THE GREEKS CALLED IT eudaemonia, a word most easily translated as
“well-being,” a concept that communicated wisdom of the most practical nature. But if you check out the “well-being” section in any major bookstore today, you’ll find titles on everything from astral projection to vision boarding:
“Raise your vibration! Discover your authentic self! Attract the millionaire mate of your dreams!”
But caring about your own well-being doesn’t require you to check your cognitive faculties at the door. As a matter of fact, over the past decade, a growing number of experts—from scientists, to business leaders, even the Dalai Lama—have set out to uncover the variables that make us happy. The University of Pennsylvania houses the renowned Positive Psychology Center, specifically aimed at the “scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” This emerging science of well-being has far-reaching implications for everything from education to healthcare and provides surprising answers to the age-old question: “What makes a good life?” Plato would have been so proud.
As a more intellectually rigorous concept of well-being weaves its way into the fabric of mainstream culture, a number of individuals have started using empirical evidence drawn from realms as varied as neuroscience and behavioral psychology to develop tactics—hacks, if you will—designed to sharpen your mind, boost your productivity, improve your fitness, and strengthen your relationships. We hope you’ll use the discoveries that follow to hack your own well-being and ultimately design a happier, more fulfilling life.
It’s common knowledge that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” right? But recent research in neuroscience suggests that old dogs (and humans) aren’t nearly as obstinate as we once thought they were. Thanks to a quality of the brain called neuroplasticity, it may be possible to literally redesign your own mind.
Neuroplasticity is a term scientists use to describe how the brain changes in response to experience, and, to that end, experts say that the brain is constantly optimizing itself, even as we age.
Neuropsychologists have long observed that when one area of the brain is compromised, other regions will reorganize themselves to compensate. After a person has a stroke, for example, the brain can rewire itself so that an area that typically controls movement takes over speech. But neuroplasticity isn’t just compensatory—some researchers believe that by utilizing the brain’s innate capacity for change, it’s possible to build and strengthen brain pathways that lead to more optimal states of mind.
Dr. Dennis Charney, Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is one such researcher. As one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity, Charney is pioneering a movement to develop simple, nonpharmacological exercises that retrain the brain circuits involved in everything from attention deficit disorder to depression.
Charney got his start studying prisoners of war from Vietnam who, despite having endured years of torture and trauma, exhibited a much lower incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder than expected. After conducting hours of interviews and scans of the soldiers’ brains, Charney found that the men appeared surprisingly resilient in the face of stress and also seemed to have developed unusual mental capacities in response to living in solitary confinement (and essentially doing nothing but “exercising” their brains for years on end). One individual, for instance, could multiply up to 12 numbers by 12 other numbers accurately in his head, and another had literally designed a house “nail-by-nail, cabinet-by-cabinet, room-by-room” in his mind.
“When you exercise your brain and youdon’t have any outside distractions, you can develop enormous capacities,” says Charney.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be locked in solitary to retrain your brain. Charney’s research team is now developing neuroplasticity based exercises that retrain the brain circuits involved in major mental illnesses. And ironically enough, it appears that one of the most effective ways to induce neuroplasticity is to stress participants out (over and over again) with a near-impossible task.
When you challenge the brain with novel and uncomfortable experiences, says Charney, it is forced to adapt.
So, the next time you find yourself fidgeting restlessly in meditation or tripping over your own feet learning a new sport, remember that the frustrating phase of learning a new skill is actually your brain rewiring itself to more effectively perform that task in the future.