Can You Learn to Increase Your Sense of Wellbeing? Yes, with Practice and a Community

Amelia Barili

Amelia Barili, an award-winning UC Berkeley faculty member, teaches a systematic embodied approach for brain fitness and personal transformation, integrating discoveries of neuroscience with meditation and service learning. She received the Chancellor’s Award for Public Service in 2008. She has taught with OLLI @Berkeley for nearly a decade.

In this season of celebration and sharing of gifts, I wish to acknowledge and celebrate the amazing community that gathered this fall at OLLI @Berkeley to explore how we can learn to care for ourselves and help others through our course “Meditation, Volunteering, and Positive Neuroplasticity.” This nurturing community brought together neuroscientists and other experts, the older adult OLLI members who took this course, first generation Latinx freshmen at Cal, and foreign students from English in Action.

The course integrated academic and experiential learning. Students were invited to learn directly from distinguished neuroscientists and educators about their latest research on how to develop self-acceptance, greater resilience, and intra-connectedness. At the same time, students were assisted in integrating what they were learning in our OLLI course into their daily lives, by practicing meditation and by meeting weekly with their assigned mentees. Twenty older adults signed up for this experiment on learning how, thanks to neuroplasticity, we can continue to learn and take on new challenges throughout our lives. Many of the OLLI members were recently retired and were looking to find purpose in this next phase of their lives.

The implicit questions in our “Meditation, Volunteering and Positive Neuroplasticity” course were:

  • Is it possible to develop greater emotional wellbeing by taking an online interdisciplinary, intercultural, intergenerational, multi-modal course that includes meditation and volunteering as practice for learning to cultivate positive neuroplasticity?
  • Can the volunteering between partners of different cultures and generations flow and be fruitful?
  • Is it within reach to integrate academic and experiential learning for life-long transformation?
A Whole Community, Coming Together, Learning Together

From the beginning, a whole community participated in this joint effort. We needed to match our OLLI students with foreign scholars and with Latinx undergrads from Cal for a one-on-one volunteering experience for the 8 weeks of our course. Karen Lei, program coordinator from English in Action (EIA), and Evelyn Rojo, director of Casa Mora — the Latino students’ retention center from the Equal Opportunities division at Cal — did a great job partnering our OLLI students with their scholars and students, based on their mutual interests.

For example, one of our OLLI members, Melane, who had studied earth sciences at Cal with Professor Walter Alvarez, was matched with Melissa, a Latinx freshman majoring in Environmental Sciences. Milly Alvarez, who is my right hand in this course in which she has been participating since its launch in 2013, said: “This is a beautiful example of passing down the knowledge through three generations, from Walter to Melane to Melissa.” Not only knowledge and passion for learning was shared but, in our best Cal tradition, a deep sense of caring was also shared. This is what Melissa wrote in her reflections about her volunteering with Melane: “I love my mentor and the bond we were able to create. I feel as though I am in a safe environment when I am meeting with her. She is helping me deal with this new change in my life of being a college student. She has this nice welcoming safe aura that makes me feel safe to be vulnerable and talk about my life”.

We will see later other expressions about the one-on-one volunteering experience from both our OLLI students and their partners. For now, let’s come back to the more academic components of this course.  The course included lectures by well-known neuroscientists and educators who are also meditators. While dialoguing with the instructor (me: Amelia Barili), they presented their latest research on how thoughts and actions change our brain and of the power we all have to cultivate greater happiness in our life. The dialogues were recorded and uploaded to my YouTube channel, the new paradigms, where our OLLI members and their friends and the wider community can enjoy what was discussed in each of our conversations.  A summary of some of these dialogues follows.

Dr. Stephen Porges, a behavioral neuroscientist who has revolutionized the field of psychology, psychiatry and trauma treatment with his research on the vagus nerve and the Polyvagal Theory, talked to us about our evolutionary journey to become social mammals.  He also discussed the role of self-awareness and self-compassion in befriending our nervous system so we can more easily come back into balance while confronting challenges.

Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and a New York Times bestselling author, spoke to us about how we are all deeply intra-connected, and how our notion of being separate selves is a delusion produced by our education and upbringing. He shared with us insights from his book Intra-Connected, published last month. He was excited for us about our experiences in intergenerational volunteering.

Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author, was our hero. Everyone in our class enjoyed his book Just One Thing, which we read and also gave to our first generation Latinx freshmen at Cal who were participating in our intergenerational partner program. Just One Thing is organized in bite size chapters (just 3 pages each) of easy and effective practices for cultivating positive neuroplasticity anywhere, any time. Both our OLLI and Cal students read together chapters they chose and compared notes on the ways they practiced. Rick shared with us research from his new book, Making Great Relationships, to be released January 2023. He also led us in a meditation based on one of the practices from this book. Rick donated lifetime access for our OLLI students and the Cal undergrads that participated in our volunteering program, to his online course, Just One Minute, in which he presents 52 effective practices explained in 2-minute videos that are accompanied by self-inquiry questions for students to relate each practice to their daily life.

Two brilliant women: a physicist and neuroscientist from Spain, and an American spiritual entrepreneur who has dialogued with some of the most influential spiritual figures of our time, opened and culminated our series of presenters.

Dr. Nazareth Castellanos, a physicist and neuroscientist, who is Extraordinary Chair of Mindfulness and Cognitive Sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid, combines her research work with scientific dissemination about how the brain and our whole organism changes when we cultivate kindness and mindfulness in our life. Using brain and heart scans from her research, Dr. Castellanos showed us the brain changes that occur under a Loving Kindness meditation, like the one we had just experienced together in our class. She invited us to consider that we think and meditate with our whole organism, not just our brain.

Tami Simon, author, journalist and founder of Sounds True, a multimedia company dedicated to disseminating spiritual wisdom, spoke to us about the power of following our heart call and of learning to develop resilience through the challenges we meet. Tami started her company 40 years ago, at age 22, with just a tape recorder and her desire to learn from spiritual teachers by interviewing them and recording their talks. A pioneer at making spiritual teachings accessible to broad audiences, Tami stuck with her vision and her meditation practices through difficult times. She eventually became a successful entrepreneur. Tami discussed how she strives to keep bringing authenticity and heart into her 150-employee company and shared with us insights from her life and her audio recording: Being True: What Matters Most in Work, Life, and Love

All of these wonderful resources made available to us by our community of scientists and educators showed the strong evidence backing the benefits of meditation and interconnectedness. Because one of the goals of the “Meditation, Volunteering and Positive Neuroplasticity” course is to establish lifelong transformation, we began every class with a brief guided meditation related to the subject we were exploring in that class. Students were invited to practice at home during the week, deepening their own practices individually or following a video of the meditation practiced in class. The intellectual learning about cultivating positive neuroplasticity was complimented and deepened by the practices of meditation and of one-on-one volunteering.

Reflections on the Experience

At the end of the course, we asked our OLLI members and the students to reflect on their experiences. The responses were deeply touching. Here is an example of how meaningful the connections were on both sides:

Alan, 56, wrote:

I registered for this to make improvements to my wellbeing and happiness. COVID had slowly eroded my spiritual/better self by isolation and everyday losses. I sadly realized one morning I had become a more irritable, self-centered person with a more negative outlook on life. I wanted to be a compassionate loving person again, with the focus and energy to be connected to others and give back. This course exposed me to the leading science and ancient spiritual practices/wisdom to slowly regain my best self. The course's vast array of tools and practices (presented by world class experts in their fields) gave me a constructive and doable path forward to become a kinder, more compassionate and loving being, connected to others in a positive way. In just 8 weeks I have made huge progress. I am less self-centered and have begun to find love and compassion even for "challenging people" that I previously did not like. Thank you!

Daniela, the student who worked with Alan, wrote:

I enjoy having someone to talk to that can have an unbiased opinion on my problems. I also enjoy having someone to talk to that has more life experience than me. I like that Alan has done so much with his life and continues to do so, which is inspiring me to believe that I can do more than I thought possible.

My intentions in creating this OLLI course were twofold: (1) to connect meditation traditions with research in neurobiology and (2) to assist our OLLI members experience the benefits of mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude to honor themselves and to be moved to give back to the community through their one-on-one volunteering with students from other cultures, generations, and backgrounds.

My heart is filled with joy as I see the ever-widening rippling effects of our OLLI course in our communities of both older and younger students. It does indeed take a community to plant long lasting seeds for happiness and understanding of ourselves and others.

And the learning goes on.

To facilitate developing a daily practice of cultivating positive neuroplasticity, besides using the online resources offered from various presenters, all of our students are invited to participate in optional extra labs of embodying practices that I have been teaching every Saturday since the beginning of COVID in Spanish at 11 and in English at 2 PM. These free online workshops are open to the whole community, with people also joining from other countries. Every Friday night I post a new Zoom link for the next day workshop on my website If you are interested, please find the link there and join us any Saturday.

Another way to participate in this lifelong learning journey is by joining our OLLI interest group “Pause One on One”.

We meet once a month online to reflect on a video or an article, and we also explore how that subject is present in our life. We sometimes complement our discussion with brief contemplative practices. It is a welcoming, low-key community of kindred souls getting to better know each other, with some laughter and tons of warmth. This interest group was initially created in 2013, with the first iteration of this course and has kept going uninterruptedly since then. Typically, people who have taken the course join in, but it is also open to any other OLLI students and their friends who would like to join us that day. You do not need to have meditated, nor volunteered before, either. If you are interested in checking us out, please contact Amelia ( who will send you the Zoom link.