We generally think of happiness as either a matter of chance or circumstance. Some people are born with happy brains--they just naturally seem to see everything in a cheerful light. Others are blessed with relatively problem-free lives and loving families. Lucky them. According to this view, the less lucky are cursed with a propensity for moodiness or a grim lot in life.
But that's not how Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain, sees things. As he explains in the short talk embedded below, if you look at the latest neuroscientific research, happiness isn't a gift from the universe, it's a skill--and one you can learn.
"All of the work that we and other colleagues [have done] leads us to this inevitable conclusion...well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello," he says. "If one practices the skills of well-being, one will get better at it."
So what are these skills? Davidson breaks down the research on the subject, laying out four components of increased mental well-being, all of which correspond to particular, measurable functions of the brain. Work out these skills and your brain changes, studies show, and as your brain changes, you get better at being happy.
"Resilience is the rapidity with which you recover from adversity," explains Davidson. We might think of resilience as having heart, but this ability is actually rooted in the brain and can be measured by looking at how long it takes certain neural circuits to come back to baseline after something upsetting happens.
"Stuff happens, and we cannot buffer ourselves from that stuff, but it's really about how we recover from that adversity," says Davidson. And yes, you can increase your resilience, but sadly of all the skills Davidson mentions, this one is the hardest to master. Recent research shows that effort, such as engaging in simple mindfulness meditation, can tune up those resilience circuits, but Davidson warns, "it's going to take 6,000 to 7,000 hours of practice."
2. Positive Outlook
This skill is "the ability to see the positive in others, the ability to savor positive experiences," and again, there is circuitry in the brain that underlies this quality. But unlike resilience, getting better at being positive takes a whole lot less time and effort.
"Research indicates that simple practices...may alter this circuitry quite quickly," according to Davidson. Training in compassion can have an effect on the brain with just seven hours of effort. If you're looking to develop a more positive outlook, here are four ideas to get you started.
"A wandering mind is an unhappy mind," says Davidson, paraphrasing the research on the subject. One study, for instance, used smartphones to monitor a large sample of U.S. adults going about their daily lives. Periodically, they were asked whether they were focused on what they were doing, as well as about their happiness levels. The research team found that 47 percent of an adult's waking life is spent not paying attention to what they're doing, and that this frequent distraction took a serious bite out of their well being.
"There are now a plethora of data showing that when individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being," says Davidson. In short, simple acts of kindness won't just make others happier, they will make you happier, too.
The bottom line for Davidson? "We can all take responsibility for our own minds." Some folks, thanks to a bad cosmic deal, have a taller hill to climb than others when it comes to happiness. Nothing can make that fair. But at least you should know that if you're not as happy as you'd like to be, no matter your circumstances, there are steps you can take to remodel your brain for increased well-being.