To break a long journey by car, the Dalai Lama had been invited for lunch by a wealthy family. Using their bathroom, he noticed that the medicine cabinet over the sink was open.
He couldn’t help but notice the cabinet was full of pain killers, sleeping pills and tranquilizers.
The Dalai Lama told me this tale when I interviewed him for my new book A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for our World, adding,
“Many people feel money is the source of a happy life. Money is necessary, useful—but more and more money does not bring happiness.”
Indeed, if people have enough income to handle life’s necessities (about $70,000 per year for the average family), studies find that additional money accounts for about one percent of their life satisfaction.
So what makes the difference when it comes to our feelings of well-being? Some definitive answers come from the work of Richard Davidson and his group at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, located at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. When I visited there recently he recapped research he had done for the United Nations’ annual report on happiness.
Based on new data revealing the interplay between the brain’s prefrontal areas, which manage our emotions, and the mid-brain areas like the amygdala that generate feelings like anger and anxiety, Davidson found these robust bases for the kind of happiness in life that has nothing to do with wealth:
- Recovering quickly from upsets. Some of us hold on to worries and ruminate about what’s upsetting us for hours or days. Others can get over what’s upsetting quickly and so pay attention to what’s next. That quick recovery helps us get back into a good mood even when life proves distressing.
- Staying positive. The more negative our general outlook, the more things will bother us. Those of us who have a sunny outlook tend to get upset or down about fewer events in our life.
- Empathy and altruism. Being preoccupied by our own concerns puts our focus squarely on ourselves. But if we can attune to those around us, we will sense when they need help. And if we help them out, our brain rewards us with a jolt to the feel—good circuitry.
- Focus. A mind that wanders or stays stuck to our worries tends to make us feel down. A mind that lets go of those concerns and pays attention to what’s going on in the here and now frees us from those negative moods.
The good news: these brain-based keys to well-being can be strengthened. One direct route lies in practicing mindfulness and a compassionate attitude. As Davidson says, well-being is a skill we all can get better at.
Sign up here to learn more about the Join a Force for Good initiative.
Register for my talk about A Force for Good on June 25 in Arlington, VA here.