Conference stresses student happiness

Feb. 14, 2011, 2:33 a.m.

A host of leading researchers and campus luminaries presented at Saturday’s Happiness Within Reach conference. The event featured prominent neurobiologists, meditation instructors, psychologists and authors, who sought to educate attendees on the “science of happiness” and empower them to take control of their own well-being.

Conference stresses student happiness
Carole Pertofsky, the head of wellness and health promotion services at Vaden Health Center, addresses the attendees of Saturday's Happiness Within Reach conference. Pertofsky and other presenters focused on student mental health and happiness at Stanford. (MEHMET INONU/Staff Photographer)

Carole Pertofsky, director of wellness and health promotion services at Vaden, was chiefly responsible for organizing the event. She opened Saturday’s discussion with her colleague, Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project.

“We live in a stressed out and overwhelmed planet,” Pertofsky said. “We need to make a commitment to healing ourselves and each other.”

Luskin, who has conducted research internationally on the health benefits of forgiveness and stress reduction, emphasized the importance of positive psychology, a field that has gained popularity in the last decade.

“If you focus on misery, you don’t lead a happy life,” he said.

He proposed “how you feel in Whole Foods” as a metric of happiness, quipping that if you’re not overjoyed when surrounded by the abundance in the grocery store, you need to work to become happier.

Dr. Rick Hanson, a renowned neuropsychologist, delivered the keynote speech.            “Any kind of lasting mental activity will leave traces behind for better or for worse,” Hanson said.

In light of this principle, he urged people to “direct their attention skillfully” in order to form the neural connections that lead to happiness. Hanson added that, evolutionarily, happiness is the natural state of the human brain when a person is not threatened or ill.

In a panel discussion, Luskin asked his fellow speakers what Stanford students could do to benefit from happiness.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford health psychologist, described the importance of self-compassion. She said self-compassion exercises have been shown to increase success in battling obesity, tobacco addiction and procrastination.

“Each one of us needs to find some unique, pro-social contribution to the world to be happy,” Luskin said.

“It’s one thing to understand all these principles of well-being and science, it’s another to embody the principles in your actions,” echoed James Baraz, a meditation instructor at Spirit Rock.

Throughout the event, Pertofsky sought to bring attention back to Stanford students.

“Students at Stanford are the focus of this conference,” she said. She was concerned that a great number of students are overly stressed and suffering from anxiety disorders. Speaking on this topic, she cited the “Stanford Duck Syndrome” as an appropriate metaphor.

“We don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive,” Pertofsky said.

She noted that the psychological health resources available to students are directed only to those students in serious crisis, thereby neglecting the other 85 percent of the student population. Pertofsky is working, through various campus venues, to start a movement on positive psychology at Stanford.

The presenters at Happiness Within Reach agreed on the enormous importance of disseminating knowledge on happiness and well-being.

“We need to teach our students how to self-nurture,” Pertofsky said.

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