Last week, I attended the conference Happiness and Its Causes in San Francisco. There were dozens of speakers: doctors, psychologists, researchers, and Buddhist monks, to name a few.
Happiness, we now know, is not something that we must wait around to just "happen." Though the root of the word (the "hap" part) means "luck," neuro-science, psychology, and other fields now know enough to explain that happiness is a state that people can consciously work towards, that there are specific ways of going about it, and that these ways have measurable, repeatable results. The more you know about the subject, the less luck seems to be involved.
Before even mentioning the subjects discussed, I'll say that the overall tone of the conference was a contrast to the Game Developer's Conference. The average maturity level was much higher, there were no slimy business deals happening all around me, and there was a general calmness and mutual respect that permeated the place. I saw valuables strewn about unattended, but we all knew that no one would actually steal anything here. Also, there were quite a few more Buddhist monks wandering around than the usual conference.
The topics were too wide-ranging to summarize here, especially considering that many speakers only captured the tip of the icebergs of their subjects. I've read many of their books, so I think the best way to deliver this information to you in a non-boring, distilled form is for me to write several articles over the coming weeks. But here's a quick roundup.
The mastermind behind the entire conference is a monk known as Venerable Robina. She's from Australia and organized this same conference in Sydney, then took it to the US. She's currently based in San Francisco where she runs the Liberation Prison Project. Venerable Robina explained that over 10 years ago, a prison inmate wrote to her asking for advice about life and about the mind. Buddhism, in case you are unaware, is not a religion in the usual sense, and it doesn't bother with who created the universe. It is entirely about the human mind and how humans can take conscious steps to release their own minds from their own inner prisons (of anger, of hate, of low self-worth, of jealousy, of false beliefs, and so on).
Robina wrote back to that prisoner, answering his questions. She said Buddhists consider it "very bad manners" to try to make anyone into a Buddhist, but when someone asks for techniques about shaping the mind and about cultivating the good within, she said it's not right to deny them advice, or friendship. Soon dozens more wrote her, then hundreds, and now thousands. She has a staff working around the world who correspond with prisoners, sometimes to just give them a friend, and sometimes to help them grow their understanding of themselves, and of compassion for others.
Dr. Thupten Jinpa, PhD.
Jinpa, as everyone calls him, is a warm and wise man. Due to some last-minute scheduling problems, Jinpa ended up appearing on stage in more panel discussions than were originally planned. When Jinpa apologized for this, I think Venerable Robina summed up everyone's thoughts when she said, "Don't worry Jinpa, you're nice and everyone likes you." Indeed.
Jinpa is the chief translator to the Dalai Lama himself. He's held this position for 24 years, and I think he's managed to capture a bit of whatever it is that runs through the Dalai Lama's blood. He's humble, and always seemed to have an informed opinion on the various topics. His principal message (along with Venerable Robina's) was that after you have weeded out many of the problems of your own mind, you are then ready to have true compassion for others. Furthermore, that doing so is a key factor in creating happiness for yourself. I would think of these as platitudes, if it were not for the armies of psychologists and neuroscientists that have studied the effects of gratitude, the effects of forgiveness, the effects of compassion, and other such positive emotions.
I caught Jinpa at a break and spoke with him directly, and personally. I told him that I understood his message and that I understand its value, but that I have a difficult question for him. He said to go ahead. I then asked, "Isn't compassion not enough?" I explained that here in California, we have a situation where gay people's rights have been taken away, and though I understand Jinpa's advice would lead to feeling compassion for both sides, isn't it wrong to simply allow such injustice to happen?
Jinpa said that he heard about this situation recently and that he is very surprised that it happened, that it seems not right that it could even have been decided by such a close vote. (And that it was voted on at all might violate California's state constitution because only the legislature is supposed to be allowed to put something like that on the ballot in the first place, but that's another story). Jinpa then said that compassion does not mean inaction. Taking action is fine (and sometimes imperative?). I said ok, but I will take it a step further. I said to imagine a world where if someone said, "I think gay people should have fewer rights" that that person would be shunned, looked down upon, and ostracized. I asked, "wouldn't such a society actually be better than the one we have now? Aren't rights like this so important that we SHOULD shun those who would take them away?" Jinpa looked a little troubled. I asked, "What is the Buddhist answer?"
He said the Buddhist answer is that compassion is for people. The people who have beliefs that may be harmful--they are still people. As people, Jinpa says, they deserve our compassion. But ideas can be bad or harmful and it is perfectly ok to fight the ideas, to shun the ideas. I think I was pushing my luck by even talking to him this long, so I said thank you.
The Many Speakers
Paul Ekman, a giant in the field of psychology, started off the conference by saying that the word "happiness" is extremely overloaded to the point of being meaningless. He broke down the many, many words that people might mean when they say "happiness" and explained a bit of his research on each of those subtopics.
Darrin McMahon explained the history of the word, and how many different cultures and famous people have defined it differently. Both Ekman and McMahon (and the rest of the field of psychology, really) have divided the term into about three categories: the pleasures (fleeing, immediate), the gratifications (longer lasting, though lower intensity), and meaning--the idea that leading a meaningful life has the byproduct of "happiness", or at least a certain flavor of it.
Dr. Robert Sapolsky gave a great talk about the other side of the coin: stress. His research involves studying the stress response in animals and he explained in great detail the anatomical changes that occur during stress. Basically, all long-term activities (tissue repair, cell growth, reproduction) are turned off and all emergency systems are turned on.
One major difference between animals and people is that our frontal cortex (the newest development in the brain) allows us to imagine and simulate the future. This also means our capacity to worry and be stressed over the future is far greater than that of any other animal. Sapolosky's point is that in modern life, the stress response gets triggered in ways that evolution didn't intend, such as "what about the mortgage," and "will I get that promotion at work?" In many people, this leads to the stress response being on almost all the time, and that means the body's long-term systems are barely working. Less cell-growth, less tissue repair, worse digestion, and so on lead to chronic health problems, not to mention unhappiness. Controlling your stress response--your way of thinking about the world--is learnable and trainable.
Ross Mirkarimi is a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and co-founded California's Green Party, along with Ralph Nader. I was struck by Ross's presence the moment he walked on stage. There's really something about him that's intangible, something charismatic. The first thing he did was walk onto the stage, then say, "So I'm supposed to sit on these chairs? Or what?" The speaker before him had a podium, and I'm not sure why Ross didn't get one. I think it was a mixup of some sort, because the chairs up there were for panels of people, but Ross gave his presentation alone.
Anyway, even from that point, I wanted to hear what this guy had to say. He's big and tall and he has a deep voice, but there is something soothing and gentle about him. He sat on the edge of his chair, leaning forward, and explained his view of politics and San Francisco. People who study public speaking should really watch him, because he captivated the audience with his deep sincerity and positive message.
Ross is best known for something he had no idea he'd be known for at all. He is the one who wrote the bill (that is now law) that banned plastic bags in the city of San Francisco. He talked about how the federal government's total failure on environmental issues (among other issues) has put all the burden on us to do better for ourselves. He said plastic bags are just one small place to start: they are unsightly, they clutter up the city, they pollute the atmosphere with chemicals, and they are simply not needed because we have alternatives. He thought plastic bags were as good of a place to start than any. He did not, as he wrote the law, know that he was the first person in the state, in the country, or he says, anywhere in the world to put this law into effect. Since then, more cities in California, more municipalities across the United States, and Paris and London have all followed his lead.
I hate to boil down Ross Mirkarimi to this one issue of plastic bags. Even though he had just wandered out of a city budget meeting just before stepping on stage, he spoke with the same spirit of understanding that ran throughout the entire conference. I'm glad someone like him has some say in government (and I told him so, personally, as he was eating piece of cake during the break).
Sayaka Matsumoto, out of all the speakers, is the person that I think the readers of sirlin.net would most relate to. On the one hand, she is a little girl (25 years old, but small) and she speaks with a high, child-like voice. And yet, she is a true competitor and a champion. She's been practicing Judo since the age of 5, and she's won 10 Senior National Medals in Judo, 7 of them gold. She represented the US at three World Championships (2001, 2003, and 2005) and competed in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics after defending her number-one seed at the Olympic Trials. I kind of can't believe that this little girl could kick my ass.
Sayaka's presentation was about the difference between the momentary sense of elation and euphoria that competition brings, compared to the enduring sense of happiness in her life that the sport and the competition have brought her. Really, she said all the same things that I say about Street Fighter competition, it's just that her credentials are much more impressive than mine. Anyway, I feel that we're cut from the same cloth, so to speak.
Her father, Dr. David Matsumoto, is a 6th degree black belt in judo and also a professor of psychology and the director of the Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory in San Francisco. His daughter joked that his father would dismiss her entire presentation with a line like "where's the scientific validity of your statements??" but that she only knew what she knew. Anyway, this is quite a family of champions, so I tracked down Dr. Matsumoto afterwards and asked if I could interview them for a book (or maybe an article first). He said yes, that sounds fine. I hope we really do it though, it's interesting to see the overlap of my thinking about competition and his daughter's (and presumably his, too).
Some Other People
One woman spoke in a depressed manner about the healing power of dance. She seemed confused why she was even asked to speak (so was I) and then started rambling about how you might not expect her to combine the topics of dance and the seriousness of battered women and domestic violence (I didn't expect that, she was right). I found her talk confusing with a deep emotional undertone of sadness and despair. I think she sucked the blood out of the entire conference hall.
Immediately following this, a ridiculous Swiss guy, Maestro Urs Leonhardt Steiner, took the stage to talk about how singing made him happy. Like with Ross, there was something about this guy that we all immediately got, literally less than two seconds after he walked on. What we got was that he was very, very happy. I think the best word to explain my feeling about singing, and especially about forced audience participation and singing would be the word "contempt." And yet, contempt is not enough to stop the powerful positive force of Steiner.
He made crazy sounds, and he explained his views on the positive emotions that singing produces. He had no data, no science, but boy was he a damn happy fellow. He made the entire audience stand and sing various notes and phrases. He intentionally created a horrible cacophony of our voices so he could then "tune" them and get the unwashed masses into somewhat of a harmony. He then made us sing a ridiculous SWISS song that everyone struggled to even remember the words to in this language none of us speak, then he made us sing it loudly.
He then suddenly stopped, and asked us, "how do you feel?" Even I--who could not possibly hate singing any more than I do, who has contempt for his very premise--couldn't deny that we were all feeling pretty good. He then asked "is there anyone who was thinking about anything other than singing just then?" He waited, honestly allowing for someone to answer. No one did, because no one was. And this was his real point: look how absorbed we were in this activity, how we forgot, for a moment, other things, and how most of us were learning something new. He didn't say the word, but that is "flow," and sometimes a first-hand demonstration of it is more powerful than the science behind it.
There were many more speakers, but I'll tell you about just one more. Like the crazy Swiss guy, Andre did not use science to back up his points, but instead spoke from the heart. His topic was forgiveness, and maybe his story was all the more powerful for me because I have read psychology books and research papers on this exact topic and I know good and well that there is scientific basis for what he's saying. I think his talk was even more powerful because it's not *just* that he spoke from the heart (anyone off the street could do that), but that he has 6 years of Buddhist training, so he is extremely in touch with his own mind and better able to deal with terrible tragedy than most people would be.
By the way, Andre is part of Venerable Robina's Liberation Prison Project and he teaches meditation and anger management classes at the Caledonaia Maximum Security Prison and Nash Correctional Institute in North Carolina.
Andre spoke about the murder of his son. He began by giving a factual account of the events. His son went out dancing, to meet girls. He participated in mosh-dancing, the kind where you jump up and down and slam against each other. He said his son had a very high level of energy and was likely to be jumping the highest. His son accidentally bumped a man and made the man spill his beer. The man asked for an apology, but Andre's son didn't give one because he thought an apology was not necessary. Andre says he wishes his son did give that apology because perhaps he would still be alive today, but of course we don't know that for sure, he said. Later that night, Andre's son went the restroom and used the urinal while the man with the spilled drink stepped up from behind and killed Andre's son.
Hearing Andre recount these events was surreal. On the hand, such a factual description might seem lacking emotion, and yet Andre had an abundance of emotion. Andre went on to explain his thoughts and feelings about these events, and I think many were stunned, or at least gripped, by his attitude. He said he knew, from the moment this happened, that he must forgive the killer.
He was on stage with local KRON 4 news anchor Pam Moore, who interviewed him about this stance. She acted as the voice of the common man here, getting Andre to explain himself. "How can you explain forgiving a man who murdered your son? Is forgiving the same as letting him off the hook? Does forgiving do a disservice to the dead? Is it ok to forgive in this situation?"
If this were a written psychology test, I think I could pass it. I would quote the various research on the subject that supports Andre's view that forgiveness leads to happiness, that lack of forgiveness doesn't, here's a bunch of data, blah, blah. I would explain research showing that holding on to anger colors your perception and decision-making, and causes you not to see alternatives. But hearing Andre speak about this elevated it to a whole other level. It's the difference between "knowing" something and feeling it in your bones.
Andre explained that he believes forgiveness--including in a situation like this (especially including?)--is not just acceptable, it's imperative. Pam Moore said "imperative??" Yes, he said. Forgiving is letting go of anger. What good does it do him to be angry, to trap that anger in him, to carry it with him in all he does, in all he sees, and let it color all the interactions he has? It's like gripping onto a rail, he said, in that you can't GO anywhere while you're doing that. You can't move on, you can't grow, you can't have a positive impact on the world if you latch on to anger.
Pam Moore asked how he can have such a reaction, considering the average person's reaction would be so different. I thought Andre's answer to this was especially insightful. He said that we do many of the things we do because we *learn* to do them. We have practice at doing them. If you react to a given situation with anger (or jealousy, or whatever else), when it's not really warranted, you could ask yourself why. You might find that it's because in many, many other situations in your life, that has been your reaction. You've learned to react that way. He then asked "what if you've learned to react with compassion? What if for years you have practiced being compassionate as a response to others? When a major event in your life happens, you will be practiced enough in compassion to respond that way."
Andre demonstrated how deeply he believes this when he told us that he spoke with his son's killer. He told the man, calling him by his first name, that he forgives him. That even though this was a terrible act, that he understands it was a person who committed this act and that people deserve compassion. He wished that the killer would go on to find happiness in his life.
This was hard for some to swallow I think, but Andre explained that treating the man as a dehumanized evil was toxic to Andre himself. He said forgiveness is not about the other person--that it might have a positive impact on that other person--but that but the actual purpose of it is to heal the forgiver and to allow the forgiver to heal, to grow, and to move on. The alternative is to live shacked and crippled, even if you aren't aware of the debilitating effects.
I think this story, told in text, is hollow shell of what it was when told by Andre himself. It seems that 98% of it is missing here, even though I've explained all the salient points to you. Perhaps I could say the same thing about the entire conference. I will try to present an organized theory of this field to you in the weeks to come.
My Closing Remarks
On the one hand, games are for people, so understanding people is a necessary component of making games for people. This is why I think that psychology is within the domain of game designers. On the other hand, unlocking human potential and increasing happiness seem like more important topics than games anyway.