Conference on Happiness Wraps Up in San Francisco
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By Molly De Shong
Have you heard? â€śPositive psychologyâ€ť is a term for a deep shift in thinking among some in the psychology communityâ€”which, until now, has focused largely on treating neurosis. Thereâ€™s a new emphasis on discovering our great potential for true contentment and happiness. And, a shift from focusing on the negative framework of â€śfight-or-flightâ€ť response to â€śtend and befriend,â€ť an equally important survival trait. Cognitive scientists are finding that compassion is hardwired into our brain; itâ€™s not just a learned response. And as weâ€™ve all heard by now, training the mind can change the brain. Fortunately, such breakthroughs donâ€™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 â€” 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, â€śDeconstructing Happiness,â€ť 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 â€śhappiness.â€ť 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,Â 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 â€śIn-Depth Discussionâ€ť 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,Â compassion and hope.
This is the fourth Happiness & Its Causes conference. The firstâ€”held last year in Sydney, Australiaâ€”drew some 4,000 participants. Robina Courtin (executive director of the Liberation Prison Project) spearheaded this yearâ€™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. â€śIt seems that weâ€™re not limited by what weâ€™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 whoâ€™ve harmed us can help our own peace of mind; that weâ€™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.â€ť
â€”Gary Gach, San Francisco Â
Gary G Gach at Red Room
Â© 2008 Shambhala SunSpace