Mind-Body & Family Well-Being

Our Mind-Body & Family Well-Being initiative is a School of Human Ecology collaboration of coursework, research, and real-world application—within the school and in the community. Its focus is mindfulness, a practice that scholars and health care practitioners increasingly agree can be used to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities. Affiliated with the Child and Family Well-Being academic department, the Mind-Body & Family Well-Being Initiative is intended to establish SoHE as a leading intentional and inclusive wellness community on the UW-Madison campus.

EcoWell Fall 2015 Report

Research. Teach. Engage.

At the School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison, scientists are making important discoveries about how contemplative practices such as meditation can transform the brain’s pathways, enabling people to experience more balance and calm in their lives. Cultivating kindness, empathy and other pro-social characteristics in children and parents is at the core of this unique, collaborative effort. Well-being aligns with what scholars and healthcare practioners increasingly agree is a unifying, common thread for improving the lives of individuals, families and communities.

Fueled by that knowledge, the School of Human Ecology is embarking on a major initiative to:

  • Understand and harness the potential of mindfulness training in the development of positive, healthy behavior in children and families.
  • Apply our efforts to helping young children build constructive psychological processes to promote a lifetime of increased well-being.
  • Share the benefits of such training with people in Wisconsin and across the nation.

We see the challenge

Poverty, high unemployment and uncertainty about the future are causing increased tension and stress in families. Not surprisingly, children are affected and often react with antisocial, even violent, behavior in school and at home. Bullying is also a problem, both for the children targeted and for those doing the bullying. It’s estimated that one out of four elementary-school bullies will have a criminal record before they reach age 30. The use of drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder grew by 46% between 2002 and 2010. The U.S. is far ahead of other countries in using medications to address children’s behavioral disorders. Now, concerns about relying on prescription drugs to treat our children’s problems are growing right along with the problems they attempt to address.

Human Ecology Perspective

Many modern attempts to enhance human well-being share in common two interrelated features: they focus on the happiness of individuals and they focus on the brain. In contrast, the Mind-Body & Family Well-Being Initiative is founded on the principle that both individual happiness and optimal brain functioning are best achieved by adopting a wider perspective that sees human well-being as emerging from the complex interactions of multiple systems that range from the microbial to the societal. This perspective does not diminish the importance of the individual as the nexus at which well-being is experienced, nor the importance of the brain as a primary source for the rich realm of conscious experience. Rather, building upon sciences ranging from evolutionary biology and anthropology to neuroscience and immunology, an ecological perspective understands human persons as arising from processes that function at levels both above and below the individual and sees brain states as occurring in response to an array of inputs that stretch from the microbes in our guts to the complex social worlds that we all inhabit. Through this holistic and scientific lens, we are able to offer an ever-richer and ever-evolving understanding of the ancient philosophy of  “interdependent arising.”

Recent evidence from Mind-Body & Family Well-Being Initiative researchers and others suggests that another ancient practice—in this case compassion meditation—may hold exceptional promise as a means of overcoming the painful evolutionary legacy of the tribal mind by helping individuals to radically enlarge the size of their “in-groups” and thereby to proportionally reduce the types of interpersonal struggle and conflict that are inimical to both health and well-being.

We see a better way

An expanding body of knowledge is showing that secular (nonreligious) training derived from contemplative practices such as meditation can actually transform the brain and promote healthier psychological processes. People, including children, can change their brains—thus their behavior—to become more compassionate and empathetic. Young students can be taught techniques that improve memory, awareness and attention span—characteristics critical for success in school—while reducing stress, emotional suffering and related poor health outcomes. Teachers can learn to increase patience and minimize tension—and prevent “burnout.” Parents can discover ways to deal with domestic struggles and household dynamics to provide a more stable, secure environment for their children.

Connecting resources to elevate lives

Simply put, this initiative will utilize various emerging ecological understandings to identify, test and disseminate new methods for transforming consciousness, with the goal of enhancing the physical and emotional well-being of individuals, families and society. Although this ecological perspective is consistent with cutting-edge science, it also resonates powerfully with many traditional understandings of how well-being and social harmony are best achieved.   An ecological perspective on human well-being also suggests that better understanding the physical and social environments in which humans evolved will lead to the identification of important strategies for addressing many of the health and social problems that threaten the human future.

The Mind-Body & Family Well-Being Initiative is affiliated with  the Center for Child and Family Well-being in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but will collaborate widely with units across the university, as well as with external partners

Mind-Body & Family Well-Being  Conceptual Framework

A foundational assumption of the initiative’s perspective is that individual well-being is best achieved by enhancing these larger ecologies. While this sounds abstract, its implications are concrete and immediate. If processes outside the brain play pivotal roles in the quality of conscious experience, then these processes become attractive pathways for promoting conscious transformation. Conversely, because consciousness feeds back into the world from which it arises, changes in consciousness have the power to transform not just the functioning of our families and communities, but also the functioning of our bodies.