Mental exercise will be as popular as physical exercise by 2030

Do you think happiness is a skill you can learn?

This was the question that Professor Richard Davidson addressed this week at the Changing the Odds Conference in Dallas, Texas.

Davidson is a long-time friend of the Dalai Lama. In fact, it was a conversation with His Holiness that made Davidson switch the direction of his research, from focusing on just anxiety and depression and other challenges of the mind to researching happiness, compassion and generosity.

Here’s a summary of the notes I made for you from his speech this week!

5 Key Themes

Davidson began by sharing five key areas of research that imply that happiness is a skill.

Neuroplasticity

The fact that the brain rewires itself through the experiences you have is a relatively recent discovery. And it means you can change the fundamental structure of your brain through mental training. Davidson has spent most of his working life studying the brain and is considered a leader in the field.

Epigenetics

This is something really amazing that I didn’t fully appreciate.

Epigenetics is the recent finding which shows that your genes do not automatically determine your future. Your genes have what is like a ‘volume control’ and your day to day experience impacts whether that volume is high or low for each gene.

This expression of your genes can then be passed down several generations. This is epigenetics.

So, for example, if you meditate daily, this has positive effects on your gene expression. This effect on your genes can pass down up to two generations if you go on to have children.

This is not fringe science - the findings of epigenetics is part of mainstream science.

Research is finding that mindfulness meditation can impact your genes and therefore those of your children too.

Bi-directional communication between your mind/brain and body

Your body and mind are closely linked and interact with each other.

One interesting area of research that Davidson pointed out, was the microbiome - this is the discovery of the massive impact the bacteria in your gut has on your brain. Apparently you have more bacteria in your body than cells.

There’s exciting evidence of how your gut is now considered your second brain - a nice article in Mindful about that here.

The science of creating and maintaining healthy habits

There has been lots of research to determine how to create and maintain healthy habits. Good habits lead to powerful effects on your well-being, of course.

Davidson gave two awesome tips in this area, which I shall share with you in the summary, as I want everyone to read it!

Innate basic goodness

This was a beautiful new finding. Research on babies has found that when you show them puppets doing kind or unkind actions, they naturally prefer to be with the good puppets.

The basic goodness in babies and very young children has been shown in my different studies, suggesting that humans are hard-wired with an innate basic goodness.

Implications on neuroscience and well-being

All these areas of research suggest that well-being is a skill that can be developed.

So, just as physical well-being is developed through physical exercise, so emotional well-being is developed through exercises like meditation.

Davidson strongly emphasised that he and his colleagues are expecting to see a radical shift in our culture by 2030, with the majority of people engaging in exercises to develop their emotional well-being accepted as common as physical exercise is at the moment.

4 constituents of well-being investigated in neuroscience

Young smiling girl, Delhi India
Young smiling girl, Delhi India

Ok, so you see that well-being is a skill that we can all learn. But what exactly is well-being?

And according to the latest research, what areas have been found to specifically contribute to wellbeing?

Resilience

Davidson defined resilience as how rapidly you recover from adversity. This is a very important aspect of well-being and can be developed - it’s a skill.

Everyone suffers challenges in their lives. If you have the ability to bounce back from them quickly, you have a high level of wellbeing.

Attention/Awareness

Davidson quoted a famous study called ‘A wandering mind is an unhappy mind’. This is a famous study in mindfulness, done using an iPhone app on thousands of people. The study found that 47% of the time, people’s mind were wandering rather than present on the task in hand. And no matter how boring or interesting the activity, if people were more present, they were happier.

Davidson stated: ‘Being distracted is toxic’.

He also explained how multitasking is a myth - you’re actually switching tasks and it’s a very inefficient and stress-inducing state of mind.

Positive Outlook

Positive outlook is the ability to see the positive in others, the ability to savor positive experiences, and the ability to see another human being as a human being who has innate basic goodness.

This 2013 study found doing just 30 minutes of loving kindness meditation a day for two weeks, results in noticeable positive changes in the brain to increase positive outlook.

Generosity

I was pleased to hear Davidson’s last focus was on generosity. Acts of generosity have been found to make positive impacts on well-being in the brain.

Davidson said there is now plenty of data showing that when people are generous, they activate circuits in the brain that are key to well-being. These circuits are activated in a more lasting way than the way we respond to other positive rewards, like winning a game or prize.

Davidson ended with this beautiful quote from Einstein: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Summary

Happiness or wellbeing - whatever you call it, is a skill. You can improve it.

And the evidence is mounting in a big way. Practices like mindfulness, kindness, generosity and having a positive outlook impact not only your brain and neurons, they even impact your genes.

As promised, I want to finish with Davidson’s two tips for developing positive habits, like meditating everyday.

  1. Choose a habit that you stick to, everyday, for 30 days. And it doesn’t matter how small that habit is. For example, you can commit to meditating for just one minute a day. Even that is beneficial, as long as you stick to your commitment.
  2. Piggy-back that habit with another daily routine you already have. For example, you can do your one minute of meditation just after your morning coffee, or straight after your morning shower.

I hope you enjoyed this post! If so, share your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you want to meet changemakers who are working to take this research and putting it into action, you’ve got to come to London on 5th Nov 2016 for the Happier World Conference. We’ve got an incredible line-up of world class speakers to inspire and inform you how you can not only feel happier, but help contribute in your own way, to make our world happier too.

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