His team is also putting ordinary individuals, first-timers, through a two-week intervention that includes 30 minutes a day of compassion meditation. Davidson predicts changes in the brain regions associated with emotion and empathy as well as the subjects making more altruistic decisions: "They will also have the opportunity to give away some of what they earn for their participation in the study," he says. "We expect that those undergoing compassion training will donate more money."

The idea that compassion can be learned—and that the process can be measured scientifically—is what thrills Davidson. And he envisions compassion training in a variety of settings, from public schools to the corporate world. "Now we mostly have monks and other religious figures preaching about these ideas," he says. "It's quite another thing to have a hard-nosed neuroscientist like me suggest that such training may have beneficial consequences for how we act toward others as well as promoting health. Most people accept the idea that regular physical exercise is something they should do for the remainder of their lives. Imagine how different things might be if we accepted the notion that the regular practice of mental exercises to strengthen compassion is something to incorporate into everyday life."

To what extent can we really brighten our outlook? What is the best way to deflect stress? How can people become more resilient? Are there other ways aside from meditation to boost the brain? Many questions remain to be answered. It is a tantalizing prospect: that even a little more joy might be within everyone's reach. "I've been talking about happiness not as a trait but as a skill, like tennis," says Davidson. "If you want to be a good tennis player, you can't just pick up a racket—you have to practice."