Centering moment

Dr. Richard Davidson is mindful of staying positive in a negative world.
Jul20 Execprofile Issue 1

Positivity is a state of being at the Center for Healthy Minds and the nonprofit Healthy Minds Innovations in Madison. Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of both, says positivity is not only trainable, it’s very achievable even in a tumultuous year like 2020.

A world-renowned UW–Madison researcher and neuroscientist from Brooklyn, New York, Davidson earned his Ph.D. at Harvard and moved here in 1985. He has spent decades researching emotion and the human brain. Early on, his focus was on adverse conditions — depression, anxiety, fear, and stress. That changed in 1992 after he met the Dalai Lama.

“He challenged me to use my scientific tools to … study kindness and compassion,” Davidson states. “Eventually, I learned there’s much more right with people than wrong with people.”

Recently, we asked for his advice on surviving COVID-19.

COVID-19 has forced business closings, record unemployment, and crushed dreams. Where are the positives?

Look at what it has created … wonderful expressions of kindness — from frontline workers risking their lives every day, to grocery store workers, postal workers. They’re putting the needs of others above themselves and risking their own health. People physically distancing are doing it not just for themselves, but for others as an act of kindness.

We’re used to fixing things, but COVID-19 is an unknown. How do we deal with that?

Uncertainty is certainly a major cause of anxiety, and even the best experts don’t know how long this pandemic will last. That’s why we need to stay present in the moment and be thankful for each day, for our families and friends, and focus on our cleaner air, rediscovering our natural surroundings, and our significantly quieter community.

We can only control our own mind and how we respond. Worrying about the future will only make things worse.

How can the Center’s techniques help business owners?

Our nonprofit takes insights from the science and turns it into products and services that can actually cultivate and measure well-being at scale.

In March, we decided to offer our Healthy Minds Program app free of charge for anyone needing to de-stress using simple meditation practices that can be practiced anywhere, at any time. We offer live, guided programs, as well.

We work with some of the largest corporations in the world whose leadership understands that if employees have a greater sense of well-being, they’ll be less distracted, exhibit less absenteeism, be more present and happier at work, and more effective in their jobs. Health care costs may decrease, as well, so it’s a massive win-win.

Doesn’t social distancing and wearing face masks run counter to the notion of well-being?

I do think “social distancing” as a phrase is unfortunate. Physically distancing is required by public health officials, but humans need to remain socially connected. Luckily, we live in a world where most people can connect through technology.

When we can’t physically distance, we wear masks. Touching, hugging, and seeing faces is very important, and I believe we’ll get this virus under control and get back to that someday soon.

What do you see beyond 2020?

I think most people would agree that the trajectory we were on was not particularly healthy in terms of issues like depression, suicide, distractability, and even climate change.

Nobody would have wished this and it’s a shock to the system, but I think it will lead to some very healthy adjustments and recalibrations. My hope is that we all learn from this. The post-COVID world will not resemble the pre-COVID world, yet there’s real opportunity here and those businesses that recognize that will do the best.