Are we in the throes of a "zeitgeist" moment, when world leaders and CEOs embrace the role that mindfulness plays in cultivating health, compassion and happiness?
Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes we are, and traveled to Davos for the 2014 World Economic Forum to help spread his belief that health and happiness are not abstract goals, but skills that can be cultivated with just a few hours of practice. The very fact that the issues are being openly discussed by many of the world's top CEOs and leaders in the high-profile setting is a sign of progress and promise in itself, Davidson told HuffPost Live on Thursday.
"Talking about this here in Davos five years ago would have been unimaginable," he said.
Davidson's research, conducted at his Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in Madison, focuses on the myriad ways in which contemplative practices can produce measurable changes in the human brain and body.
On Thursday, he discussed one such study in which individuals were brought into a laboratory and given $100 each. One group was encouraged to spend the money on themselves. Another was told to spend the money on others. At the end of the day, when researchers assessed changes in happiness levels, they found the individuals in the giving group scored significantly happier. Another investigation found that men and women who underwent basic training in either cognitive therapy or so-called "compassion training" for just two weeks experienced measurable changes in their brain, and improvements in generosity.
Davidson said he is heartened by the enthusiasm the leaders at Davos have expressed toward the idea that cultivating happiness and compassion can improve their own health and well-being, as well as their organizations'. He has spoken on several panels at Davos this year, weighing in on how technology is rewiring the brain; what science reveals about what it takes to become a true leader; and why meditation matters so much. The panels, he said, have been standing-room only.
And Davidson practices what he preaches, spending a few minutes each morning reflecting on how he can be helpful to individuals he meets with throughout the day, which leaves him feeling "nourished and energized" -- even after long hours.
"Our brains are primed for this, and it doesn't take much to nudge us in healthier directions," he said. "With a little bit of training, I think we can make a profound difference."