What Does Science Teach Us About Well-Being?

As we finalize our preparations to receive His Holiness the Dalai Lama for a dialogue on Global Health and Well-being, an event co-sponsored by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Global Health Institute, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it is appropriate to reflect on what science is teaching us about well-being. There are four things we can now say that science has taught us about well-being.

  1. Well-being is a skill. By conceptualizing well-being as a skill, we appeal to modern insights from neuroscience where the study of neuroplasticity has informed us that the mind and brain are highly changeable and that the brain is constantly being shaped by experience and training. Viewed from this perspective, well-being is the product of skills that can be enhanced through training and is also subject to environmental influences that impact our brain, especially over the course of development.
  2. Well-being is associated with specific patterns of brain activity that influence and are influenced by the body. Recent findings establish that specific patterns of brain activity involving the prefrontal cortex and limbic (below the cortex) regions are associated with reports of well-being. The circuits in the brain that we know to be correlated with well-being play a role in regulating bodily functions—immune, endocrine and autonomic nervous system activity—and through these influences can impact physical health and illness. In turn, activity in these bodily systems can feed back upon the brain and modulate its activity. Through this bidirectional communication between the brain and body, pathways have been identified that provide the beginnings of an understanding of why our emotional and physical healthcare intimately intertwined. It is not a random accident that happier people are healthier. Modern neuroscientific studies are shedding light on the mechanisms through which these associations arise.
  3. Equanimity and generosity both contribute to well-being and are associated with distinct patterns of brain and bodily activity. The Dalai Lama has frequently urged us to be kind toward others and has suggested that kindness is a direct route to happiness. Modern research has borne this out and indicates that kindness and compassion toward others is associated with peripheral biological (i.e., biology below the neck) changes that are salubrious. Equanimity can be cultivated through simple contemplative practices and is associated with being attentive to the present moment and not getting lost in worrying about the future and ruminating about the past. Modern research indicates that the average adult American spends nearly 50% of his waking life mind wandering—not paying attention to what he is actually doing. By learning to remain aware of the present moment, we can free ourselves from being slaves to the past and future. This in and of itself can powerfully facilitate well-being and reduce suffering.

Experiments have been conducted in which participants are randomly assigned to one of two groups—in the first group, they are provided with money and told to go out and spend the money on themselves and to purchase things for themselves only; in the second group, they are provided the same amount of money as the first group but they are told to spend the money only on others. Participants in this latter group were explicitly prohibited from spending any of the money on themselves. They were simply told to buy gifts for others. Before participants were randomly assigned to either condition, they were provided with simple questionnaires asking them to rate their overall levels of happiness and well-being. After spending money on themselves or on others for one day, they returned to the laboratory and were given the questionnaires again, asking them to rate their overall level of well-being. We are sure you can guess which group showed much greater increases in happiness over the course of the day—of course, it was the group instructed to spend the money only on others.

Another amazing thing about generosity and kindness is that a growing body of evidence suggests that such behavior is good for our biology. It helps to reduce inflammation and the molecules responsible for increasing inflammation.

  1. There is an innate disposition toward well-being and prosocial behavior. Organisms orient toward stimuli and situations that promote well-being. We prefer things that promote well-being and we seek contexts in which well-being can flourish. We will often expend resources to improve well-being. We do not seek to become more sad or more angry and or more disgusted. This is something quite universal and appears to be present in all living creatures. Moreover, recent research indicates that human infants in the first six months of life show a preference for prosocial and cooperative situations compared with aggressive and antagonistic ones. If this indeed continues to be replicated across a wide range of cultures, it would invite the view that we come into the world with an innate preference for good and we obscure that innate propensity over the course of development as we become socialized within our modern culture. When we engage in practices to nurture compassion, we are not really learning a new skill so much as unlearning the noise which is interfering with our ability to connect with a fundamental innate core of goodness.

As these ideas become more widely known and appreciated, it our fervent aspiration that our culture will pay more attention to well-being, will include strategies to promote well-being with our educational curricula and within the healthcare arena, and will include well-being within our definitions of health. These changes would help to promote greater harmony and well-being of the planet.