The Science of Well-Being

Well-being is the subjective quality of how each of us experiences our life. This idea has long been of interest to philosophers. With advances in neuroscience it has also become a hot topic for scientists. And the good news from research findings: Well-being is a skill that can be cultivated!

At the outset, let’s go a little deeper on what is meant by ‘well-being’. I find it most useful to think of well-being as a dynamic process. I use it to describe how I feel about my life across ever-changing circumstances. There is an individual component: a sense of individual vitality and inner strength. There is also a social component: having supportive relationships and a connection with others.

High levels of well-being allow us to do our best work. It also helps us to constructively engage with others. And better navigate and respond in difficult circumstances.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson¹ is one researcher of this subject. He has shown that well-being includes four component parts that have been investigated scientifically.

The four components of well-being are as follows:

  • Resilience – the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. It’s inevitable in life that stuff happens. How quickly do we recover from it?
  • Positive Outlook – seeing positive in others and in situations. Ability to see the opportunity in challenges.
  • Attention – ability to bring and maintain focus. It is said that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Can we turn down the distractibility just a bit?
  • Generosity – this altruistic and other-centered behavior activates circuits that foster well-being.

In his research, Davidson has identified discreet neural circuits in the brain that are important to each of these elements. His research has demonstrated that these circuits can be shaped. It is also possible to strengthen them through training and experience. Well-being is a skill, and each of us can be intentional about increasing our own sense of well-being.

¹Richard J. Davidson, PhD, is a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.