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Science of Happiness

Tania Ketenjian

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Dalai Lama speaking on happiness and responsibiliy
(Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)


An unusual book is available in stores as of this weekend. It's called "Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion," and it's co-written by the renowned researcher and psychologist Paul Ekman. He's the kind of researcher who inspires passionate followings. He demonstrated the literal power of positive thinking - that is, that if you hold your face in a smile, it'll actually make you feel better. Ekman's new book dives deeper into those ideas. It's a book featuring conversations with someone much more famous who's broken some significant ground on the whole peace-of-mind thing.

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Tania Ketenjian: Paul Ekman thought he'd pretty much done what he needed to in his career. He'd proven that cultures around the world, from tribesmen in the Amazon to businessmen on Wall Street, display our emotions in almost the exact same way, using the same tiny muscles in our face. He'd shown also that how we use those muscles makes us feel things before our mind has even become aware of the emotion. (Hold a frown and you'll begin to feel sad.) After decades of studying the role that emotions play in our bodies and in our health, Ekman was satisfied. Then someone invited him to meet the Dalai Lama.

Paul Ekman: It changed the direction of my life. It enlarged it. It allowed me to start thinking of things I had not thought of before, and to have concerns that rejuvenated my life.

Ketenjian: This was in 2000. Ekman, the brain scientist, discovered The Dalai Lama studied the exact same things he had for most of his career. Things like how the mind works, the role emotions have in our lives, and the troubling ways that anger and bitterness can affect our health. The two started corresponding, and eventually decided to meet in the Dalai's place of exile, Dharmasala, India, for a talk.

Ekman: In total, we spent forty hours. Forty hours. I've never spent forty hours with anyone talking about anything. But he loves complexity, teasing things out, finding exceptions, bringing a wholly different, unknown perspective. So, it was illuminating. Every time I re-read this book… I see, there are ideas in it - it would take an army of scientists and philosophers to discuss and explore.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: In Buddhism, we emphasize importance investigation. That we call analytical meditation. If our findings through objective investigation, if that go against the Buddha's own words or traditional classic concepts, then we have the liberty to accept new findings, rather than quotations or words. So, I feel the similarity of approaches. Simply, experimentation, analyze, investigation.

Ketenjian: The two men met together recently at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. They sat close together, full in the face. Ekman said the Dalai Lama, and Buddhists generally, understand the need to analyze our mental process and our emotions as objects, measurable things that can affect us one way or another.

Dalai Lama: Firstly you have to sort of gain some experience about the watching mind. Then some impact, then eventually without effort, it automatically comes as a part of your mind, part of your life.

Ekman: There are areas where I don't think we are, necessarily, in complete agreement. If I remember, I think you have a more optimistic view of how the mind is at birth, and of the capability, particularly before there is language, of the child to grasp the world. And I, based on scientific studies of children, believe that the child is a limited learner who is prone to misinterpretations, to unreality. And so part of the task - I mean that's one of the areas that we completely agree about - is that we need to see the world as it is. And that very often we see it as it is not and act in those terms.

Ketenjian: They disagree too about the possible cause of negative emotions. Ekman is a Darwinian, so he believes negativity has got to benefit us in some marginal way, at least in terms of evolution, or it would have faded away over generations. The Dalai Lama can see little purpose for negativity. It's suffering to be weeded out, with the biggest tool he's got.

Dalai Lama: Unbiased compassion. That is the real counter-force of the hatred. Of course, it is not easy. Firstly you see, you need reasons. Then secondly, become familiar with all these reasons. Then eventually, your attitude, your whole attitude, you see, can change. As a result, you will be a much happier person. That is for sure. We are social animals. So therefore, I think compassion is something very, very relevant. Basically, the seed of that is equipped by nature, by biological factors. That is my view.

Ekman: Well, one of the things that I had never thought of, in all of my years of study, is the idea that one emotion might serve as an antidote to another emotion. That's a very interesting idea. I think it's a useful idea. Actually, it's like you take an antidote. You recognize, 'Oh! I've got this heartburn. I'll take something'. It is the opposite. 'Oh! I'm feeling very irritable. I'll engage in an antidote exercise, to lower this irritability.' … Why do we act to relieve the suffering of others? It is because, when we witness their suffering, it hurts us! We feel it, their pain. Bill Clinton used to say, "I feel your pain". But if you feel that other person's pain, that's very uncomfortable. And, so, Darwin says, "You act to relieve your own pain by helping them.

Dalai Lama: Firstly, you yourself get the maximum benefit. So, it is totally wrong [to say] the practice of compassion is something good for others, but not necessarily for yourself. That is what I think. That is a total mistake, I think.

Ketenjian: The Dalai Lama looks excited while speaking with Ekman, and he is. He says this whole experience has been fun - like translating ideas into a new language.

Dalai Lama: Sometimes spirituality becomes old-fashioned. So modern science now something refreshing. But our interests are the same. These are modern gurus, gurus of modern times. I am a Buddhist monk. I am, maybe, guru of old-fashioned. After the meeting with this old gentleman [Dr. Ekman]…this scientist, he categorizes certain new emotions. So, very, very helpful. And, similarly, hopefully, he will also get some useful information from my side. So, that means: Good collaboration. So from that aspect, sometimes I describe myself as a scientist.

  • Music Bridge:
    Tarn
    Artist: Scott Solter
    CD: One River (Tell-All)

Comments

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  • By David Peppers

    From St. Louis, MO, 10/25/2008

    Through Daniel Goleman in Destructive Emotions, I was able to witness the Dharamsala meeting which inspired Ekman. I found it very fascinating and inspiring. It was mentioned that as a result Ekman would launch an Extraordinary Persons Project. I have searched for updates on this project, but have found little. I'd like to see a story on it. The great news is: through training our minds we can increase our happiness and health to a greater degree than most people recognise. Thanks.

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