Recently I went to a happiness conference at Stanford. A lot of great speakers were present, talking about numerous topics under the umbrella of Positive Psychology.

Happiness Within Reach I think was meant to say, that happiness is in reach for every human being. As described in my earlier post Are you happy, everyone has a “happiness set point”, however, we can increase that set point by changing our attitude and thoughts (not by buying cars, houses or achieving goals.. those are proven to only temporarily raise your set point of happiness by 10%, whereas we can influence about 40% by our attitude – Dr. Martin Seligman).

Many times things or achievements, that we think will make us happy, actually don’t. This happiness conference or Positive Psychology are also not about hedonistic behavior. In fact speakers at this conference talked about topics such as forgiveness, social connectedness, being of service, self compassion and acknowledging and being able to be with the entire range of emotions. However, happy people are said to get through set backs much faster.

Emma Seppala talked about belonging and connectedness being a fundamental human need, that increases psychological well-being as well as physical health. Whether we do have a feeling of connectedness and belonging is not by chance or dependent on external factors. We can very much influence it ourselves, as it is the perceived feeling of connectedness, it is an internal state, which we can control.

Kelly McGonigal gave a talk about self compassion. We often engage in self criticism and are harder on ourselves than others. Instead of listening to the “inner critic’s” voice or the voice of judgement, which can be linked to depression, eating disorders and anxiety, she suggests to write a one-paragraph letter to yourself about an upsetting situation. Think about what you would say to a friend in your position, or what a friend would say to you in this situation. You will realize, that we are often harder on ourselves, than we would be on a friend. Try to have understanding for your distress. Make sure this letter provides you with what you need to hear to feel nurtured and soothed.

Often we feel self compassion might make us weak, lose healthy self criticism and will have us drop our standards. Yet numerous studies show mostly positive results, which I will explore in a separate post to give this subject the deserved attention.

Another favorite speaker of this conference, whose afternoon workshop I attended, too, is Rick Hansen, who talked about the negativity bias of the brain. The human brain evolved from more primitive life forms and we still have 3 parts of the brain: the reptilian brain, the mammal brain (limbic system) and the Neocortex or human part of the brain.

The Triune Brain

The reptilian brain is wired to avoid hazards. Evolutionary that made a lot of sense, as we had to avoid predators and we had to constantly be on the watch to not become someone’s prey. In today’s world there are not that many predators, no tigers in the bay area, that might be hiding behind the bush.. However, the physiological responses to stress are still the same: cortisol is released into the bloodstream to provide a quick burst of energy, enhance immunity and lower pain sensitivity.

This is a good thing in case of a real threat, that we need to run away from or fight with. In the modern world though, we cannot run away from  or fight with the stressor, as it usually is not a tiger, but work related or emotional stress.

In order to re-train our brains from a negativity bias, always on the watch for threats and pitfalls, we have to focus on the positive, that tends to typically pass through the brain like water through a sieve, while the negative sticks to help us survive (although conditions have changed, the brain’s responses have not..).

Savoring positive emotions, being grateful, feeling connected are ways to increase the focus on the positive. Negative emotions do still have their place in today’s world as well of course: anxiety alerts us to inner and outer threats, Sorrow opens the heart, Remorse helps us steer a virtuous course, anger highlights mistreatment, energizes us to handle it (Rick Hansen, Feb. 12, 2011).

These were just my personal favorites and highlights of the conference, which offered so much more, that cannot be summarized into a short post.