In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison introduced a framework for emotional well-being that focuses on specific skills that can be learned.
The framework is based on evidence that suggests well-being can be cultivated through practice in daily life, focusing on four pillars that have been shown to improve with training:
- Awareness, or attentiveness to one's environment and internal cues such as bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings
- Connection, or appreciation, kindness and compassion
- Insight, which refers to fostering curiosity and self-knowledge
- Purpose, or understanding your values and motivations
"It's really the 'how' of well-being," says Christy Wilson-Mendenhall, a scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at UW-Madison and co-author on the paper. "Traditionally, the focus in psychology research has been on treatment of mental illness. We're hoping to broaden the conversation to advocate cultivating well-being at any stage, even when you're relatively healthy. These skills help make us more resilient in moments like we're experiencing now."
For example, awareness—especially meta-awareness (being aware that you're aware)—appears to decrease stress, increase positive emotions and, importantly, can be strengthened through mental training practices like meditation. Awareness helps curb some of the harmful effects of distraction, which is shown to impair cognitive function and increase stress-related responses in the body related to inflammation and aging, the researchers note. Similarly, purpose in life is associated with positive biological and physical health outcomes.
The paper suggests that people can weather life's ups and downs with resilience, and that the brain and body can change and adapt. Rather than replacing other views of well-being, researchers say the framework complements other models by focusing specifically on scientific evidence for dimensions of well-being that are trainable and can be learned so that people flourish. The team hopes to make the science as accessible as possible, and they encourage researchers to incorporate this knowledge into therapy, meditation programs and other mental health treatments.
Future research will explore how the framework can help people build resilience, and how it might be used to treat mood and mental health disorders. Other research projects at the Center for Healthy Minds and UW-Madison are now using the framework, implemented through a mobile app, with promise so far.
"There are qualities of a healthy mind that many people don't know are even trainable," says Cortland Dahl, the paper's lead author. "We don't think of them as skills. Many of us have thought we are hardwired to be like this or that, but the reality is these qualities are much more trainable and malleable than we think. It's a very empowering view of the human mind—we can learn to be in the driver's seat of our own mind."