I have been studying wellbeing for the last thirty years. My motivation for doing so originated from my own struggles with anxiety that began at an early age. I developed strategies that included perfectionism, avoidance, reactivity, and self-medication. Not only were these attempts to escape my internal discomfort ineffective, by my early twenties my behavior had become quite destructive.
So, I went in search of answers. I scoured thousands of research papers on the brain, emotions, and behavior. I studied thousands of years of enduring wisdom on happiness and human potential. I spent thousands of hours in silent contemplation and in conversation with others who were also searching.
The evidence from scientific research, lasting wisdom, and personal reflection is that wellbeing is affected by both conditional and unconditional factors. Conditional factors include what shows up around us and within us – events, people, thoughts, and feelings. Unconditional wellbeing depends on what we practice – the skills we train ourselves in and how we respond to what shows up. While conditional and unconditional factors both affect wellbeing, only unconditional wellbeing is under our direct control. We can choose what we practice. This choice has an enormous impact on the quality of our lives.
We live in a society that increasingly emphasizes the conditional – going to the right school, owning the right stuff, living in the right place, getting the right amount of recognition and admiration, feeling the right emotions, knowing the right people… The direct implication is that getting circumstances just right will allow us to avoid the discomfort of being human. This is a great message if you are trying to sell stuff, but it is, at best, an incomplete strategy for living a deep, fulfilling, and meaningful life.
I was an independent school teacher for over two decades. I taught human development, neuroscience, and physics. I coached soccer, track, and ultimate disc, as well as living in a dormitory apartment for eighteen years. I loved it – I saw all the ways that caring and committed educators could profoundly and positively affect students’ lives.
I also witnessed all the ways that schools reinforce the conditional view of wellbeing. There are both subtle and overt lines being drawn that connect achievement and the promise of lasting happiness. But conditional happiness is, by definition, fleeting. And when the glow fades, there is often a sense of emptiness, dissatisfaction, uncertainty, or insecurity that leads to a compulsive search for the next hit of dopamine. Focusing too much on conditional wellbeing puts our students on a never-ending quest to escape discomfort and pursue pleasure – all within a very complex and ever-fluctuating universe.
In fact, we have a popular culture that has elevated preference, satisfaction of craving, comfort, and pleasure to the status of virtue. How will I know if I am living a good life? If I am comfortable. If I can exercise my preferences and purchase the stuff I want. What is lost in this extreme emphasis on conditional happiness is the opportunity to practice acceptance of how things are and to choose purposeful action in the face of discomfort. Why should our students put energy into valued goals, commitments, and relationships when they don’t want to? After all, more pleasurable and distracting activities abound!
I am not a Puritan. I am not advocating for discomfort as a virtue. It’s just that discomfort is an inevitable part of the human experience. Providing opportunities for students to practice unconditional wellbeing builds the skills that will serve them well through life’s inevitable twists and turns. We cannot predict the challenges in our students’ futures, but we can give them the skills to work peacefully and powerfully with whatever they encounter.
The fundamental skills of unconditional wellbeing include presence, purpose, cultivation, and connection.
Presence: Being with what is. This is the practice of bringing attention and acceptance to what is happening. It is completely normal to be distracted by shiny things, to cling to comfort, and to resist discomfort. Being aware and accepting of these tendencies gives us the opportunity to make a conscious choice rather than being driven solely by urges and impulses. Mindfulness practice is one way to do this. We can practice this with periods of daily meditation, and we can practice mindfulness in the midst of daily activities.
Purpose: Focusing on what matters most. This is the practice of identifying what is most important, scheduling our time around our priorities, and doing the next right thing even when we don’t feel like it. Human beings have an incredible capacity to self-regulate – to put attention and energy into valued goals, commitments, and relationships even when we feel like doing something else in the moment.
Cultivation: Practicing what you seek. We do not have to wait for our circumstances to trigger the feelings we hope for. You can practice whatever it is you believe you would experience if circumstances were just right. You can strengthen internal resources such as gratitude, confidence, awe, compassion, love, joy. When we practice these things, we rewire our brain. This means that over time, these states become more habitual and consistent.
Connection: Being of service. Belonging is one of the most powerful aspects of human wellbeing. The most powerful ways to build connection are being understanding, supportive, and kind. We can get so caught up in our personal concerns, our need to be right, or the defense of our ideas and viewpoints, that we miss opportunities to connect – to be helpful. Compassion is the practice of bringing awareness to the fact that all human beings struggle, and that we can support each other in the face of this.
We can build instruction, practice, and coaching for these skills into the daily life of schools. We can teach students how to consciously and skillfully self-regulate attention, emotions, and behavior. We can send students out into the world with more than algebraic knowledge or nostalgia for the safe and supportive community where they went to school.
I want to be clear, these skills will not make our students immune to discomfort, setback, illness, injury, or loss. They cannot guarantee that our students will always succeed or get what they want. These skills do not protect our students from rejection, failure, stress, anxiety, sadness, fear, disappointment, or anger. All of those things are just inevitable aspects of being human. The skills of unconditional wellbeing foster the confidence, resilience, autonomy, empathy, and compassion that will allow them to thrive in challenging circumstances. And that is a lifetime gift that schools can give to students.
If you want to learn more about the practice of unconditional wellbeing, you can order a copy of Good Life Practice: A Quick Start Guide to Mindful Self-Regulation. This guide is a simple manual for putting mindful self-regulation into practice on a daily basis.
For thirty years Dave has been focused on the foundations of wellbeing, healthy communities, and leadership. After a career teaching human development, neuroscience, physics, and mindfulness in independent schools, he founded Applied Attention Coaching and Consulting. He works with individuals, teams, and organizations to help them focus their attention and energy where it will make the greatest positive difference. Using principles drawn from modern research and enduring wisdom, Dave offers practices that foster peaceful and powerful lives, relationships, and cultures. Dave has degrees in biology and geology from Williams College, a Master’s in Humanistic and Multicultural Education from SUNY New Paltz, and a clinical internship in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.