When the US Census Bureau surveyed people in December 2020, more than 42% reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, an increase from 11% the previous year. Survey data from other countries suggest that this trend is similar worldwide.
Rising rates of mental distress are probably related to life in a pandemic—the endless news cycle, financial insecurity, and social isolation. Yet North America’s mental health crisis is nothing new. In recent decades, a significant decline in well-being means that people are more anxious and depressed than ever before.
The Four Keys to Well-Being
A body of research from the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is addressing this well-being deficit by proposing a training-based framework for “the cultivation of human flourishing.” The authors of the paper propose that anyone can improve their own well-being using practical training tools from contemplative traditions and contemporary psychological interventions. Geared to both the public and scientific researchers working in the field of mental health, the framework identifies four core areas that make up our well-being:
- Awareness of our environment and our internal emotions or sensations
- Connection with people and compassion for others
- Insight into one’s sense of self
- Purpose, which is our understanding of our values and meaning in life
Underpinning these four dimensions is the foundation of mindfulness. “If you want to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, examine experience and insight, or align [yourself] towards values and a deeper sense of purpose—all of that really presupposes that you have that sense of awareness and present-moment mindfulness,” says research scientist and lead author Cortland Dahl.
Dahl and his coauthors (Christine Wilson-Mendenhall and Richard Davidson) have experience in a range of disciplines, from contemplative traditions to neuroscience and various areas of psychology. Pooling this broad range of expertise, Dahl says the group identified points of convergence, where evidence of trainability from the world’s contemplative traditions pointed to similar patterns in our quest for well-being.
If you want to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, examine experience and insight, or align yourself towards values and a deeper sense of purpose—all of that really presupposes that you have that sense of awareness and present-moment mindfulness.
Take the dimension of connection, for example, which refers to our ability to build supportive relationships and care for others. Cultivating kindness and compassion are key parts of the training strategies that would help people build meaningful social connection. While loving-kindness meditation is common in both secular and Buddhist practice, intercessory prayer in the Christian tradition employs a similar approach. In addition to meditation or prayer, you might start a daily gratitude journal or participate in Compassion Training, which focuses on self-care practices and generosity towards self and others.
The Plasticity of Well-Being
Researchers are also using the framework to develop interventions that target skill-building in each of the four dimensions. Dahl points to a yet unpublished study that found that a brief loving-kindness meditation reduced participants’ bias towards out-groups (people who are not part of an individual’s cultural, racial, or social group.) Even with a short-term intervention, positive social emotions towards other groups increased. “But it also decreased automatic processing; basically, they were more in the driver’s seat of their response, versus it just being unconscious habitual conditioning,” says Dahl.
One of the main principles of trainability from a biological perspective is neuroplasticity. “Plasticity simply means that something can change, versus it’s fixed and rigid,” says Dahl. He outlines how the brain is constantly changing based on lived experience, as we move from brushing our teeth, to getting our kids off to school in the morning, to having a conversation with a colleague. “Different networks of [the] brain are being activated and deactivated as you shift between those activities.”
Over time, neural networks can be strengthened or weakened depending on what our brain is focusing on. If we undertake a conscious training strategy, such as the examples set out in the framework, we’ll help activate specific brain regions and develop those areas of insight, purpose, awareness, and connection.
Redefining the Future of Mental Healthcare
Although the framework was recently published, its evidence base has already been informing important research in the area of mental health and well-being. The Healthy Minds Program app (developed by Healthy Minds Innovations, the non-profit affiliated with the Center), is based on the framework and the data gathered from users has been used by research groups across the United States.
The app targets each of the four dimensions separately, moving from purpose to awareness, and is designed to have the user participate in activities that build skills to improve well-being. Strategies offered are both active and passive, and users can track their own progress. There are podcast-style lessons about the science behind why these dimensions matter for daily living, and 200 different guided meditations and lessons of varying lengths. The app is publicly available and free through app stores.
“We’re really interested in studying…what happens when you learn these skills through a sitting meditation practice versus doing something while you’re exercising or taking a walk or doing a chore,” says Dahl. The data gathered through the app is helping the team to answer important research questions about how well-being is cultivated.
The app is a prime example of what mental health care might look like in the future and is part of a wider movement towards precision medicine. Dahl says that with machine learning and digital therapeutics, researchers and practitioners can learn what strategies work best for specific individuals. “You can really help people find a path that’s going to work best for them, versus a one size fits all approach,” says Dahl.