Happiness and its causes

Simon Smart with some reflections on the 2010 Happiness and its Causes conference.

In all honesty I probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind on the morning of Day 1 of the Happiness and its causes conference. Battling a lingering chest infection and having endured soul-crushing traffic after juggling child minding for a sick 5-year-old, I was dragging my feet a bit by the time I arrived at the Sydney Convention Centre. Or perhaps this event was just the tonic I needed.

This is the fifth time around for what has become a major event on the city’s calendar. The conference brings together local and international experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, social research, political science, and health. Along with them are the dynamic authors, journalists, meditation and yoga experts, and media personalities that make for a really stimulating, challenging and entertaining couple of days. The conference amounts to a collective contemplation of what makes, and how to achieve a happy, or more accurately, fulfilling life.

There is no shortage of people interested in the topic. The 2000 or so delegates part with several hundred dollars for each day of the conference. There are some young people, but most are in their middle years. I spotted plenty of men, but they were well outnumbered by women. Talking to people in the foyer, my impression was that the majority appeared to come from caring professions like education, health care, social and community work. You get the picture, not too many Goldman Sachs executives here!

The event is hosted by the Buddhist Vajrayana Institute so it’s not surprising that in this crowd there is either deep commitment to, or great sympathy for, Eastern spirituality. But consistent with Buddhist philosophy, there is no insistence on adherence to any particular worldview or faith.

This year’s theme was ‘Tools and Techniques for a Happier Life’ and who could argue with that sort goal. On the way to the conference I noticed a railway station billboard claiming that 7 out of 10 people are impacted by mental illness. Even if that figure is a little high, it is indicative of a society where rapid change and its associated anxiety, stress and uncertainty take their toll, and so it is not surprising that there is much hunger for answers to the question of how best to negotiate our way through modern life.

There were various and mixed answers given over the two days. Naomi Wolf’s call to ‘unlock the goddess within’ didn’t resonate with me so much, although her assessment of the damaging impact of the advertising and cosmetics industry on women’s self-image did.

Professor Barbara Fredrickson explored the impact of positive emotions in aiding us to flourish as human beings. Social researcher and author, Hugh Mackay, looked like he might spoil the fun. ‘I’m going to talk about sadness’ he declared in the opening of his address. He wanted to challenge definitions of happiness and focus on wholeness instead.

We heard much about community, and the benefits of living life focused on other people and not just ourselves. There were messages of developing resilience to life’s inevitable trials and struggles, and challenging or eliminating sources of unhappiness. Stories of forgiveness and noble lives spent in the service of good causes were there to inspire. Various and sometimes bizarre methods of yoga and relaxation tested the comfort level of at least one in the audience.

Over the next couple of articles I will engage with some of the main messages of the conference. Firstly, I’ll look at the notion of community.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity