Well-being is a skill.
All of the work that my colleagues and I have been doing leads inevitably to this central conclusion. Well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello. If one practices the skills of well-being, one will get better at it.
Based on our research, well-being has four constituents that have each received serious scientific attention. Each of these four is rooted in neural circuits, and each of these neural circuits exhibits plasticity—so we know that if we exercise these circuits, they will strengthen. Practicing these four skills can provide the substrate for enduring change, which can help to promote higher levels of well-being in our lives.
To paraphrase the bumper sticker, stuff happens. We cannot buffer ourselves from that stuff, but we can change the way we respond to it.
Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity; some people recover slowly and other people recover more quickly. We know that individuals who show a more rapid recovery in certain key neural circuits have higher levels of well-being. They are protected in many ways from the adverse consequences of life’s slings and arrows.
Recent research that we’ve conducted in our lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—very new work that’s not yet published—asked whether these specific brain circuits can be altered by regular practice in simple mindfulness meditation.
The answer is yes—but you need several thousand hours of practice before you see real change. Unlike the other constituents of well-being, it takes a while to improve your resilience. It’s not something that is going to happen quickly—but this insight can still motivate and inspire us to keep meditating.