25 November 2008

Happiness & Its Causes

Today through the generosity of its hosts, I attended part of the super swank, professional and impressive conference, Happiness & Its Causes. The sessions I attended were made up of several short talks and then a panel discussion with a moderator. These notes are a bit more sketchy than I thought they were, but hopefully they will be of some use.

In the first session, The Psychology of Happiness, Professor David Feldman talked about hope. Years of research have apparently identified the conditions for feeling hope:
  • goals
  • pathways (and alternate pathways when first choice or idea is blocked)
  • agency, meaning energy and motivation

Dr. Feldman also said something like, Whenever people have a sense of what is important in life and feel that they are working toward this, hope thrives.

Neurosurgeon James Doty, who started the Center for the Study of Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. talked about compassion. He was interesting but there was too much to write down. He said that happiness without compassion is not happiness - it is just pleasure. He referred to "gamma synchrony," whatever that might be (but I really liked the phrase for some reason), and in general to the dramatic and permanent changes that can occur in the brain, called neural plasticity.

Scientists and researchers have lots of lists, especially perhaps when they've got PowerPoint and only about 15 minutes to present findings from decades of research. These lists, at least the ones at this conference, can serve us as reminders of what's important. There is a lot of crossover with what Buddhism says. For example, the conditions for hope listed above could correspond to nirvana, the Dharma, and viriya (energy or enthusiasm, of the 6 Perfections or paramitas.)

I was thinking of what my list would be, of things I would like to remember every day, things I am grateful to be reminded of. My precepts...in no particular order...

  • not resisting
  • being of service
  • awareness of thoughts and the trajectory of thoughts
  • orienting toward meaning/the goal
  • slowing down/meditation
  • kindly, engaged communication
  • self/bodily care
  • "When the environment and its inhabitants are enslaved by evil, turn unfavorable circumstances into the path of awakening."

This is a preliminary list but at some point I would like to concretize as it were a list of personal precepts.

Beginning the second morning session, How to Make Relationships Work, Wiveka Ramel spoke about relationships and depression. She named four factors strongly predictive of major depression:
  1. Negative feedback seeking - seeking external views that match his or her own negative self view. Preferentially solicit, recall, and believe negative feedback.
  2. Excessive reassurance seeking - about self worth, lovability.
  3. Conflict avoidance - less assertiveness and many other behaviors in order to avoid conflict.
  4. Blame maintenance - partner or friend has fixed, negative view of depressed person.
Some antidotes to depression (I didn't get them all down but here are a few.)
  • Distancing self (though whatever methods) from rigidly held conceptions.
  • Inducing spaciousness
  • Not believing thoughts and interpretations as truth.
She also mentioned a new kind of therapy called Acceptance and Committment Therapy (ACT) whose goal is to induce psychological flexibility.

Eponymous Margaret Cullen talked about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. She used the phrase 'gentle or even affectionate mindfulness,' which I appreciated very much.

Dan Bryant talked about expectations and said, 'our rules for other people are universally unenforceable." He recommended these books and authors:
  • Forgive for Good by Frederic Luskin
  • If the Buddha Dated by Charlotte Kasl (I do find the title of this book a bit silly!)
  • Ellen Langer
  • Carol Dweck
  • Grateful Thinking by Robert Emmons
  • James Pennebaker
  • Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Also see AuthenticHappiness.org
  • Forgiveness by Robin Casarjian

  • Here is an article about the conference in the New York Times, which sniffed out and amplified all that qualified as California cheese-ball, referring to San Francisco as "dopamine-laden" (you need to have/create an NYT account to read it.)
  • Another NYT article about happiness (and t.v. watching.)

1 comment:

Sarah Brown said...

SP, Too bad you missed the afternoon on forgiveness and a Q & A with Robina. I think you would have liked it. Andre Smith is true inspiration.

I am still processing what I heard and am very interested in dying without regrets as Yeshe Khadro suggests.
More later.

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