Links To And Excerpts From “The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing”

In this post I link to and excerpt from The plasticity of well-being: A training-based
framework for the cultivation of human flourishing  [PubMed Abstract] [Full Text HTML] [Full Text PDF]. PNAS | December 22, 2020 | vol. 117 | no. 51 | 32197–32206.

Here are excerpts:


Research indicates that core dimensions of psychological well being can be cultivated through intentional mental training.

Here, we integrate evidence from well-being research, cognitive
and affective neuroscience, and clinical psychology to highlight four core dimensions of well-being—awareness, connection, insight, and purpose.

This synthesis highlights key insights, as well as important gaps, in the scientific understanding of well-being and how it may be cultivated, thus highlighting future research directions.

Body Of The Article

To further research in [well-being], we present a novel framework focused on the plasticity of well-being, highlighting
four dimensions of well-being that can be cultivated through various forms of mental training.

To address this need, we present a framework [for well-being]
comprising four dimensions of well-being: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose (SI Appendix, Table S1). These dimensions are central to the subjective experience of well-being and can be strengthened through training.

In the sections that follow, we describe each dimension and specify the mechanisms through which it may be strengthened through training.


Awareness, in our framework, refers to a heightened and flexible attentiveness to perceptual impressions in one’s environment, as well as internal cues, such as bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. States of heightened awareness are thus typified by being fully aware of what one is doing, whom one is with, and of one’s own internal states, . . .

Although heightened states of awareness occur spontaneously
in daily life, the occurrence and duration of awareness can be
increased by training in meta-awareness and through the intentional self-regulation of attention.

Meta-awareness refers to an awareness of the processes of conscious experience, such as the recognition that one is experiencing an emotion, a thought, or a sensory perception as it occurs in real time (11, 19, 20).

Meta-awareness is involved when one suddenly recognizes an emotion before it provokes a reaction, for example, and also when one suddenly realizes that one has been “on autopilot” while engaged in a daily routine. The self-regulation of attention similarly contributes to awareness by enabling one to direct and sustain attention, to notice and disengage from distractors, and to alter the scope of attentional focus.

Training-Related Changes. Evidence suggests that meta-awareness can be strengthened as a skill through intentional training, and that doing so enhances self-regulation and corresponding networks in the brain. Meta-awareness is the main target in the attentional family of meditation, which includes mindfulness-based practices (11), and also in various forms of psychotherapy (7, 8) and interventions designed to enhance executive function (37). Awareness-based interventions (see SI Appendix, Table S2 for examples) improve a range of outcomes related to the self-regulation of attention (15, 38, 39), as well as workplace (40) and educational outcomes (14, 41).


Connection here refers to a subjective sense of care and kinship toward other people that promotes supportive relationships and
caring interactions. This may occur through positive social perceptions, such as gratitude and appreciation, as well as perspectives of shared humanity toward those outside of one’s
immediate social circles. For instance, when encountering someone from a different culture or race, or with different religious or political beliefs, one might acknowledge differences in life experience and attempt to understand and empathize with their unique perspective, while recognizing shared characteristics and viewing them as a fellow human being worthy of respect.

These perceived connections can be strengthened and sustained by generating prosocial “person construals” that shape
how we perceive other people and thereby promote positive,
caring interactions (50). For example, focusing on a shared characteristic or trait when encountering someone for the first time may lead to a feeling of affiliation rather than apprehension. Antisocial and neutral construals, on the other hand, can lead to adverse social outcomes, such as apathy, intergroup bias, and perceived social isolation (51). Prosocial construals may be accompanied by corresponding motivations that are oriented toward the well-being of others and reflect a willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors.

Relation to Well-Being. The capacity for caring relationships and positive social interactions figures prominently in scientific conceptions of well-being (5) and is an important determinant of physical health. Social relationships are better predictors of health than various biological and economic factors (52). Positive social relationships are vital for healthy psychological functioning and serve as a buffer against psychological disorders, such as depression (53) and anxiety (54), while poor social relationships can be more harmful than excessive drinking and smoking (55).

Training-Related Changes. Intentionally strengthening prosocial qualities improves overall well-being, with training-related changes reflected in the brain, peripheral biology, and behavior. Meta-analyses of connection-based interventions (see SI Appendix, Table S2 for examples), such as kindness and compassion meditation, find training-related decreases in depression, anxiety, and psychological distress, and increases in positive emotions and overall well-being (78).


Insight, in our framework, refers to self-knowledge concerning the manner in which emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and other factors are shaping one’s subjective experience, and especially one’s sense of self. States of insight thus reflect an experiential understanding of one’s own psychological processes and how the dynamic interplay of these processes influences experience. For example, when experiencing an anxious thought, insight would enable one to recognize how one’s fearful expectations are being shaped by memories and self-critical thoughts and are thus overly focused on negative outcomes. With diminished insight, one would accept these expectations and thoughts as reality, with little understanding of the factors that are influencing one’s perception.

Although moments of insight can occur spontaneously, training in self-inquiry promotes the occurrence of insight and enables
one to sustain and integrate moments of insight with a range of
daily life experiences. Self-inquiry refers to the intentional,
curiosity-driven investigation of self-related beliefs and psychological processes (11). Self-inquiry strategies enable one to examine the implicit beliefs that inform self-related narratives, expectations, and goals. For example, self-inquiry may be used to examine a line of anxious thoughts to gain insight into how these thoughts trigger emotional reactions and self-defeating behaviors. Self-inquiry strategies thus help to clarify and challenge maladaptive self-related beliefs.

Training-Related Changes. Psychotherapy, deconstructive
meditation, and other insight-based interventions (see SI Appendix, Table S2 for examples), appear to relieve mental
distress and bolster psychological well-being by altering the
content and functioning of self-related beliefs. Strategies to
enhance growth mindset, for instance, have been found to
alter both mindset and behavioral self-regulation (117). Similarly, CBT, which enables individuals to identify maladaptive beliefs about the self and replace them with more adaptive beliefs, has been shown to alleviate stress and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders (118).


Purpose here refers to a sense of clarity concerning personally
meaningful aims and values that one is able to apply in daily life. Heightened states of purpose thus foster the self-perception that one both has aims and values and is also able to embody them. This self perception, in turn, leads one to perceive meaning and significance in one’s life and pursuits.

States of diminished purpose may involve a lack of clarity concerning one’s aims and values, or the perception that one has clear values and aims yet is unable to embody them.

As a dimension of well-being, purpose thus involves both aims
and values. Life aims serve to organize and stimulate goals and
provide an overarching narrative that helps individuals make
sense of their lives (130). Such aims involve the formation of
personal values, the concepts that guide behavior by enabling
individuals to assess actions and situations, and to persevere in
the face of challenges, by orienting themselves to what is personally meaningful and important (131).

Whereas a life aim is aspirational and rarely achieved in any given situation, a value is embodied in specific, pragmatic ways.

For example, a teacher may aspire to help every child reach their potential to learn as a central life purpose. This aspiration may then be linked to specific values, such as patience and kindness, that guide their behavior in specific situations in a manner that aligns with this overarching life aim.

The alignment of personally relevant aims with one’s core values, and the embodiment of these aims and values in everyday life, leads individuals to perceive meaning and significance in their lives and pursuits (130).

Training-Related Changes. A growing body of evidence indicates that purpose and values can be clarified and strengthened through purpose-based interventions (see SI Appendix, Table S2 for examples), and that doing so increases resilience, promotes healthy behaviors, and alters the brain and peripheral biology in meaningful ways.

ACT (Acceptance And Commitment Therapy), for instance, which includes both acceptance and values-based practices, has been shown to be an effective treatment for those dealing with chronic pain, improving both emotional resilience and physical functioning (157). Affirming personal values has also been found to decrease psychological distress and depression (158) and to bolster resilience to psychosocial stress, as evidenced by reduced cortisol response (159).

Summary and Future Directions

We have proposed four dimensions of well-being* that can be
strengthened through intentional training, viewing this framework as a starting point for investigating a dynamic, skill-based perspective on well-being. The data summarized here reveal key insights as well as important gaps in our current understanding of well-being.

*  Awareness, Connection, Insight, Purpose

First, and most importantly, there is overwhelming evidence that well-being can be learned and that core dimensions of well-being may thus be likened to skills and trained through various forms of self-regulation.


In presenting this framework, we wish to further research on the cultivation of well-being by highlighting dimensions of well-being that are trainable and considering the psychological and neural pathways through which training can occur.

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