Into 'the science of thriving'

Laden with electrodes, the monk sits in meditation. His brain waves exhibit "positive habits of mind," Davidson says.
Laden with electrodes, the monk sits in meditation. His brain waves exhibit "positive habits of mind," Davidson says.

World Congress on Positive Psychology gathers here to ponder ways to train our brains.

Posted: July 23, 2011

Richard Davidson has seen people change their minds.

Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has used high-tech imaging tools to peer into the brains of Buddhist monks, electrodes trailing like spaghetti from their scalps, as they practice meditation. And he has seen their brains light up in areas related to empathy, attention, and mind-body interaction.

Davidson's conclusion: We can train our brains - and our selves - to be more attentive, more compassionate, and even happier. "The key point is that happiness and other positive characteristics are best regarded as skills," he says. "We can . . . engage in intentional efforts to cultivate positive habits of mind."

Davidson will share his newest research on meditation and neuroplasticity - the idea that the brain is constantly changing in response to experience and the environment - at the Second World Congress on Positive Psychology, a four-day gathering of about 1,200 psychologists, doctors, coaches, and others interested in "the science of thriving." The conference, at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, begins Saturday and ends Tuesday afternoon.

Martin E.P. Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology, launched the positive psychology movement 13 years ago when he chided colleagues for spending too much time on what makes people miserable and not enough time finding out what makes them thrive.

Since then, positive psychology has found its way into health care, business, education, and the arts. Conference sessions reflect that sweep, dealing with issues from binge drinking to terrorism.

In Davidson's Tuesday morning plenary, "Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind," he'll discuss changes in the brain and other biological functions seen in people who have been taught to meditate. One study, with employees of a high-tech firm in Madison, Wis., involved giving one group an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. Both that group and a control group got flu shots after eight weeks; those who had been meditating produced more antibodies, suggesting that meditation affects not only the brain, but the immune system as well.

Other talks will examine how positive psychology is shaping programs and policies in the military, in corporate board rooms and even in nations. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last fall that his government would begin to measure national well-being.

Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of Positivity, has been looking at love - specifically, at the emotional, behavioral, and biological results of loving-kindness meditation, in which people practice "self-generating feelings of love and care."

What she's found is that even novice meditators reported increased feelings of love and connection with others, and that those same participants showed increases in their vagal tone, a heart rhythm associated with the "calm-and-connect" response.

James Pawelski, executive director of the International Positive Psychology Association, says it was a film - the documentary Happy, which is to be screened at the congress Sunday night - that, for him, drove home the true nature of happiness. The film includes interviews with a rickshaw driver in India, who lives in a hut made of plastic bags, and wakes up feeling grateful and cherishing his relationship with his family; and a former debutante who, as an adult, was severely disfigured in an accident and says she is happier now than ever before. "The research indicates that happiness is not about money; it's not about good looks; it's not about prestige," says Pawelski, who also directs Penn's master's program in applied positive psychology. "It's more about relationships and doing things you find meaningful."

Another Penn professor, psychiatrist Richard Summers, has a different take on positive emotions; he believes that "good feelings" of love, courage and belonging are inextricably twined with feelings of loss, sorrow, or loneliness, and that a healthy mental "ecosystem" incorporates both. He is to speak Sunday about his work helping patients become aware of the relationship between strengths and suffering.

Davidson, who has studied meditating monks, is also interested in what happens to children, including those with autism or attention-deficit disorders, when they practice meditation. He's studying preschoolers and fifth graders who have been taught, along with their teachers, to do mindfulness meditation. Researchers will see if the practice can affect bullying, classroom attention, memory, and antisocial behavior.

"I'm most curious about the nature of a healthy mind and how it can be cultivated, particularly at early ages," Davidson says. "If we can steep our minds in virtuous qualities like kindness, compassion, and humility, I think the world can be a different kind of place."

The Second World Congress on Positive Psychology begins Saturday and runs through Tuesday afternoon at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, 1201 Market St. Registration in person: $275/day or $150 for students. Information or 856-423-2862.

Contact Anndee Hochman at

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