What does well-being feel like? Perhaps a little like this. We’re sitting at Cole’s Coffee on a sunny Sunday morning in Berkeley, CA. The tables are alive with conversation and laughter. The bright sky fills the air with a pale blue beauty that speaks unending opportunity and possibility. At least that’s how it feels. My wife and I are connecting with our dear friend, Stephen Heffernan, a former business partner and a longtime colleague. It’s a perfect day to be sitting out at the sidewalk tables and sharing updates, good coffee and our long-standing friendship. Satisfied, content and engaged. Isn’t that what well-being is supposed to feel like?
I talk about the work I’m doing around meditation, mindfulness and well-being, work Stephen and I have discussed on many occasions. But this time Stephen says, without hesitation, “As long as well-being leads to well-doing.”
Well, of course it does. Now let me immediately be clear about this – we are not talking about the notion of doing well, which can certainly be a part of well-doing. But doing well is much more about how my doing benefits me, rather than how it benefits others.
After a little research, it was clear that there were a lot of references to the idea that well-doing was about the right actions we take that benefit others. There were also statements that well-doing could equally refer to how we implement and accomplish programs and projects. I have no problem with that perspective as another piece of the puzzle, but I think when we couple well-doing with well-being, there’s an opportunity that emerges that is even greater than accomplishment.
I confessed to Stephen shortly after our initial conversation that my plan was to steal his observation about the relationship between these two aspects of wellness and write about them in connection to my work. As a consultant, he graciously offered me his bill with a smile.
I had mentioned to him that I had been gathering a great deal of research about the science of well-being from Dr. Richard (Richie) J. Davidson, and his remarkable book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, written with Sharon Begley. In it, Davidson documents his findings and years of scientific research into why, where and how the brain acts as it does, as well as how and why we respond and react as we do to our emotions. As founder of the University of Wisconsin, Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Davidson describes how a true sense of well-being can and does affect how we relate to the world that arrives before us.
The healthier and more pronounced our feelings of well-being are, the greater resilience we can muster and then exhibit when something unexpected arises. Resilience, in this instance, is our ability to recover quickly. But I think it also extends to our ability to accommodate others. From the standpoint of well-doing, accommodating others is a critical differentiation from doing just for me. Our ability to accommodate and rebound quickly also helps us maintain a more positive outlook on life and be healthier for it.
From my perspective, it is out of this sense of the goodness of life that we find ourselves both willing and wanting to share that goodness with others. Generosity and accommodation are a natural extension, which not too surprisingly leads to an increased sense of happiness and well-being.
Now, I want to be clear, we’re not talking about a temporary happiness, or a momentary feeling of elation, but a lasting sense of well-being that serves us in all situations that show-up. It is from this place of personal health and wellness, both physically and mentally, that we can begin to see there are others who are not as well as we are.
For me, this is the point when well-bring leads to well-doing. I would be interested to know if it were possible to truly realize a personal sense of well-being and then not care about anyone else’s. I want to believe that our brains couldn’t function that way. I think it is part of our innate being that when we are within a place of deep satisfaction and well-being that the needs of others can’t be ignored.
One rather remarkable example is Grant Perry. Grant’s life was one of tremendous accomplishment and amazing possibility. That is until a rare form of cancer put him and his family through a spiral of seeming endless treatments and operations. But Grant made it through these excruciating procedures, and rather than simply doing what he had to do to survive, only for himself, he realized that others might also have to endure the painful path he has had to follow. From that realization, he developed an app called Patient Pilot http://patient-pilot.com/a , to empower patients and guide them as they navigate through the maze of treatments so they can return to at least a semblance of well-being.
As Grant explains, “My main goal is to help people take control of their well-being.” He describes a doctor’s visit at a famous clinic in which everyone is functioning under the pressure and time constraints of the medical system they are a part. In a situation like this, patients are reluctant to ask questions. Doctors also feel the system simply doesn’t afford them the time they would like with every patient. “As I was going through my own experience,” Grant offers, “and I was fairly sophisticated, there were still questions I didn’t ask. Lingo in the pathology I didn’t understand. And the doctor didn’t explain it. I didn’t even know what choices I had.”
But it was an experience Grant had while in an examination room waiting to see a doctor at Yale University that moved him to act. He over-heard the doctor telling another patient about a surgery Grant had previously had. The doctor briefly described the procedure. What he failed to describe, Grant knew, was any of the discomfort the patient would feel; that one couldn’t talk after the surgery; and his recollection of feeling incredibly helpless. He also noted that the patient wasn’t asking any questions, partly, he conjectured, because this was a very busy and important doctor at Yale. “So, I began thinking,” he told me from his home in Washington, DC, “What could be done to help people like that?”
His first inclination was a sign that could be placed in every doctor’s office, “If you don’t know what’s happening next, ask! Do you understand? If not, don’t leave the office until you do.”
Since people don’t always know what to ask, Grant set out to develop his app that would prompt the right questions throughout the process and in doing so empower the patient and also serve the doctor.
I’m always inspired by folks who are motivated to move beyond themselves and genuinely help others, many of whom they may never know. I was having a discussion with Grant’s father-in-law about the messages we have sent far out into space toward other planetary systems to describe our human life. According to Grant’s father-in-law, one word many scientists liked was, altruistic. But for me, that was too individually based. I think we are far more interdependent, far more reliant on each other than we might normally imagine. So, for me, the word was relationship. Everything we do as a biological system is some kind of relationship, some healthier than others. But for a relationship to be at its most functional and healthiest requires a level of well-being that propels us to reach out toward the other and connect. It is at this intersection with the other where well-doing emerges. And when we do it right, it feels just like that feeling of well-being.