Human Potential and Happiness: An Interview with Richard Davidson
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, is the New York Times best-selling coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also the director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. A friend and confidante of the Dalai Lama, and named by Time magazine in 2006 as one of the most influential people in the world, Dr. Davidson has been featured widely in popular media, including ABC’s Nightline, National Public Radio, Time magazine, Newsweek, Charlie Rose, Harvard Business Review, and O, The Oprah Magazine, along with many other national and international news outlets.
Q: What are the best ways to build resilience—the ability to bounce back after difficult times?
Richard Davidson: Simple mindfulness practices that cultivate the recognition of our basic awareness are helpful, especially when they can be seamlessly integrated with everyday life instead of practiced just on a meditation cushion. Things like commuting, doing the dishes, taking a walk, or cleaning the house are opportunities for piggybacking—doing them with more intentionality, with the recognition of awareness. You’re paying attention to what you’re doing, but also at the same time you have a background recognition of the quality of your mind and the nature of awareness. That kind of practice, over time, will lead to increased resilience.
Q: Are you saying that if you bring attention to anything—like running or hiking or kayaking—it can act like meditation?
Richard Davidson: Doing activities with attention shares some characteristics with meditation, but it differs in important respects. When we engage in intentional, contemplative acts, like meditation, we invoke the intention that we’re doing the practice not primarily for ourselves, but for the benefit of others.
Cultivating a calm mind and a warm heart is not just good for us—it’s good for everyone we touch.
When we run or play tennis, we don’t normally invoke the explicit intention that we’re doing it primarily for the benefit of others. But we could, and that may change the nature of those kinds of activities in important ways. As a practitioner as well as a scientist, I have a lot of reason to believe that when we do things with an altruistic intention it produces different kinds of effects, including biological effects. I invite people to try it—engage in your activities of leisure with altruistic intention—and see what happens.
Q: Seeing the positive in the world, which seems so full of bad news, takes effort. Why is it important to do it?
Richard Davidson: First of all, the way you asked the question is predicated on the assumption that the world is really filled with all these bad things. The data suggests that that isn’t the case. For example, incidents of violence have dramatically declined over the last 200 years—even if you include all the wars, gun violence, and terrorism, there’s actually less violence today than there was a hundred years ago.
The reason it seems so bad is that the media amplifies it. Unlike 100 years ago, we have the capacity for viral amplification. But when you actually reflect on your daily life, most people—not everyone, but most people—would say that the incidence of positive actions is far greater every day than the incidence of really bad stuff.
If we bring our awareness to the common, simple, kind acts of gratitude and appreciation that fill our everyday lives, we become more aware of these kinds of activities, and they can help us see that there is really this fundamental, innate, basic goodness.
We really do exhibit these positive qualities, and departures from them are rare. These departures hijack our attention because the brain is built to detect discrepancy and contrast. The invitation in this work is to pay more attention and to be more aware of the granularity of kindness in everyday life.
Q: How is the ability to control where we put our attention an important skill for our well-being? Are things like brain-training apps helpful in learning to control our attention?
Richard Davidson: Studies show that brain-training apps make you better at the specific task you’re being trained on, but they don’t make you better in general. There are many different things that we can do to train our attention, and they all involve a quality of what I would call meditative awareness. As you read these words right now, you can pay attention to them and notice them on the page or the screen, but you can also monitor the quality of your awareness. How attentive are you? Are there thoughts popping up in your mind? How does your body feel? You can learn to monitor these background qualities of awareness without sacrificing the focus on the primary object. This is referred to as meta-awareness.
Any practice that involves this intentional cultivation of meta-awareness can lead to a generalization of skills where, unlike with the brain-training apps, the training sticks beyond the specific context. You could bring this quality of meditative awareness to anything—reading the newspaper, eating, or having a conversation—but it’s really hard to do it in the real world. You’re likely to get lost in what you’re doing. That’s why we practice on the cushion, in order to make it more spontaneously available in real life.
Q: Research shows that the good feelings we get from being kind and generous last longer than the good feelings we get from other pleasurable things. Why do you think this is so, and what does it say about us?
Richard Davidson: We don’t really know at this point, but there are evolutionary theorists who argue that altruism and cooperation are very important mechanisms in evolution. It may well be that the lingering positive effect that is experienced when one engages in acts of generosity is part of an evolutionary program that helps to maintain this kind of altruism and pro-social behavior, which may be a key ingredient to successful evolutionary development.