We are emotional creatures.
Emotions are the lenses through which we experience daily life and inhabit the world—how we love, learn, work, make meaning, and devise solutions to problems we face. But there’s mounting evidence to suggest all is not well with our emotional lives.
An estimated 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression, according to the World Health Organization. Our culture fetishizes productivity and busyness, which place a toll on our collective well-being. We go to extremes to experience the positive and avoid the negative.
But modern neuroscience suggests this doesn’t have to be our story. Science says we can train ourselves to be happier—and healthier.
Science says we can train ourselves to be happier—and healthier.
This question about whether we can learn well-being has been the thrust of our research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where for more than 30 years we’ve worked on the neuroscientific understanding of how our emotions influence our happiness, health, and interactions with others. My journey has led me across the world in search of answers—even to the doorstep of the Dalai Lama, who helped me launch the first scientific studies of the minds of Buddhist monks who intentionally train their brains to be happy and peaceful.
It also led us to a provocative possibility. Just as we partake in physical exercise to stay healthy, we can also partake in mental exercises—like meditation—to promote physical and emotional well-being.
Through a neuroscientific study of meditation, we learned how to do just that—to cultivate positive qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. And while evidence has long pointed to well-being skills like meditation as helpful amid stressful situations and negative experiences, what you might not know is that it’s equally important to care for your mind when you’re happy and unstressed. We can take as an analogy the engagement in physical exercise when we are healthy. While physical exercise is used to rehabilitate patients who may require it, we have a general understanding that physical exercise is also helpful preventatively. In the same way, engaging in mental exercise even when we are happy is essential in developing the necessary resources to be healthy and resilient amid challenges.
Two kinds of meditation
Much depends on the kind of meditation practiced and the context in which it’s being done. Practices that emphasize mindfulness are different in their effects on the brain than those that are designed to cultivate compassion or kindness.
Brain circuits engaged by mindfulness meditation are associated with meta-awareness—our awareness of being aware. We all have had the experience of reading a book, when after several minutes you have no idea what you just read. It’s not that you don’t understand each word. You’re aware of reading words, but your meta-awareness wasn’t present. The moment you realize that you’re lost, that’s the moment of meta-awareness, and it’s that kind of monitoring that gets strengthened by mindfulness meditation.
Simple compassion practices can also have an impact on those around you.
This is among the most important functions of mindfulness meditation—to enhance that quality of monitoring and to strengthen the circuits that play a critical role in monitoring. Monitoring function is critical because knowing that you are aware enables you to have more intentional choice in how you react to the opportunities and challenges you face. This is true not just for negative emotions, but also for positive emotions since we can get attached to pleasurable things, and that kind of pleasure does not endure. Monitoring the ongoing shifts in feelings as they occur can be helpful in simply observing the emotions as they wax and wane rather than getting ensnared by them.
Simple compassion practices, the other type of meditation, can also have an impact on those around you.
In one of the first studies of its kind conducted at our lab, we discovered that as little as 30 minutes of compassion meditation per day for a two-week period altered circuits in the brain and resulted in participants acting more generously toward each other. We’re learning that infusing daily tasks with awareness and intentionally cultivating compassion can help us strengthen our brains in ways that reduce our everyday worries and make our lives richer.
A simple way to start
But how to start if you’ve never done it before?
For advice on that, I am reminded of Lama Tsomo, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism whose recent book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling? A Westerner’s Introduction and Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Practice, offers practical advice on the types of simple awareness and compassion practices described above. As an American, a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, and a mother, she has a rather unusual perspective. Her real-world experience as a mother in our culture allows her to present these ancient practices in ways that are directly relevant to the challenges ordinary people routinely face in our culture.
One specific practice to increase compassion that she shares in the book is to view any and every living being she encounters as being a close relative, to love everyone and everything as her close family. This kind of meditation is something that can be gradually developed over time. When it is practiced, research shows that it can change our experience of others, our behavior, and our brains. As a scientist, I’m incredibly curious to learn how such positive intentions for others could promote greater interconnectedness and interpersonal harmony in a world that can be quite stressful.
This form of compassion practice is very different from the types of mindfulness practices that are more commonly taught in the West.
Mindfulness practices do not invite any shift in the content of our minds. Rather they invite us to bring our awareness into our bodies, our breath, or the environment around us. Compassion and loving-kindness practices involve the explicit shift in mental content, a shift toward the cultivation of virtuous qualities of mind. While scientific research on kindness and compassion practices is just beginning, initial findings clearly indicate alterations in brain networks associated with empathy and positive emotion, and changes in behavior toward a more prosocial, altruistic orientation.
From conversations with Lama Tsomo exploring intersections of science and Buddhism, it struck me that the essential invitation in both of our investigations is that we can all take advantage of the fact that our brains change in response to experience and training. By intentionally cultivating our own well-being—if we view it as something we can improve to bolster our response to adversity—we’ll be ready and resilient when we encounter the inevitable challenges.
Tips for Daily Practice
In her book Why Is The Dalai Lama Always Smiling?, Lama Tsomo, director of namchak.org, says the hardest thing about practicing meditation daily is “getting one’s butt to the cushion on a daily basis. In other words, starting is the hardest part.”
Here are her tips:
• Give yourself a really attainable goal: 15 minutes a day. Trust me: Thirty minutes every other day won’t work as well. And there’s no believable excuse for not taking 15 minutes.
• If you do something every day for 21 days, it becomes a habit. Alcoholics Anonymous uses this theory in their work.
• Think of daily practice as a vacation.
• Work it into your schedule. It’s best, but not essential, to do your sessions just as you wake up in the morning.
• Keep your sessions in the same part of your daily schedule.
• Have a regular place to practice to associate with meditation. Our brains work by association.
• Don’t take a perfectionist approach to practice. Practice compassion for your own mind as you train it.