Well-being is a Skill
UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education & Peace invited Professor Richard Davidson an American neuroscientist and psychologist to talk about the Centre for Healthy Mind’s research on how ‘well-being is a skill’.
Well-being was discussed as a state of being comprised of a set of skills, which can be learnt and cultivated over time. Going on to discuss how this area of contemplative neuroscience is built at the confluence of four key concepts in science.
· Neuroplasticity — the brain’s’ ability to change in response to experience and to training. Majority of the time the brain is being changed unwittingly or via our lack of conscious engagement in this process.
· Epigenetics — the science of how genes are regulated and expressed, the extent to which a gene is turned on or off can be impacted by experience — as if genes have their own volume control.
· Bi-directional connections between body and mind — recent scientific evidence has shown that high-levels of well-being are associated with physical health.
· Innate basic goodness — a phrase coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to describe a human virtue. Though contentious in modern science it is a foundational concept in many contemplative practices such as meditation.
Four constituents of Well-being
Dr Davidson and his research associates predominantly investigated the effects of meditation and mindfulness on the mind and body for over a decade culminating in their framework of four elementary constituents of well-being.
1. Awareness — being fully connected to our present experience. Components that have been studied were attention and focus.
2. Connection — connecting to other humans is dependent on prosocial qualities such as empathy, gratitude and compassion.
3. Insight — having a deep understanding of how our minds work particularly our thoughts and emotions and how our beliefs and expectations shape our experiences.
4. Purpose — what motivates, inspires and drives us, realising what gives you personal meaning is important.
In this way much like learning, well-being involves integration of activities, information, emotions, thoughts and behaviour, which develop these four elementary components.
Well-being in Education
Compassion and kindness can be learnt just like the language of numeracy or literacy. If we can look meaningfully at the environment around us, and foster relationships to each other, our selves, our experience of learning environments, authority figures, peers, family, community may radically change the culture of our relational, cognitive and emotional experiences.
Applying these learnings in the context of our education systems might help us realise why engaged learning correlates with developing 21st Century skills, these being curiosity, critical-thinking, creativity, community-mindedness and collaboration. Through training these areas, learning capacities and engagement would benefit greatly, shifting away from transmissive models of education.
Interest in helping the wider community is rooted in prosocial behaviour, that is helping, sharing, reciprocity, being caring. Teaching kindness and empathy with the same rigour and importance as currently given to learning english or mathematics for example, might result in exponential development in our overall community-mindedness.
For example cultivating gratitude could be instituted daily or weekly, in a quick and easy exercise, where students in pairs take turns and extend one of these positive talking stems (Alber, 2017):
· One good thing in my life is…
· Something good that happened is….
Or perhaps in small groups, students work together to take small or big actions to help other people, animals or the environment. This could be as a rubbish collection drive, visiting a retirement home or donating extra objects/clothes from home to a local charity organisation.
Engaging with the cultural stimuli all around us, we can begin to see our individual selves within a bigger system of connectivity. Learning and growing from each other, with care and compassion, building towards a sustainable future. Whilst simultaneously developing our individual and collective well-being skills in the process.
Words | Aulina Chaudhuri