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Well-being is a Skill - and Other Valuable Lessons from Neuroscience

Jul 23, 2019

I recently watched Richard Davidson’s “unplugged” talk from the Well-being at Work Conference titled “Well-Being is a Skill”. If you’re into neuroscience, mindfulness, or what makes people “well”, the 13 minutes it will take you to watch this is a worthy investment of time.

Davidson is a well-known neuroscientist who’s been studying the brain for decades. He’s a regular mindfulness meditation practitioner, has spent time with the Dalai Lama, and has been instrumental in bringing what used to be considered “woo-woo” science (emotions, compassion, meditation) to the forefront.

Although this wasn’t the point at all, one of the things that struck me immediately about Davidson’s talk is that there was no mention of the physical markers of health much of Westernized society has been focused on in pursuit of well-being. Instead, he summarized the research on well-being through the lens of these four components:

• Resilience – the ability to quickly recover from adversity
• Positive outlook – regularly noticing and savoring positive experiences (including the good in others)
• Generosity – extending kindness to oneself and to others; regularly engaging in caring and altruistic behavior
• Attention – being in the present moment and experiencing flow or vital interest (the opposite of mind-wandering)

Perhaps this focus on strengths and skills that fall into the mental, emotional, and spiritual realms is why I was so refreshed and inspired by this talk. What I know from my own personal journey and the growing mountain of evidence on health and well-being is that the Western version of health has been too narrowly focused on a few variables specifically related to the physical body. We’ve had tunnel vision and we’ve missed the bigger picture about what it means and what it takes to live well.

I don’t think Davidson is suggesting that physical health is not an important component of well-being, and neither am I. Clearly, if our needs for nourishment, movement, rest, and medical attention (when necessary) aren’t met, we’re much less likely to function at our best. But the point is that there’s so much more to creating a rich, meaningful, happy life than keeping our biometrics in check and following rules about what to eat and how much to exercise. Meeting the recommendations for cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose will have limited positive impact on your daily experience of life if you lack emotional resilience, can’t savor the good in life, and feel fragmented and stressed from multi-tasking and over-stimulation.

The second thing that resonated with me about Davidson’s talk is his mention of scientifically validated “bi-directional highways” that exist in humans through which changes in the brain affect the body and vice versa. Strengthening our neural circuits to cultivate greater resilience, positive outlook, generosity, and focused attention can have positive consequences on our physical health. And, conversely, attending to our physical health is valuable not just because it helps us reduce the chances for disease but because of how it strengthens our ability to show up in the world in a focused, compassionate, generous way. This may seem like common sense to some, but it represents a different model than the one that is commonly found in health promotion, in which the physical component of well-being is often prioritized over all others.

As for Davidson’s main point and the title of the talk itself, I wholeheartedly agree. Well-being is a skill - or maybe, more accurately, a set of skills. Like all skills, it can be cultivated through training and practice. Whether you’re learning to play the cello (his analogy), shifting from a sedentary life to an active one, or increasing your ability to focus on the present moment, the same type of neural circuitry is at play. One of the most inspiring advancements in recent neuroscience is that the neural pathways in our brains are “plastic”, meaning they change in response to training and experience. This is good news for all of us because it means we’re never stuck with any set of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors if we don’t want to be. If we’re willing to commit to learning, training, and practice, we have the ability to change what is not beneficial for us.

Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I like to apply the idea of changing neural circuitry to the industries of health promotion and workplace wellness as a whole. These industries have been built on outdated science and a well-intentioned but limited perspective of people, organizations, and health. They’re in need of some rewiring. Fortunately, we’re not stuck with the status quo and some of this organizational rewiring has been happening recently. If those of us who work in health promotion and workplace wellness are willing to commit to learning the science, re-training, and practice, our collective neural circuitry will strengthen for the better.

I’m hopeful that this collective rewiring will create new perspectives and practices not only around individual health, but organizational well-being too. This is important because of the significant impact organizations have on the well-being of the employees who are a part of them. Whereas the current paradigm places the onus on the individual to change behaviors regardless of the environment they work in, the science tells us that it’s an interdependent relationship: employees need supportive, thriving cultures to fully flourish just as much as organizations need healthy, high-functioning employees! But that’s another post for another day …

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