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Conference on Happiness Wraps Up in San Francisco

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Gary Gach

Author, editor and advisor to the Buddhist Channel Gary Gach reports from the Happiness & Its Causes conference that just ended in San Francisco

By Molly De Shong

Have you heard? “Positive psychology” is a term for a deep shift in thinking among some in the psychology community—which, until now, has focused largely on treating neurosis. There’s a new emphasis on discovering our great potential for true contentment and happiness. And, a shift from focusing on the negative framework of “fight-or-flight” response to “tend and befriend,” an equally important survival trait. Cognitive scientists are finding that compassion is hardwired into our brain; it’s not just a learned response. And as we’ve all heard by now, training the mind can change the brain. Fortunately, such breakthroughs don’t occur in complete isolation, as I can report from the floor of the Happiness & Its Causes conference here in San Francisco.

The conference opened on Nov. 24 with 700 people filling the Westin Hotel. There were health workers, therapists, teachers, students, media, Buddhist practitioners — all of whom soon formed a single, palpable, attentive, living link with the high-powered presenters, spurring them on to share their best. The first of five panels, “Deconstructing Happiness,” established a baseline for the rest of the day and for the conference. Psychologist Paul Ekman sharpened our discernment of the spectrum of possible states (and traits) implied by “happiness.” He was followed by a provocative capsule of the history of happiness in Western thought, presented by Prof. Darrin McMahon (author of the new book,  Happiness: A History).

After equally fine presentations by Dr. Thupten Jinpa (known to millions as principal translator to the Dalai Lama) and Prof. Owen Flanagan (who staked out the materialist, or naturalist, perspective), the four came together for an “In-Depth Discussion” moderated by Dr. B. Alan Wallace (President of the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies).

Other panels explored social engagement, creativity, and cognitive research on the value of altruism,  compassion and hope.

This is the fourth Happiness & Its Causes conference. The first—held last year in Sydney, Australia—drew some 4,000 participants. Robina Courtin (executive director of the Liberation Prison Project) spearheaded this year’s event, working on behalf of the Sherab Plaza Trust.

So, what is happiness, and what are its causes? Sister Robina tells us that these are fundamental questions, and that recent research is challenging many of our firmly-held beliefs and assumptions. “It seems that we’re not limited by what we’re born with, that our brains can change; that our self-perception has an impact on whether we succeed or fail; that introspective techniques such as meditation can help us overcome depression and anxiety; that forgiving those who’ve harmed us can help our own peace of mind; that we’re hardwired for compassion; that we can learn to be happy, even joyful, in the face of suffering and death; and, finally, that happiness can be taught.”

—Gary Gach, San Francisco  
Gary G Gach at Red Room

© 2008 Shambhala SunSpace

One Response to “HAPPINESS & ITS CAUSES | Gary Gach”

  1. Catherine Nagle Says:

    I can’t thank you enough, Gary, for your much needed article and link to Sunspace, in bringing this information to us, to improve, growth and development and the balance ,for a much more truly successful meaning life for all of us.

    Catherine Nagle

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