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Well-Being, Exercise, & Neuroscience

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Michael Bishop (2012, 2015) outlines a network theory of well-being in which well-being is constituted by positive causal networks and their fragments. By ‘positive,’ Bishop is referring to, among other things, experiences that have positive hedonic tones, the affirmation or fulfillment of one’s values, and success in achieving goals. According to the network theory of well-being one’s well-being increases in virtue of one’s positive causal network becoming increasingly resilient to the various strains on well-being. Bishop’s network account musters not only philosophical rigor—by providing a systematic and logically coherent account of wellbeing that satisfies many common sense judgments about well-being—but also scientific value—by offering a theory that unifies and makes sense of an entire cross-section of psychology known as positive psychology. The alternative views of well-being—hedonist theories, informed desire theories, authentic happiness theories, and Aristotelian theories—may achieve a comparable level of philosophical rigor, but they fail to provide the scientific value that Bishop’s network theory provides. This provides some reason to think that Bishop’s account is superior to its competition. I am largely persuaded by Bishop’s arguments for the network account of well-being, so I will refrain from offering criticism of his project. Rather, I will seek to add to it.

An important feature of Bishop’s theory is that it not only makes sense of experimental results from positive psychology, it is supported by them! One might wonder if there are other empirical realms that instantiate similarly symbiotic relationship with Bishop’s theory. I propose that neuroscience is a good candidate. While I will not be able to make a robust case for this claim, I can accomplish the more modest goal of demonstrating how, in at least one important case, the network theory of well-being simultaneously makes sense of the science and is supported by it.


There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that regular physical activity and exercise forms an important part of one’s positive causal network of well-being by, among other things, increasing positive affect (Harte, Eifert, and Smith 1995), increasing confidence (Klem, Wing, McGuire, Seagle, and Hill 1997), reducing stress, relieving depression (Blumenthal et al 1999; Motl et al 2005) and preventing more than a dozen chronic diseases (Booth, Gordon, Carlson and Hamilton 2000; see also Biddle, Fox and Boutcher 2000 for a review of relationships between exercise and well-being). The mechanisms for all of these results are not entirely clear, but neuroscience is providing, in broad strokes at least, some clues about the mechanisms that can explain, in part, why exercise produces a series of positive effects in a well-being network.

Let’s start with how exercise produces direct positive effects in the brain. Firstly, exercise and regular physical activity directly improve the brain’s synaptic structure by improving potentiating synaptic strength (Cotman, Berchtold, Christie 2007). Secondly, exercise and regular physical activity strengthen systems that underlie neural plasticity—e.g., neurogenesis, the growth of new neural tissue (ibid.). These changes in the brain cause “growth factor cascades” which improve overall “brain health and function” (ibid.; Kramer and Erickson 2007).

Now consider how exercise has indirect positive effects in the brain by producing ancillary positive circumstances. Generally speaking, “exercise reduces peripheral risk factors for cognitive decline” by preventing—among other things—neurodegeneration, neurotrophic resistance, hypertension, and insulin resistance (Cotman, Berchtold, Christie 2007). By preventing these threats to neural and cognitive health, exercise is, indirectly, promoting brain health and function.

It requires no stretch of the imagination to see how these positive neural outcomes will form reciprocally beneficial causal relationships with other features in one’s causal network of well-being. Even so, I will do you a favor by trying to demonstrate a connection between exercise, the brain, and the larger network of well-being.

We have already seen how exercise results in, among other things, increased plasticity. Further, it has been shown that increased plasticity results in improved learning (Geinisman 2000; Rampon and Tsien, 2000). Also, it has been suggested that the salient increases in plasticity which result in improved learning can produce other positive outcomes: increased motivation, increased opportunities for personal relationships in learning environments, etc. (Zelazo and Carlson 2012, 358). Further, increased motivation and social capital can result in improved capacities to overcome temptations to not exercise (Wing and Jeffery 1999). If we take these causal relationships together with the aforementioned relationships, then we can begin to see how exercise might lead to positive feedback loops that promote well-being (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Positive Causal Well-being Network. Exercise promotes outcomes in the brain that promote other positive outcomes outside the brain. Similarly, exercise reduces negatives outcomes that would reduce certain positive outcomes. This is adapted from causal network models found in Cotman, Berchtold, and Christie 2007.
Figure 1. Positive Causal Well-being Network. Exercise promotes outcomes in the brain that promote other positive outcomes outside the brain. Similarly, exercise reduces negatives outcomes that would reduce certain positive outcomes. This is adapted from causal network models found in Cotman, Berchtold, and Christie 2007.

By showing some of the relationships between exercise and the brain, this model shows how experimental results in neuroscience can reveal useful details, mechanisms, and relationships about well-being networks. Permit me to speculate that further examination of the literature in neuroscience will reveal additional information about well-being networks. Perhaps work on the neural mechanisms of emotion regulation (e.g., Livingston et al 2015) and on deep brain stimulation interventions in cases of treatment-resistance depression (Bewernick et al 2010; Lozano et al 2008; Mayberg et al 2005; Neuner, Halfter, Wollenweber, Podoll, and Schneider 2010; Schlepper and Lieb 2005) will reveal further mechanisms and causal relationships involved in well-being networks.

A Concern

A skeptic might wonder whether neuroscience will be as friendly to Bishop’s theory as positive psychology. I do not think the skeptic’s point is a problem for Bishop’s theory or for the claims I have made so far. I admit that Bishop’s network theory of well-being might not fit neuroscience, as a whole, as well as it fits positive psychology. This may be, in part, because Bishop’s network theory was designed, among other things, to account for positive psychology rather than neuroscience.

This might also be because neuroscience is a larger domain than positive psychology. Allow me to explain what I mean. As the domain of discourse increases in scope, the task of providing a theory that fits and makes sense of it becomes increasingly challenging. So, if neuroscience is a larger domain than positive psychology, then the challenge of providing a theory that fits and explains neuroscience as robustly as Bishop’s theory fits positive psychology is, by default, increased. So, once again, the problems associated with robustly fitting and making sense of neuroscience with Bishop’s account of well-being are not necessarily problems that stem from Bishop’s theory. They might just be problems that stem from the difficulty of fitting and making sense of increasingly large domains of empirical results. That being said, if one were to find that the network theory could not accommodate neuroscience as robustly as it does positive psychology, this alone would not be devastating to the theory.


Let me summarize. I have demonstrated an instance of how Bishop’s theory of well-being can fit and make sense of some empirical results in neuroscience. I have also proposed that further investigation of the literature in neuroscience will reveal further opportunities for Bishop’s theory to fit and make sense of empirical results. And finally, I have been careful to disclaim the modesty of my claim as well as provide a compelling response to a skeptical worry about the project I propose. I take it, then, that I have provided some reason to think that Bishop’s theory can accomplish even more than Bishop originally sought to accomplish with his theory of well-being.


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Biddle S., Fox K. R., & Boutcher S. H. (2000). Physical Activity and Psychological Well-being. Psychology Press.

Bishop, M. (2012). The Network Theory of Well-Being: An Introduction. The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication, 7(1).

Bishop, M. (2015). The Good Life: Unifying The Philosophy and Psychology of Well-being. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog