brain and is critical for memory, attention and other executive functions.  SuperAgers’ cortex was much thicker than the cortex of the normal group of folks aged 80 and older (whose showed significant thinning) and more closely resembled the cortex size of participants ages 50 to 65, considered the middle-aged group of the study.

“These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging,” said Rogalski, the principal investigator of the study and an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University School of Medicine.

By identifying older people who seem to be uniquely protected from the deterioration of memory and atrophy of brain cells that accompanies aging, Rogalski hopes to unlock the secrets of their youthful brains. Those discoveries may be applied to protect others from memory loss or even Alzheimer’s disease.

“By looking at a really healthy older brain, we can start to deduce how SuperAgers are able to maintain their good memory,” Rogalski stated. “Many scientists study what’s wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer’s patients by figuring out what goes right in the brain of SuperAgers. What we learn from these healthy brains may inform our strategies for improving quality of life for the elderly and for combatting Alzheimer’s disease.”

In another region deep in the brain, the anterior cingulate of SuperAger participants’ was actually thicker than in the 50 to 65 year olds.

“This is pretty incredible,” Rogalski said. “This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories.”

Only 10 percent of the people who “thought they had outstanding memories” met the criteria for the study. To be defined as a SuperAger, the participants needed to score at or above the norm of the 50 to 65 year olds on memory screenings.

“These are a special group of people,” Rogalski said. They aren’t growing on trees.”

For the study, Rogalski viewed the MRI scans of 12 Chicago-area Superager participants’ brains and screened their memory and other cognitive abilities. The study included 10 normally aging elderly participants who were an average age of 83.1 and 14 middle-aged participants who were an average age of 57.9. There were not significant differences in education among the groups.

Most of the SuperAger participants plan to donate their brains to the study. “By studying their brains we can link the attributes of the living person to the underlying cellular features,” Rogalski said.

Set your goal to be a SuperAger. Act AS IF your memory and attention are growing stronger with age.

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

Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville CA 94526

GuideToSelf.comWeb site

WebAngerManagement.com – 10-week online anger management course

DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com  Awarded #1 Blog in Positive Psychology by PostRank, Top 100 Blog by Daily Reviewer

@johnschinTwitter



Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Northwestern University, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.



Journal Reference:

1.     Theresa M. Harrison, Sandra Weintraub, M.-Marsel Mesulam and Emily Rogalski. Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Cognitive Aging. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 2012 DOI: 10.1017/S1355617712000847

Top of Form

Northwestern University (2012, August 16). Secrets of ‘SuperAger’ brains: Elderly super-agers have brains that look and act decades younger than their age. ScienceDaily.

Bottom of Form

Altruism Influenced by Amount of Gray Matter in Brain

More Gray Matter in Brain = More Altruism?

From ScienceDaily (July 11, 2012) — The amount of activity in a tiny region of the brain is directly related to your propensity for altruistic behavior. University of Zurich researchers have demonstrated that people with a higher degree of altruism than others have more gray matter at the intersection between the temporal and parietal lobe, providing initial proof of a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior.

http://images.sciencedaily.com/2012/07/120711123005-large.jpg

The intersection (yellow) between the parietal and temporal lobes,

in which the relative proportion of gray matter is significantly

positively correlated with the propensity for altruistic behavior.

(Credit: University of Zurich)

Positive psychology
has often asked ‘Why do some people tend to be more selfish while others are more altruistic?’

Previous studies indicated that social categories like gender, income or education fail to explain individual differences in altruistic behavior. Recent neuroscience studies have shown that variations in brain structure seem to be linked to differences in personality traits and abilities.

Breaking new scientific ground,  a group of researchers from Zurich University, led by Ernst Fehr, Director of the Department of Economics, show that there is a connection between the anatomy of the brain and our degree of altruism.

To investigate whether differences in altruistic behavior have neurobiological causes, volunteers were to divide money between themselves and an anonymous other person. The participants always had the option of sacrificing a certain portion of the money for the benefit of the other person. Such a sacrifice can be deemed altruistic because it helps someone else at one’s own expense. The researchers found major differences in this respect: Some participants were almost never willing to sacrifice money to benefit others while others behaved very altruistically.

Interestingly, altruistic behavior has been shown in multiple studies to reduce depression as well as increase subjective well-being, degree of happiness, and life satisfaction. 

And keep in mind, that this does not mean that altruistic behavior is predetermined or 100% biologically determined. The human brain is highly plastic and continues to grow and change throughout the lifespan. It is my belief, based on studying the brain for 20 years, that altruism is a learnable skill. It simply requires awareness, practice and repetition.

More gray matter

The aim of the study, however, was to find out why there are such differences. Previous studies had shown that a certain region of the brain — the place where the parietal and temporal lobes meet — is linked to the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes in order to understand their thoughts and feelings (i.e., sympathy and empathy). Altruism is probably closely related to this ability. Consequently, the researchers suspected that individual differences in this part of the brain might be linked to differences in altruistic behavior. And, according to Yosuke Morishima, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich, they were right: “People who behaved more altruistically also had a higher proportion of gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes.”

Individual Differences in brain activity

The participants in the study also displayed marked differences in brain activity while they were deciding how to split up the money. In the case of selfish people, the small brain region behind the ear is already active when the cost of altruistic behavior is very low. In altruistic people, however, this brain region only becomes more active when the cost is very high. The brain region is thus activated especially strongly when people reach the limits of their willingness to behave altruistically. The reason, the researchers suspect, is that this is when there is the greatest need to overcome man’s natural self-centeredness by activating this brain region.

Ernst Fehr adds: “These are exciting results for us. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is determined by biological factors alone.” The volume of gray matter is also influenced by social processes. According to Fehr, the findings therefore raise the fascinating question as to whether it is possible to promote the development of brain regions that are important for altruistic behavior through appropriate training or social norms.
To life, love and altruism,

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

Anger Management Coach

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

Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville CA 94526

For your FREE PDF copy of my award-winning self-help book, Guide to Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought, visit GuideToSelf.com.

WebAngerManagement.com – 10-week online anger management course

DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com  Awarded #1 Blog in Positive Psychology by PostRank, Top 100 Blog by Daily Reviewer

@johnschinTwitter

 

 

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of Zurich.

Journal Reference:

Yosuke Morishima, Daniel Schunk, Adrian Bruhin, Christian C. Ruff, Ernst Fehr. Linking Brain Structure and Activation in Temporoparietal Junction to Explain the Neurobiology of Human Altruism. Neuron, 12 July 2012 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.05.021

University of Zurich (2012, July 11). The more gray matter you have, the more altruistic you are. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 12, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/07/120711123005.htm

Vulnerability – The Birth Place of Shame, Joy, Love and a Meaningful Life – Brene’ Brown

Brene’ Brown is my new hero(ine). You must check out this fantastic talk she did at TED in 2010.

I’m currently ordering numerous copies of her recent book, The Gifts of Imperfection, for all the mothers I know for Mother’s Day.

Emminently readable, vastly significant and life-changing.


If you’d like a FREE copy of my award-winning book, Guide to Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought, simply go to www.GuideToSelf.com, click on the yellow book icon on the left side of the page and enter your name and email address.

Have a relaxing Mother’s Day!

To life, love and laughter,

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
Founder Guide to Self, Inc.
Award-winning author and blogger
Anger management coach
http://webangermanagement.com