Neuroscience Explains Training the Brain to be Happier
A research paper summary from my series on science-based tools for happiness...
A 2020 paper from top researchers in neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology is inspiring wisdom for happiness and wellbeing.
C. Dahl, C. Wilson-Mendenhall, and R. Davidson state that:
“There is overwhelming evidence that well-being can be learned and that core dimensions of well-being may thus be likened to skills and trained through various forms of self-regulation.”
Along the lines of training different muscles and movements – we can “workout” the “muscles” that support happiness and wellbeing. These include four core dimensions identified by the researchers: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose.
This article covers the four dimensions of wellbeing: what they are and how to train them.
What is “meta-awareness”?
The researchers describe awareness as a heightened and flexible attentiveness to our environment. This includes our internal (thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions) and external environment (perceptions of the world around us).
The researchers pay special attention to what they call “meta-awareness”.
This is awareness of conscious experience itself. When we realize we are angry or daydreaming and “snap out of it” or realize that we’ve been driving on “autopilot” — that’s meta-awareness. Our capacity for meta-awareness is key to wellbeing.
In fact, “a large-scale study of more than 5,000 people from 83 countries revealed that, on average, people spend an estimated 47% of their waking life in a state of distraction and that states of distraction are typified by lower levels of well-being.” The researchers go on to write that distraction is associated with stress and anxiety, ADHD symptoms, and depression.
Imagine – almost half of the time we’re in a state that directly contributes to stress, anxiety, and depression!
Thankfully we can train for increased awareness.
“Awareness-based interventions improve a range of outcomes related to the self-regulation of attention as well as workplace and educational outcomes… Attentional meditation and mindfulness interventions also improve outcomes related to the self-regulation of emotion, including lower levels of stress, decreased subjective reactivity to pain, improvements in symptoms related to anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders, and increased positive emotions and overall psychological well-being.”
These interventions are almost always some form of mindfulness training in which we bring our attention over and over again back to an object of focus. This object is meant to anchor our awareness to the present moment – it might be the breathe during vipassana meditation, the body during yoga, the feet during walking meditation, etc.
It’s shown that training in this way produces altered patterns of brain activity and connectivity. Focused attention meditation in particular, reduces the activation of the default mode network (DMN) which is the sort of “autopilot setting” in the brain. It’s the network that switches on when we’re not actively engaged in something that usually leads to daydreaming, mind wandering, and over-thinking.
The Key to Health and Happiness
Connection refers to a sense of kinship and care for others that leads to supportive relationships and positive interactions.
Connection may be the most important single factor in shaping wellbeing. Take this quote - “social relationships are better predictors of health than various biological and economic factors. Positive social relationships are vital for healthy psychological functioning and serve as a buffer against psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, while poor social relationships can be more harmful than excessive drinking and smoking.”
Along similar lines, having connection as a motivation significantly increases wellbeing. Having compassionate goals – as opposed to self-centered aspirations - predicts greater self-esteem, fewer relationship problems and more positive emotions.
“The Gallup World Poll surveyed more than one million people across 150 countries and found that generosity, as measured by charitable donations, is one of the most robust predictors of life satisfaction.”
If we want to be happy – we should focus on improving our relationships and our sense of care for others. So how do we do that?
We relate to others through “personal construals”. The American Psychological Association defines that as a “person's perception and interpretation of attributes and behavior of the self or of others.”
A personal construal is how we see someone.
We can intentionally influence our personal construals to see others in a healthier way. The researchers give the example of focusing on shared characteristics as opposed to differences when we first encounter someone. Doing this leads to a feeling of affiliation rather than apprehension. Negative construals on the other hand, undermine feelings of social connection. When we construe people as threats, we are more likely to report feelings of loneliness - a major risk factor for mental illness and poor physical health. When we train ourselves to see people in a more positive light – we increase our capacity for connection which promotes our own wellbeing.
There’s also evidence to suggest that we can train ourselves to have kinder, more compassionate motivations. There are numerous forms of connection-based meditation practices. A common example is the loving-kindness or metta meditation in which the meditator intentionally cultivates feelings of connectedness, love, and goodwill towards others. Studies of such connection trainings have shown marked “decreases in depression, anxiety, and psychological distress, and increases in positive emotions and overall wellbeing”.
Knowing Thy Self
Here insight refers to self-knowledge.
Insight is understanding how our emotions, thoughts, and believes shape our subjective experience and sense of who we are.
Here’s a practical example of insight. Say I have a presentation coming up and I keep thinking about how I’m going to mess up. I can realize that those negative thoughts are a product of my nervousness and conditioned beliefs about public speaking. They are thoughts – not reality. It’s unlikely that I will actually mess up that badly.
Insight is a product of self-inquiry. Self-inquiry is examining the implicit beliefs that inform self-related narratives, expectations, and goals. When we do this sort of internal exploration we arrive at insights about who we are and how we form the concept of who we are. This is an important component of happiness.
“Insight into one’s own mind and mental processes is an important predictor of overall psychological well-being and life satisfaction. More specifically, self-knowledge concerning self-related beliefs, referred to as ‘self-concept clarity,’ is central to healthy psychological functioning.”
Training insight is most often done through some form of structured self-inquiry.
Psychotherapy, deconstructive meditation, and other contemplative practices reduce distress and increase psychological wellbeing by changing how we understand ourselves. There’s also evidence to suggest that long-term insight-related training may lead to lasting changes in how our brains process self-related experiences and narratives.
When we think about “who we are” and how we engage with this idea of “who we are” – both can be changed for the better through self-inquiry and insight training.
The Meaning of Life
Purpose is clarity regarding meaning and values and being able to manifest them in daily life.
We can think of it in terms of aims and values. Aims lead to goals and aspirations and help us organize a meaningful narrative about our lives. Values are what guide behavior and orient us towards understanding what is meaningful. We might have an aim to live for the benefit of others whereas we value things like compassion, care, and service.
A sense of purpose is part of the foundation for health and happiness.
“A strong sense of purpose is associated with improved health outcomes and behaviors, including increased physical activity, decreased incidence of stroke, fewer cardiovascular events, reduced risk of death, lower health care utilization, and even better financial health.”
Purpose also promotes mental health and psychological functioning: it improves memory, overall cognitive ability, and psychological resilience as we age.
There is evidence that purpose can be clarified and strengthened through training.
These trainings usually consist of helping us to identify our strengths and values and use them in service of something greater than ourselves. Doing such training “increases resilience, promotes healthy behaviors, and alters the brain and peripheral biology in meaningful ways.”
In addition to trainings that clarify and strengthen our purpose, we benefit from living out our purpose in daily life. Research shows that when we behave in a way that is not consistent with our values we feel more negative emotions and report lower wellbeing. On the other hand, experiments have shown that enacting our purpose and values promotes wellbeing.
To use a sports analogy – you practice how you play. We need to practice purpose: train to develop clarity of aims and values. And we need to play purpose: to embody our purpose in everyday life.
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Happiness: A Path of Self-Transformation
We can train awareness, connection, insight, and purpose not unlike we do job skills or muscle groups. Engaging these skills evokes corresponding changes in the physical brain and nervous system.
To increase happiness, identify the capacities that support health and mental wellbeing and then intentionally train them.
Reference — The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing by Cortland J. Dahl, Christine D. Wilson-Mendenhall, Richard J. Davidson in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2020, 117 (51) 32197-32206; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2014859117
See also an essay from Davidson published by Mind & Life here.