When it comes to improving our well-being, most of us think about the exercise we should be doing, the foods we should be eating and the sleep we should be getting, but have you thought about how your brain might be able to help cultivate enduring well-being?
"The circuits in the brain associated with well-being are circuits that exhibit plasticity," explained Professor Richard Davidson, a renowned neuroscientist, when I recently interviewed him at the World Congress of Positive Psychology. "What this means is that these brain circuits are responsive to experience, which makes well-being a skill and as such, if you practice at it you'll actually get better. It's fundamentally no different than learning how to play a musical instrument or learning to engage in some kind of complex sport. Both require practice and, similarly with well-being, it requires practice, but the research indicates that with practice we can actually get better."
"The research suggests that there are very simple contemplative practices that don't require any special tools other than one's own mind and can be practiced for a few minutes at a time and if they are done regularly, they lead to systematic changes in the brain, systematic changes in behavior and changes in experience," said Professor Davidson.
I have to confess that while I've been aware of the growing body of research around the benefits of contemplative practices like meditation when it comes to our well-being, maintaining my practice is not always easy. Just as I dreaded practicing my piano scales as a child no matter how much it improved my playing, I often find the thought of sitting down to meditate more of a chore than a treat for my body.
Am I doing it wrong? Am I trying to hard? Am I just not cut out for meditation?
Gladly Professor Davidson put my mind at ease by suggesting three practices in particular that studies are finding can make regular contemplative practices more effective and easier:
- Mindfulness practices Data show that when people are really focused on what they're doing, and their minds are not wandering, they actually feel better about themselves. Studies have found that mindfulness -- being in the present moment -- can lessen our tendency to want and desire things we don't have. Professor Davidson suggests just starting with three minutes using one of the free mindfulness training tools at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, and trying to practice three or four times a day and then gradually building up.
- Cultivating loving kindness One increasingly popular form of meditation is loving-kindness meditation (LKM), the practice of wishing one's self and others to be happy, content, and at ease. Studies are finding loving kindness meditation can help cultivate positive emotions, immunity to illness and positive relationships. You can find a free guided meditation for loving kindness here.
- Compassion practices focused on gratitude and kindness Try to make a habit of intentionally expressing gratitude whenever you can and to reflect on the kindness of others in enabling you to do whatever it is you're doing. To just pause each day for a few moments and reflect on how there have been people in your life giving you opportunities and who have enabled you to do certain things that you're really grateful for and being intentional about reflecting on that can be enormously helpful.
Now three minutes of meditative practice, several times a day sounds like something even I can succeed at doing.
"One of the other really remarkable things about this work is that in addition to seeing changes in the brain, we know that these circuits in the brain are intimately connected to organ systems in the body," explained Professor Davidson.
"The cultivation of well-being through these practices is not something that just occurs subjectively in our minds, but it also impacts our biology below the neck, which is consequential for our physical health. We have observed modulation of immune function. We have observed changes in inflammation. And we've actually observed changes in gene expression that all can occur as a consequence of intentional practice and a focus on positive and wholesome qualities of mind in contrast to allowing our minds to just willy-nilly be the subject of the forces around us," he said.
So when it comes to improving your well-being, is there a contemplative practice for your brain that would actually be worth starting?