Regain Control Of Your Wellbeing With This Science-Backed Strategy | Dr. Cortland Dahl


Dr. Cortland Dahl, Chief Contemplative Officer for Healthy Minds Innovation and Research Scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds, walks us through the power of meditation to improve neuroplasticity, which is key to improving wellbeing, nurturing resilience, and regulating emotions.

In this episode you’ll learn how to train your mind for greater well-being with Healthy Minds MasterClass: Founders Edition.

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Dr. Cortland Dahl

Dr. Cortland Dahl

Chief Contemplative Officer for Healthy Minds Innovation and Research Scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds


From what the science shows us in this area is that meditation is to the mind what exercise is to the body. You can literally train your mind in a moment. So right now, as you’re listening Ceci and anybody who’s listening to this, just notice how your breath feels in your body. So, can you feel some sensation associated with your breath? Yeah. You’re meditating.  

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:00:43] Hi, and welcome to the Future of Work podcast by Allwork.Space. I’m familiar with it. And our guest today is Dr. Cortland Dahl, Chief Contemplative Officer for Healthy Minds Innovation and Research Scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds. Welcome.  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:01:00] Thank you so much for having me on. Excited to be here.  

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:01:03] I’m very excited about our conversation today, mostly about the science of well-being, which is not a not something that everyone talks about when they’re talking about well-being and wellness. And that’s why I think that what you guys are doing, a healthy minds innovation is so amazing. And from my research on it, in my previous conversation with your CEO, Peggy Panosh, what caught my mind the most and what I never expected to hear was that we can train our minds for well-being and to improve our well-being. From what I understand, it must do a little bit with neuroplasticity of the brain. But I’m not a doctor. So why don’t you walk us through a little bit behind the science of well-being and training our minds to improve our wellness?  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:01:51] Yeah, yeah. Thank you for bringing that point up about neuroplasticity, because it’s such a hopeful way of looking at the human mind, the human brain. And it really kind of goes against a lot of the things we heard a lot of us when we were younger. So, if you were to read a neuroscience textbook or a basic scientific textbook about the brain 20 years ago, you would have heard things like that. The brain basically develops through childhood and then really the brain doesn’t change so much. The only change that happens is really decay sets in from the time when our mid 20s and it’s kind of all downhill. But the brain is not very dynamically changing. So that’s what neuroscientists believed for a lot of the history of neuroscience. But in recent decades, scientists have discovered that the brain is dynamically changing really every moment, and it’s changing in response to experience. So, in one sense, this is good news because it shows that if we take some responsibility for what those changes are and how they’re occurring, we can harness this capacity of the brain. This this principle of neuroplasticity to use the brain to train the brain, to operate in ways that are healthy and to cultivate or improve well-being.  

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:03:11] So I’m guessing that that claim, and I think I’ve heard it a few times, that our brain stops kind of like developing up. Twenty-five years old. That’s not true anymore.  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:03:19] Yeah, it’s not true. And there’s kind of a very personal side of this, too, where I think a lot of us believe that due to our genetics or any range of factors, that we’re just kind of hardwired to be a certain way. Like when I started meditating in my early 20s, I had just had a ton of anxiety and I kind of thought, I’m just an anxious person. This is just how I am. And I didn’t realize at the time, and this is what the science tells us, the science of neuroplasticity, that we all can change. We can all we can essentially train ourselves to experience more well-being. We can train our mind to operate in a healthier way.  

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:03:56] OK, and so based on all of this, it’s not age related, which is great news for people over twenty-five who previously thought that their brains stopped developing at that age. But what about so I do understand that in childhood our brain is more dynamic, kind of like it’s easier to learn the language when you’re a child than when you’re an adult. How does that affect this concept of neuroplasticity and training our minds for well-being? Is it easier? The sooner we start, we start, the younger we start. Or do you think that regardless of age, it’ll be a very similar process in terms of time to kind of like see the results?  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:04:35] Yeah, good question. So, the short answer is that neuroplasticity exists across the lifespan. So, it’s not as though if you don’t do something when you’re a child or in the teens, that you miss your opportunity. It is something that cuts across all ages. So, there’s always this this ability we must train the mind, to rewire our brain. But there are windows of opportunity, as you’re suggesting. There are periods in life where that capacity for change and transformation is enhanced. So certainly, young children, as you can visibly see, are really changing in many ways, both biologically, but even changes in the mind and the brain. So, they’re kind of windows of opportunity where that potential is heightened, you could say. But it’s not to say that if you’re later in life, if you’re the middle age or even you’re in the last stages of life, you still very much can make use of this potential.  

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:05:34] OK, let’s bring down the concept of neuro plasticity into everyday life and in practice. And so, you mentioned that you started. Practicing meditation when you were in your 20s, and then people think about meditation, or at least I think of meditation, is this like, you know, dark room, some candles, 20 minutes, just trying to find my inner sun. And I mean, truthfully, that’s never really worked for me. But I understand and this is what I really like about your programs, is that you claim healthy minds, innovation, claim stuff from the research. It only takes about five to seven minutes a day of practicing training our brains and kind of like meditation practices. So, can your kind of like bring back whole concept down to how does it look for people in their day to day lives and why only five to seven minutes?  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:06:28] Yeah, yeah, I would even go further than that and say you can literally train your mind in a moment. So right now, as you’re you can literally train your mind in a moment. So right now, as you’re listening Ceci and anybody who’s listening to this, just notice how your breath feels in your body. So, can you feel some sensation associated with your breath? Yeah, you’re meditating. You just meditated, right? You literally are meditating right now. If you’re paying attention to your breath or even right now, I’m speaking. If you intentionally pay attention to my voice, you’re meditating. That’s all meditation is, is you’re bringing intention, attention to what’s going on in your own mind. So, when you do that, those short moments of intention, like, again, you could be doing right now by bringing awareness to your breath or intentionally paying attention to what you’re hearing, you are activating networks in your brain. Specifically, you’re activating what’s called the central executive network. This is the network that you need to activate to be less on autopilot, to be less driven by habit, and instead to be in the driver’s seat of your own mind, your own emotions, your attention, your impulses. So, you can do this literally in a moment. What we’re doing is it’s almost like we’re kind of very short moments activating these brain networks. And of course, if you just do that at once and you never do it again, you know, it’d be like doing one push up or one jogging for a minute and then stopping it will help for that minute, but it’s not going to have a lasting benefit. But what the science shows is that if you add these short moments into your day and you just repeat the many times you take those fleeting brain states where you just bring on that that executive network for a moment and eventually those become enduring traits. So, you can do this for short moments throughout your day, as you were saying, Sassy, you don’t need to close your blinds and have a dark room and light a stick of incense. You can be doing this literally anytime and anywhere. And it has a way of bringing depth and meaning to even these mundane moments of our everyday life.  

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:08:36] So in a work setting, can you give a few examples of how this would look like so before someone has a big presentation or if they’re anxious about, I don’t know, meeting with but the supervisor or their manager, what would this look like, this training, this kind of like spur of the moment in the moment meditation practices?  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:08:58] Yeah, yeah. Really good question. So just to take a practical example, that many of us experience some variation of where maybe you must give a presentation, or you have a big meeting where you have to you have to share a new idea or give a report. Going back to when I started meditating, I mentioned I had a lot of anxiety. I was phobic of public speaking. So that was a good example for me because I remember the times where, yeah, I never would have guessed that I would do so much public speaking. I do it all the time now. But when I was 19, if I had to come on a podcast like this, I would have been thinking about it two months earlier and I would have been so freaked out by it. So, if you imagine what is this? How do these practices, these principles and even this capacity in the brain, how does this help us in moments like this? One of the first things that I learned, and I still use this to this day is to simply notice what’s going on in our bodies when we have these emotional experiences. So, say you’re walking into that meeting.  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:10:01] Even if you don’t have time to go and do a formal meditation, you just have a minute or two as you’re transitioning from one activity, perhaps going to walking into that meeting, as you’re walking into that meeting to get out of all the spinning thoughts in your mind and just notice what’s going on in your body. You don’t even need to stop feeling the anxiety. Just notice what it feels like. And when you redirect your attention, it has a way of kind of diffusing the emotional impact in that moment. And what’s going on in the brain is, as I mentioned earlier, you’re literally activating this executive network in the brain. So, you’re shifting from these emotional centers of the brain where all the activity is happening and instead, you’re shifting it to this executive network and then you can really choose what kind of experience you want to be having with a little practice you can learn to kind of diffuse that emotional impact and instead bring online a sense of appreciation. Or maybe you remember the deeper purpose for why you’re doing the work that you do and that gives you some inspiration. So, there’s many different strategies. But the key is that you start with this this quality of intentionality where you’re back in the driver’s seat of your own mind.  

Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:11:12] And I find that very powerful because it gives us back some control. I feel like there has been a lot said that when we’re anxious or nervous, we feel at least I feel out of control. And so, knowing that, I can redirect that. It’s kind of just grounds me just thinking about Cat me having the control back and not letting my emotions run just because I don’t know what I’m feeling. It’s great. Like you said, it’s important that we acknowledge what we’re feeling, but it gives us some control into how we react to it. I think I don’t know, that’s kind of what I’m getting from this. And I find that powerful, especially when we feel like so many areas and aspects of our life are out of control. And I think that’s been especially true right now with the global pandemic. I feel like everyone feels like everything is out of their control. I know that at least here where I’m based, people feel like they don’t have control to plan anything two or three days in advance because restrictions and guidelines just keep changing so often. And so, I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, I just felt this overall sense of anxiousness and just. I couldn’t control anything, I couldn’t leave my house if I wanted to or if I didn’t want to like I mean, I work from home. I’ve been working from home for almost six years now. And I’ve always decided that I like working from home instead of going to an office. And I like being at home. But the minute that they told me you can’t leave your home for three days, I’m like, I want to leave. They took that power away from me. And so, regaining that control through these practices, it’s amazing. And I feel like a lot of people could benefit from this.  

Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:12:54] What you’re mentioning now is such an important point. And the science in this area really backs up what you’re saying. There’s this principle of what scientists call self-efficacy as being really a central quality of well-being, which is exactly what you’re talking about. It’s feeling like we have some agency in our lives, some ability to control what’s going on in our world. And if you look at if you kind of look back on times when you struggle, I think if you’re anything like me, oftentimes we’re fixated on the things we can’t control, because in any situation, as you’re saying, there are going to be some things that are just completely out of our control. Doesn’t matter how smart we are, how hardworking we are, we just aren’t going to be able to control the pandemic. So, when we fixate on the things that are out of our control, basically that’s a recipe for anxiety, depression, stress, and just generally being overwhelmed and depleted. But what these practices do is not only they put us back in the driver’s seat of our mind, our emotions, and our impulses, but they are oriented towards the qualities of experience that we do have some control over. So, another example, like you talked about the pandemic, which is a great example, but even just like a relationship where maybe you get into an argument with a with a partner or have a challenging moment with a friend, there’s going to be some things you can’t control. But what we can control is our response. We can control what’s going on in our mind and how we react to the situation so we can learn to respond with wisdom and compassion rather than to react out of blind habit. So that just puts us back in the driver’s seat and we just feel like we have more control. We don’t feel so out of control, like you’re saying, which is so, so important for well-being.  

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    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:14:46] I, I agree, and I understand that Healthy Minds Innovations developed a framework to train our minds. And the value proposition of this framework is that it can teach resilience and help improve relationships, specifically in a workplace setting. Why is this more important than an ever considering the pandemic, considering the burnout crisis that appears to be happening and mental health awareness? Why is this more important than ever and why is resilience so important?  

    Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:15:19] Yeah, yeah. Thank you for asking about this. So, we so healthy minds innovations, just to give a little bit of context, is a nonprofit here in the US that is affiliated with the Center for Healthy Minds, which is a research center at the University of Wisconsin here in Madison where I live. And the framework you’re talking about started at the at the Center for Healthy Minds and the based-on decades of research that we’ve done at the center, that has really led to this insight that well-being is best thought of as a skill. It’s not something that’s determined by our genetics, by our biology, nor is our brain hard wired to experience a certain level of wellbeing. Wellbeing is really like a skill. It’s something that you can learn. It’s something that you can train. It’s something you can get better at, essentially, if you if you really put some intention behind it. So, the framework that that you mentioned, we published just about a year and a half ago, and it focuses and lays out a simple way of understanding the core dimensions of well-being that are trainable. So, we call these the four pillars of well-being. So, for our awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. So, these are essentially four aspects of well-being or four pillars of well-being to use our language. And there are also things that you can train. So just a moment ago when we did that very brief exercise of intentionally bringing our awareness to the sensations in the body, like breathing, you are essentially strengthening that pillar of awareness like another. Another example would be to intentionally notice the positive in the people you’re with in your environment. And when you do that, you’re essentially strengthening this quality of connection. It just sets us up to have positive interactions and to have meaningful relationships with people. So, again, these are just all skills that we can learn and train. And there’s decades of science to the kind of. Back up these basic insights  

    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:17:26] And then in the workplace setting, why is this so important right now?  

    Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:17:33] Yeah, it’s very interesting. If you if you look back over the past few decades and there’s been an increased focus on unwellness, for example, in the corporate world in the past and to a large degree even in the present, although I think this is fortunately changing, it was seen as kind of a side thing that like, OK, yeah, we want people to be happy, but it’s totally separate from all these important business related outcomes that an organization or a business or corporation might have. But what the science is now showing is that these aspects of wellbeing, like awareness and connection, are not only important just for people to be happy and to function well and to be resilient. They’re also centrally important to the other outcomes that we have at work. So, take a simple one, like the one I’ve mentioned a few times now, awareness. This is the capacity that we all have or lack at times to be able to stay focused and to resist the pull of distraction. So that’s incredibly important for our well-being and to be resilient and just to feel more grounded and not so overwhelmed and scattered, but even just to getting work done. If you imagine just a day at work, say I do a lot of desk work, you know, if you want to stay focused on what you’re doing, you need to have that same skill set. So, the same skill that helps you be a good listener with the people you care about, that helps you be less emotionally reactive is also one of the key skills that helps us to be productive and at the top of our game at work. And you could go down the list, connection inside purpose. All of these are skills that are central to well-being and to a highly function organization and to really being at the top of our game, generally at work, at home and everywhere in between.  

    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:19:24] And I understand that Healthy Minds innovation offers different programs for companies to provide to their employees. From the from your studies or from the data that that you have from people that participate in these programs, what are some key improvements that Healthy Minds Innovations has observed among individuals and organizations that practice mindfulness meditation on a regular basis?  

    Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:19:54] Yeah, there’s some really, interesting research happening. We have several large-scale scientific studies going. We’ve already completed. I mean, we’ve been doing this work for years, but with the Healthy Minds program, which is the program that you’re that you’re alluding to, that we created based on this framework of well-being to bring some of these insights from our research out into the world, we’re really seeing remarkable results. So, we did just as one example over the last year, we did a study with 700 schoolteachers here in Wisconsin where we live, and it was right in the middle of the pandemic. So, this was just an incredibly challenging time for people in the teaching profession because the whole world of teaching in schools and education was turned upside down. So incredibly stressful period. And we took this this program we’ve developed, which is this Healthy Minds program app, which you could find on all the app stores, and we just gave it to them. There was no live training. It was completely digital. And we just wanted to see if they would use it and if so, what the benefits would be. So, we did a very rigorous study where we had control groups. It was what we scientists call it, asked a randomized controlled trial.  

     [00:21:10] So this is a very a very rigorous study. It was a big study was with seven hundred schoolteachers. And what we found was that they used it and in only five minutes a day and I think this is probably what you were pointing to earlier with just doing five minutes a day of these simple practices, sometimes even practicing during daily life activities. So, we didn’t even ask people to sit quietly and meditate. They could meditate while they were going for a walk or cooking breakfast or doing the laundry. But just five minutes a day had these dramatic improvements in well-being and reductions in stress and anxiety and depression. There were improvements and things like social connectedness in the quality of their attention. So, we were quite shocked that pretty much everything we measured had significant statistical improvements and sometimes as much as like twenty-eight to 30 percent, for example, reductions in mental distress and stress and anxiety. And that was just five minutes a day for one month. And even better, we saw that when we measured when we went back and measured them three months later, those same reductions were maintained. There was a little bit of a drop off, but you still saw these statistically significant reductions in things like stress and anxiety even three months later after they had finished the program.  

    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:22:36] That that’s incredible, especially during a global pandemic. Talking a little bit more about healthy minds innovation programs. I understand that you guys recently launched a Founders Edition master class. Why specifically for founders?  

    Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:22:55] Yeah. So, this is the term founder in the master classes because I am leading it with Dr. Richard Davidson. And we are along with another colleague of ours, Dr. Christine was amended Hall, where the three authors of this well-being framework that we published a while back, and the creators of the Healthy Minds program. So, we teach these courses. We’ve been teaching them for years and teach them to many different organizations. And occasionally we do for the public, as we’re doing with this one. But it’s the first time that Dr. Davidson and I are doing it for the public where we’re teaching it ourselves. So, it’s really the first time that we’ve done that. We’ve done it for some big companies where the two of us have led workshops together. So, it’s the first time where we’re kind of doing it in that way and we don’t do it that frequently for the public. Usually, it’s in workplace settings for some of our big organizational partners. So, we’re really excited about it. It’s a fun time, frankly, for us just to kind of geek out about the science, to learn some of these skills and to practice them together and really learn what’s of the cutting-edge science in this area is saying.  

    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:24:12] So everyone that’s listening in, we do have a discount code for you guys. If you want to enroll into the Founders Edition of The Master Class for 20% OFF the code is “FUTURE”, again – “FUTURE”. 

    And then going back to a conversation caught, what else can you tell us about the science of well-being training our minds? You mentioned that from the study that you conducted with the teachers, it was after three months the statistical I don’t even know what to call it, but the percentage of improvement was still very much marked. Is there a point in time where that the improvements kind of like plateau, kind of like, you know, when you’re trying to lose weight or when you’re working out, you always kind of hit a plateau? Does that happen with this or is this something that you just encourage people to keep on? So, like, it’s not necessarily a destination, but a continuous, ongoing journey?  

    Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:25:13] Yeah, you know, I think that one way to think about meditation, you know, from what the science shows us and in this area is that meditation is to the mind what exercise is to the body. So, there are many different forms of exercise. They all do different things and exercise, as we all know, like eating healthy or sleeping well. It’s not the kind of thing that you can just do once and then you’re done with it. And the benefits we’ll just carry on forever. It really, it’s more like learning a healthy lifestyle. So, meditation is a way to care for the mind, just like diet and exercise our way to care for the body, care for the body. And I think what we see is that we’re at the beginning of what seems like a major shift in our whole cultural paradigm, where these kinds of practices, which in past centuries were oftentimes found in religious or spiritual traditions, are now increasingly being presented outside of those contexts in hospitals and schools and corporations. So, they’re just becoming a very normal part of our lives in the same way that diet and exercise did and in the mid 20th century. So, the science I think what it would points to is that ideally, we want to learn these skills and formal meditation can help to do that, although it’s not the only way. And then the key is just to be bringing these skills into our daily life practice. So, again, just short moments scattered throughout our days where we are just maybe intentionally reconnecting with a deeper sense of purpose that we have or where we are intentionally choosing where to place our attention. So, we’re in the driver’s seat of our attention or we’re choosing to cultivate appreciation or kindness again as qualities that we can strengthen. So, if you do that throughout the day, then it just becomes a new habit. It’s just how you live your life. And it’s not so much about something. You must take a ton of time out of your day. It can help, but it’s not the only thing. It’s more important to integrate it with daily life.  

    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:27:20] And we’re almost running out of time here. But before we do, I wanted to touch about resilience specifically as it pertains right now to the workplace and the work as people return to the office. And, you know, there’s a lot of anxiety around it, a lot of stress. And how can resilience help people through these transitions? Because although I’m hopeful, hoping there won’t be a global pandemic soon, again, there will always be situations that kind of challenge us and force us out of our comfort zones. And after 18, almost to 18 months, almost two years of working from home and being isolated, we kind of got used to that. And so, this new change, it’s going to be very challenging for a lot of people. How can resilience and teaching yourself resilience and developing and nurturing that habit help?  

    Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:28:15] Yeah. Yeah, super important question. So, resilience you could think of, quite simply, is how we respond to adversity in a healthy way. So, we’ve all had moments where we had a challenge, or something was difficult, and we get completely overwhelmed by it or we get knocked off balance and we really struggle to deal with the adversity. But we’ve all also probably had experiences where there’s a really difficult situation and we not only got through it, but maybe we even learned we even grew. We kind of got some important life lessons. So, the difficult situation was a catalyst for self-discovery and growth. So, the question is what helps us move along that spectrum so we’re less overwhelmed in the face of adversity and we certainly have a lot of adversity these days. And how can we move along that spectrum? So instead, we’re learning and growing through adversity. And again, as you’re alluding to, Sassy, we can train ourselves. It’s the same set of skills. We can do simple things that our daily routine. So, for example, the Healthy Minds program app, which is completely free, we teach a lot of these skills. It basically just gives us these inner capacities and strengthens these inner capacities. So, we will be. On the end of learning and growing, rather than getting completely overwhelmed so it doesn’t make the adversity go away, but it basically strengthens our inner resources so we can deal with it in a healthy way, that puts us on the best footing to really flourish even in difficult times.  

    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:29:50] Amazing. And again, thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. I find it deeply fascinating, and I think it’s very hopeful for everyone out there as we’re dealing with a lot of mental stress and anxiety and as we’re starting to prioritize not just on the individual level, but the organizational level, the importance of mental health and overall well-being. I find that that the science backs up these claims is amazing, and it gives us a lot of hope, especially since in our very busy lives, we’re learning that it doesn’t really take you don’t have to carve out so much time and do it in a specific setting. But it’s something that you can just do with I don’t know, you’re taking your dog for a walk, you’re commuting again to the office or, you know, just while you’re making dinner or eating. I find that fascinating and amazing.  

    Dr. Cortland Dahl [00:30:44] Yeah, anybody can do this. Even the busiest people can do this. I guarantee you just it just takes a little time to get started. So, thank you so much for having me on. It’s really an honor to be here with you. So, a great conversation. I really appreciate it.  

    Ceci Amador De San Jose [00:30:59] Yeah. And thank you, everyone, for tuning in to the Future of Work podcast by Allwork.Space. Remember that new episodes are released every Thursday and you can tune in on Allwork.Space, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts and YouTube  

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