We get this question a lot. So why does well-being matter and how are we measuring it?
Researchers, including those at our Center, continue to investigate the factors that shape well-being. Rather than pitching a fixed scientific definition of well-being, we’re constantly unearthing clues and evidence about how well-being manifests itself in the mind and body. It’s not a static "thing" – but a set of skills that can be learned and cultivated over time, just like learning to play a musical instrument or riding a bike.
Based on decades of research, we’ve identified four areas that contribute to well-being that are trainable and measurable in the lab: awareness, connection, insight and purpose.
In short, awareness is being fully connected to our present experience.
Mindfulness-based practices of all types have now entered the mainstream. The popularity of mindfulness meditation has resulted in a variety of resources to cultivate and practice the skill on one's own via healthcare programs, online apps and local meditation communities.
Data show that when people are really focused on what they're doing, and their minds are not wandering, they actually feel better about themselves. One study points to why this is important. Its conclusions suggest that the average person on average is not paying attention 47 percent of the time. There’s certainly room for improvement and greater well-being.
In addition, studies show that mindfulness – being in the present moment – can lessen our tendency to want and desire things we don't have.
Nurturing connection with others plays a significant role in our well-being, as loneliness is now considered one of the biggest threats to our mental health. The ability to empathize, behave compassionately and express gratitude are skills that can not only be learned, but also can make us feel good.
There's substantial evidence to suggest that engaging in acts of generosity is an effective strategy to increase well-being. We call it a double positive whammy because, by being generous to others, you benefit them and yourself. Studies, including one from our lab, show that compassion training – in which one generates positive wishes for another being – primes a person's ability to empathize with others and leads to pro-social behavior aimed at decreasing others' suffering.
Insight is having a deep understanding of how our minds work. In particular, this understanding applies to our thoughts and emotions, and how our beliefs and expectations shape our experience. The practical skills that foster insight help us to loosen rigid beliefs and to form a flexible sense of self that can adapt to changing circumstances. This fluid sense of self, in turn, promotes enduring well-being by increasing resilience and prompting transformative realizations about the nature of the mind, relationships, and experience.
The psychological flexibility that these skills engender is beginning to receive scientific attention as a fundamental aspect of well-being. Seeing oneself as growing and expanding is linked to higher well-being and is thought to bolster well-being, in part, by helping us to navigate life’s challenges in a constructive way. In contrast, overly rigid forms of thinking can be a sign of mental health dysfunction. Neuroscience is increasingly shedding light on underlying neural mechanisms of these important dimensions of human experience.
Purpose is what motivates, inspires and drives us in life. One study across all age groups in adults found that if you have greater purpose in life, you’re less likely to be dead 10 years later. Whether you’re older versus younger or if you have a chronic condition or disease, cultivating a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life has been shown to have far reaching benefits, including to our physical and mental well-being.
Realizing and acknowledging what gives you meaning and purpose is important. If deep down something is important to you, but you ignore that feeling, it can harm your well-being. As one of our researchers has said: “Think about what gives your life meaning. Do what makes you happy or makes you fulfilled, and make sure to save time for it. It may help you to start your day thinking about your purpose in life, or thinking about what gives your life meaning when trying to refocus after a stressful or unpleasant experience.”
In 2015, our Center, including Founder and Director Richard Davidson and Scientist Brianna Schuyler, supported the neuroscience section of the 2015 World Happiness Report, commonly cited by the United Nations. Learn more and read the report.