Is happiness a precondition to sustainability or is it the other way around? Jenny Towndrow set out to discover the answer.

27 July 2011 – At the Happiness and its Causes conference in Brisbane, starring His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there was something for everybody – academics, monks, scientists, social workers, health professionals, cynics (described by one of the speakers as “broken hearted idealists”) and sceptical journalists. Your reporter was there and has since been a lot happier.

Tools and techniques for a happier life were promised and were offered in plenty, from meditation to philosophy; from diet (cut out all fructose) to rolling around on the floor laughing And, indeed, one of the first steps on the road to untrammelled happiness is to laugh, or at any rate smile. The beatific smile, as practiced so winningly by His Holiness was to be seen everywhere.

Humour and, even more important, creativity, came through to me as essential to happiness, even more than empathy, resilience, altruism . compassion and community – concepts which re-occured with reassuring frequency throughout the conference. Oddly enough “sustainability” was hardly mentioned. Let us hope growing awareness of its desirability is becoming taken for granted.

The conference was organised by the Vajrayana Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist organisation based in suburban Sydney. They are unusually generous organisers in these days of conferences as major money earners. There was an abundance of smiling voluntary assistants in red T-shirts and the speakers were allowed to bring a companion for free.

There were events, exhibitions and a well stocked bookshop replete with titles such as Happiness, True Happiness, The Art Of Happiness, The How of Happiness, The Pig of Happiness and 100 ways to Happiness.

Happiness, like conferences, is big business. We learned that over the last 10 years more than 3500 research articles have been published on the subject. One solution for the quest for happiness would be to write your own book on the subject. Not only will you have the deep satisfaction of creativity (sheer joy – when it goes well) but, as you work with others on the book and its promotion, you will discover the importance of connecting with those around you and involvement in community. You will experience altruism (as you will be giving away lots of copies) and you will make a great deal of money. We all know that money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly takes the sting out of being miserable.

You will be able to afford leisure, and time for sensible exercise and, above all, delicious and healthy food, including red wine, which contains the miracle ingredient resveratrol, the life prolonging antioxidant. If necessary you will be able to afford psychotherapy. A healthy mind in a healthy body goes a long way towards attaining happiness.

As the conference opened, from my VIP seat (media were well looked after), I found myself looking up into the beautiful not-so-young face of primatologist  Jane Goodall  (Dame of the British Empire) . Her serene and tranquil face lit up as she described her relationship with chimpanzees who having given us so much help in our understanding of what it is to be human are fast losing their natural habitat.  A scant two years ago there were one million chimpanzees in the world. Today there about three hundred thousand scattered.

When engaged in altruistic behavior and showing empathy towards each other (like rescuing a tribe member from drowning), a chimp can be seen to be demonstrably happy. For some humans, who see happiness as endless hedonism and the pursuit of the purely material, happiness can be a recipe for exhaustion.

Dr Goodall, the quintessential wise woman, exhorted us in her sweet voice to think in terms of true wisdom, which is to ask ourselves how our actions today will affect the generations ahead. Alas, there were no representatives of our short sighted state or federal parliaments at the conference.

Then, graceful in his maroon and orange robes, the inspiring French Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, known as “the happiest man in the world”, talked movingly on compassion and altruism that, apparently, exist independently of those self-interested warm feelings we can get from helping others. He reminded us that in the Nazi era, thousands risked their lives (for no praise or acknowledgement), saving people and hiding and housing people who were different – Jews mostly; similarly persecuted homosexuals, subnormal people and gypsies didn’t enjoy the same protection.

Genuine altruism does exist, Ricard asserted very convincingly. Also, it seems, compassion can be cultivated with mind training: meditation changes the way the mind functions; it might even change your genes.

One of the most impressive speakers at the conference was Professor Marco Iacoboni, psychiatrist and behavioural scientist from UCLA, California, who revealed that we are actually hard-wired for empathy (putting one self in the place of another), His brilliant book Mirroring People outlines one of the most exciting developments in recent neuroscience, the discovery of “mirror neorones, smart cells which fire not only when we perform an action but when we watch others perform the same action. Here may be the biological basis of empathy, morality, social cognition and self awareness.

Dalai Lama

When it comes to what you can actually do to be happy, Anthony Grant, who had worked on the ABC TV series Making Australia Happy, had some pointers. Admitting that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to happiness, Dr Grant had some useful tips like writing your own funeral speech, reflecting in your eulogy on your goals and values, and practicing random acts of kindness and gratitude.

A delightful sight at the conference was the Dalai Lama debating “changing our minds for a happier life” with a panel of distinguished psychological health specialists, which included Pat McGorry, the Australian of the Year 2010, a passionate advocate of young people and their mental health.

His Holiness removed his shoes, hopped into the lotus position, smiled beatifically and without answering questions directly, while wittingly parrying with his fellow panel members, managed to dominate the proceedings, all the time projecting calm confidence, wisdom and good humour.

The highlight of a packed two days for me personally was Michael Gelb, an attractive, cheerful science populariser, who told us How to think like Leonardo Da Vinci: Seven steps to genius everyday, the title of one of his many books – which include The five step system for Breakthrough Business Success and Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking: Uncork Your Creative Juices.

Gelb, who believes that we are all born with genius capacity, described how he happened to be in Florence where he came up with the idea of demonstrating how genius is put together by steps  which virtually anyone can take if they have the willingness to practice. The  seven (a magic number) steps Gelb defined in Italian mode as:

Curiosita – An insatiably curious approach to life and an insatiable quest for knowledge, continuous learning and improvement.

Dimostrazione – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. Independent thinking.

Sensazione – The continual refinement (and sharpening) of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.

Sfumato – (literally “Going up in Smoke”) – A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. Managing change.

Arte/Scienza – The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. “Whole brain” (left plus right brain) thinking.

Corporalita – Body-mind fitness. The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

Connesione – A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.

Our natural tendencies to develop genius are methodically squashed out of us post kindergarten when, for example, a 10-year old is told, “That drawing doesn’t look right”. Adults are conditioned to try to provide the answers that they think a teacher, professor or boss wants; independent thinking is not encouraged. As Gelb says, if you are confined to work in a cubicle, then it is harder to think out of the box.

But it’s not that hard: keep a notebook, encourage free thinking when relaxed in the shower or strolling in the park, develop techniques to avoid the tsunami of too much information and spam that threatens to engulf us, keep looking for “hedonic” experiences – joie de vivre, dolce vita, here sometimes known as the happy hour.

Roll on happiness. We could all encourage Jess Scully    jess@creativesydney.com.au, the inspired convener of Creative Sydney, to bring Michael Gelb to the Museum of Contemporary Art next year. He told me he loved working in art museums. Meanwhile, learn more about him at www.michaelgelb.com and also in my magazine Last Laugh, Wit, Wisdom and Wellbeing for the Mature Generation, to be published this November – and as there’s no waitin’ for the judgement day, get happy!

Jenny Towndrow is managing director, Creativity Ink Pty Ltd