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What we learned about the science of well-being

In a trading environment, resilience is key. Our founder Don Wilson often shares a story of his early days in trading when resilience helped him move forward after a big loss. So, why are some people more resilient than others? Can resilience and other characteristics of well-being be learned? How can you build a healthy mind?

Dr. Richard Davidson, known as “Richie” to his friends and associates, is a leader in applying rigorous scientific research to these questions as founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He recently visited our Chicago office as part of our speaker series, which gives our employees direct access to big ideas, breakthroughs of interest and exceptional people from outside the company. Dr. Davidson shared his research into well-being and how to build a healthy mind. Here’s what we learned.

What a healthy mind looks like

Dr. Davidson shifted the focus of his work in 1992, after the His Holiness the Dalai Lama encouraged him to use neuroscience to focus on positive human qualities instead of the negative like anxiety and depression. Since then, he and other researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds have used hard neuroscientific methodology to study neuroplasticity, epigenetics, communication between the body and mind, and prosocial behaviors such as empathy and compassion.

This included scanning the brains of both highly experienced meditators – including Buddhist monks – and first time meditators to find out exactly what a healthy mind looks like and how to cultivate one. Their conclusion? Though there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, science is pointing to mental training through daily mindfulness and meditation practices as one way to build a healthy mind. Physical changes in the brain were witnessed in just a matter of hours for both the new and experienced meditators. These results opened the door to more advanced research looking inside the human brain.

Well-being can be learned

Dr. Davidson’s opening comments made it clear that we’re not constrained when it comes to having a healthy mind – well-being can be cultivated through practice.

What I hope to convince you today is that well-being is fundamentally no different than learning how to play the violin, or learning to play golf, or any other complex skill. If you practice at it, you’ll get better.

One area of particular interest is that of attention, which has been scientifically investigated as one of four components of well-being. Dr. Davidson highlighted more than 100 studies showing there is robust evidence that we can actually change our brain to improve attention and focus, both critical elements of success in the trading industry, which can in turn lead to greater well-being.

And well-being, cultivated through training, can have impact beyond our brain. Dr. Davidson and his colleagues have studied the positive effects of well-being practices on physical health, relationships and community.

Starting a mindfulness practice can be simple

Dr. Davidson stressed that getting started with mindfulness doesn’t need to be elaborate and complex, and the practice can even be successfully incorporated into everyday activities. To illustrate just how simple it can be, he shared recommendations for introducing children to a meditation practice:

  • Lay on the ground, place a stuffed animal on your belly and watch the animal rise and fall with your breath
  • Ring a bell, close your eyes and listen, raising your hand when the sound of the bell is completely gone

Dr. Davidson also recommended “piggy-backing” mindfulness exercises onto other daily routines like commuting, to help them become a habit and fit into busy lives. Even modest levels of mindfulness practice can make a difference, such as listening to a guided practice for a few minutes while washing dishes. He argues that the mindful approach you take while meditating can also be replicated while engaged in a highly technical activity like trading.

Thank you to Dr. Davidson for joining us at DRW, and the staff at the Center for Healthy Minds for making it possible.