Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Madison, Wisconsin, for my regular Richie fix. Richie is Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the Founder & Director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has devoted his career to researching the science of well-being, and he posits that it is a skill which can be learned and cultivated, like playing the piano. Pretty exciting and affirming, no? Richie had just returned from Silicon Valley, where he was consulting tech CEOs on how to make our devices more compassionate. Then from Silicon Valley to Dharamshala, India, on the edge of the Himalayas, visiting his good friend and mentor, the Dalai Lama. A few days upon his return, Richie was oozing extra good energy during his talk, "The Pursuit of Happiness," the highlight of which was when he led the group (a few thousand of us at Madison's Museum of Contemporary Art) in a loving-kindness meditation. You could hear a pin drop during the impromptu session. It was amazing!
Richie, as always, shared an inspirational message and wonderful nuggets, including the tidbit that the Mexican Department of Education is training 60,000 teachers in well-being techniques in an effort to transform its educational system and empower its students. One of the principles of well-being that they're learning is cultivating attention, because in order to learn, we need to attend. Sounds like they're on to something. Other highlights:
Happiness is a disposition that allows us to be as good as we can be. Richie said we are born with innate basic goodness, and that we are born to be happy and free of suffering.
At our core, we all have this one thing in common. We all share the desire to be happy and to reduce suffering. Once we accept and embrace that fact, we can have more empathy for those around us.
Being good and being happy are highly correlated. He mentioned a study (I'm paraphrasing but you'll get the gist of it) where subjects were given money to spend on themselves, and another group was given money to spend on others. The latter group registered higher levels of happiness, which supports the idea that giving back to others, doing good, delivers an ROI that's greater for you than operating in a silo of self.
Research shows meditation has tangible physical benefits for our brain. It slows down the rate at which the brain ages, and certain types of meditation (loving-kindness, also called compassion, meditation) are anti-inflammatory. That being said, when asked what the "best" meditation practice is, I loved it when Richie said, "The best kind of meditation is the meditation that you do." Find what practice resonates with you and stick with it.
If we have the capacity for awareness, we have the capacity for well-being. Meditation increases meta-awareness, which is monitoring your own mind, i.e., reading a book and then realizing you have had zero comprehension of the last 5 pages. It also fosters resilience, which is the rapidity from which we recover from adversity.
Fear contracts awareness. Richie explained that fear is inherently biasing because the focus is on one trigger, not the full and complete picture. The more awareness we have, the less we are driven by fear.
He also suggested Dan Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness (Gilbert, also a Harvard-trained psychologist like Richie, also has a Ted talk about the surprising science of happiness), which claims that the ideas we have about what will make us happy are inaccurate. Material possessions don't cut it.
Richie closed with a somewhat radical message in this day and age, which is that we need to be motivated by love, to get past the anger, and that we need to talk with people across the spectrum to bridge differences. That message is especially timely now, with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in two days. As Richie said, "Martin Luther King's speech was not 'I have a nightmare'." It was a poignant reminder that need to stay true to our dreams, values and ideals, and keep hope alive.
Richie closed with an invitation - to meditate every day even if it's just for 1 minute. Try it! He commented, "Our brain is our most treasured organ, and we treat it so inappropriately." Just like we are mindful of our bodies, and the food we ingest, meditation is a critical tool for taking care of our brains. It doesn't cultivate itself. He continued, "There's nothing magic about this. If you don't go to the gym, you'll get out of shape. It's the same with mental training and well-being." This Spring, as we think of gardening and blooming flowers, you have the ability to "plant seeds" in your own brain. We encourage you to try it and notice the changes. If you need a boost or gentle nudge to get started, we can help! Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our Resources page. Happy planting!
Editor's Note: Sylvia Maldonado, pictured below with Dr. Richard J. Davidson, is the Founder of breathe bar.