Mental Hygiene - Madison researcher uses modern neuroscience to study kindness, compassion & happiness

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Kindness. It’s one of the earliest things we learn as children. Even though the idea is elementary, people around the globe, including the Dalai Lama, are looking to research being done in Madison to understand the positive qualities of life – kindness, compassion, and happiness. That research is being spear-headed by world renowned professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Richard Davidson. He has made it his life’s passion to understand well-being and a healthy mental hygiene.

Research on kindness, compassion, and happiness is being spear-headed by world renowned professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Richard Davidson. He has made it his life’s passion to understand well-being and a healthy mental hygiene.

“I'd encourage [everyone] to please take your minds as seriously as you take your teeth. And nurture qualities like kindness because it will improve your well-being,” said Dr. Davidson, the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He has spent much of his life studying why some people are more vulnerable to life’s slings and arrows, as he likes to put it, and other people are more resilient. In 1992, Dr. Davidson hit a turning point in his research after speaking with the Dalai Lama.

“[The Dali Lama] asked me why I couldn’t use the tools of modern neuroscience – which I was using in those days to study anxiety, fear, and depression – why couldn’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion and the positive qualities of life,” said Dr. Davidson.

It’s that question that lead to the formation of The Center for Healthy Minds in Madison. The center is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has been in its new location on West Washington Street for a year and half now. There are about 100 people working as part of UW-Madison research and the non-profit, Healthy Minds Innovations. The non-profit organization takes the research and applies it to everyday life, implementing it into schools and corporations.

The idea behind the center is spelled out in its mission statement, “Cultivate well-being and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind.” But in its simplest form, Dr. Davidson said well-being is a skill that is learned.

“We can actually learn to cultivate well-being and we regard this as an urgent public health need,” said Dr. Davidson.

He continued with the thought of if everyone appreciated the “precious resource” of the human mind, more people would be more apt to take care of it. He puts it just as we’ve learned to brush our teeth a couple of times a day, we need to take care of our mental hygiene the same way.

It’s a growing trend as more people search for non-medicinal ways to treat mental and physical ailments. In 2012, around 4% of Americans engaged in some sort of regular meditation, according to the National Institutes for Health . In 2017, that number nearly tripled to 14%. Dr. Davidson believes this is trend that will continue to grow.

“I think that people are longing for this as the problems in our culture have become more complex,” said Davidson.

Because of things like smart phones, tablets, work, and the idea that we always must be multitasking the average American spends 47% of his or her waking life not paying attention to what they are doing, according to a Harvard study. And because of this, they were less happy.

“We can do better,” said Dr. Davidson. “We can learn to pay attention. We can learn to fully be present.”

When it comes to taking those first steps into learning how to be fully present, Dr. Davidson recommends a very simple meditation practice that is secular.

“If we can learn to pay attention to something as regular and boring as our breathing then we can learn to pay attention to almost anything,” said Dr. Davidson.

Chad McGehee is one of the lead mindfulness experts at the Center for Health Minds. He said no matter how busy we may be, we can always find just a few minutes to engage in a simple breathing exercise to make sure we’re making a positive impact.

“One of the things we find when we engage in these practices, is that by taking a little bit of time to concentrate our minds, relax our attention, we end up gaining that time back,” said McGehee. “We’re so scattered so often that the work that we’re doing or the quality of the relationships that we engage in is ultimately impacted in negative ways by what’s happening internally for us.”

Every day McGehee sets aside time to do “formal” breathing practice, but this doesn’t mean you need to carve out a large chunk of time. It could be a minute or two sitting at your desk, in the car, or even while you’re making dinner.

If your mind is wondering while you are meditating, it is not a problem. McGehee said it is a huge misconception that you have to have your mind cleared out or empty while meditating.

“It is just not true, nor is it possible,” said McGehee. “The mind produces thoughts, just like the lungs breathe. It’s going to happen.”
He said meditation is changing the relationship between your mind and thoughts, giving people more freedom to decide which thought to focus on.

“[Meditation] is the practice of observing [those thoughts] as they are coming up and knowing that they are here. And then we get to choose what we want to do with those thoughts,” said McGehee. “So we don’t have to worry when thoughts come up.”

In a step-by-step video, follow along as McGehee walks you through a basic breathing meditation.

Kids as young as preschool are also learning these techniques. At Stephens Elementary on Madison’s west side, students spend two minutes at the start of every day to breathe and focus. Marci Speich, is the positive behavior coach at Stephens Elementary, and she’s coined this time “Movin’ Minds Practice.”

Speich has been a yoga teacher for 15 years. She’s used those same techniques in the classroom and launched “Movin’ Minds Practice” 7 years ago. She pulls ideas from many resources to write scripts that are then shared with the entire school.

“It’s a time to pause, breath, and set an intention for the day.” Said Speich.

Every day has a different practice. For example, on Mondays it’s a positive affirmation and on Fridays it’s a loving kindness practice.

“I really feel that is has made an impact,” said Speich. “Kids of these skills so when they are in a state of frustration or if they are nervous or if they are made, the teacher can refer them to their “Movin’ Minds Practice.”

She said parents have even noticed a difference in their children’s behavior. She said the students use breathing techniques to calm and soothe and have even told their parent to try it when they are in a stressful situation.

In addition to the “Movin’ Minds Practice,” the school utilizes the Kindness Curriculum that was developed at The Center for Health Minds. It’s a free program developed by researchers to help kids pay attention to their emotions and understand why they are feeling what they are feeling.

Through his research, Dr. Davidson said our brains are always capable of change and learning new things; however, there are periods over the course of early development where the brain is more sensitive. An example he used is why it’s easier for children to learn a second language or play an instrument. That’s why he believes incorporating well-being training at a young age is especially important.

“When we can recognize that every human being shares the same wish to be happy, the same wish of being free from suffering - that's universal,” said Dr. Davidson.

The future of well-being research at The Center for Healthy Minds is looking at the impact well-being has on physical health. Researchers are starting to track how mental health translates into health care costs. Dr. Davidson said this is something researchers are building towards as there are still a number of pieces that need to be put into place to do the study correct.

“There is a little bit of evidence to show this already that people who engage in regular practices to cultivate well-being are actually healthy and show decreased health care utilization and health care costs will go down,” explained Dr. Davidson. “And that will be something that every corporation will want a piece of.”

While there may be no simple answer to what happiness really looks like, Dr. Davidson ended with this thought.

“I think [happiness] starts with actually valuing and appreciating our mind. And nurturing this extraordinary gift we all have,” said Dr. Davidson.

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