Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The science behind Don Bosco

For some years I have been following the research into healthy minds and what makes people flourish. Reading cutting edge research has led me to look forward to deeper understanding and also back to the wisdom of the salesian way of working. This has given me an even deeper confidence in the christian humanism of Don Bosco in his work with others. Here are a few things I have learnt.

Recent research has shown that we have a strong emergency network in our brains that reacts instantly to threats. The more this is activated the more likely we are to see threats. This fear based system shuts down the work of other parts of the brain and leaves us vulnerable to anger and depression. It can lead us to distrust others and in so doing impair relationships. This damaging dominance of fear was something Don Bosco recognised in what he called the repressive system with its focus on blame and punishments. His system was based instead on loving kindness, the love that casts out fear. Working with young people by consciously reducing fear therefore seems to make changes in brain structure that helps people flourish- It brings young people to life.

Other studies in genetics have explore the way that some young people develop differently even though their genetic make-up is almost identical. Researchers wanted to know why people could grow up with such different gifts. Their remarkable conclusion was that the nurture they received, particularly early on, 'switched on' more genes and led to a healthier lifestyle and an extended range of giftedness. Even though the genetic profile may be similar nurture, warmth, compassion and kindness make strongly positive genetic changes in people.Further study suggests that genes that are switched off  might be passed on to future generations through their dna for up to six generations.Is this the science behind the kindness at the heart of Don Bosco's work?

Psychologists are motivated by these findings because it means that neither our genes nor our experiences can determine our lives. It is up to us as individuals and as groups to make good choices and there is nothing inevitable about how our lives unfold. This basic freedom, uncovered by psychology underlines the importance that Don Bosco based on freedom. He kept the rules to a minimum and wanted young people to choose within the safe boundaries of the oratory. Rather than rigidity in discipline he preferred the friendly presence of good adults where boundaries could be pushed and explored safely.

One of the worrying trends among young people today is the increase in stress and depression. Studies of well adjusted people seem to suggest that the ability to 'contain' sadness and loss and 'amplify' the experience of goodness and joy is a critical factor in maintaining a healthy and resilient mind. To be resilient, the researchers report, there need to be three positive experiences or moods to every negative experience or mood. Between partners in marriage the ration needs to be 5:1 for a marriage to flourish. The ability to focus on the good, to give it space in the mind, leads to an increased energy to deal with the inevitable negatives life brings. Don Bosco took this approach to work with young people. he refused to write them off, poured encouragement into their minds and hearts and modelled positive living through generous praise. Optimism is not therefore naive but a powerful tool in opening up hearts and minds to the fullness of life.

There is no easy formula for fullness of life but psychologists have an intuition that such a formula would include three things:

More important, science has found that genuine changes in happiness only come about when three things come together: lots of positive emotions and laughter, being fully engaged in our lives, and finding a sense of meaning that is broader than our day-to-day life. (Rainy Brain Sunny Brain, Elaine Fox, Heinaman 2012)

It seems to me that these three things are not far away from Don Bosco's own formula of reason, religion and loving kindness. Don Bosco was a deeply human christian, intuitive and creative in his work and able to engage with the heart. His whole approach seems to be blessed by God and recently by hard-headed science. Perhaps we should be more confident in promoting and celebrating this spirituality in our world.