Change Your Mind, Change the World - Discussion to Make the World a Healthier, Happier Place
Madison, Wisconsin, USA, 15 May 2013 - Inspiration for convening this discussion of well-being in relation to global health and happiness arose when Richard Davidson, Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and Jonathan Patz, Director of the Global Health Institute, both at the University Wisconsin-Madison, were visiting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India. He showed great interest in participating in such a conversation.
Once His Holiness and the panellists had taken their seats on the stage of the Overture Center for the Arts, which was filled to capacity, proceedings both in the morning and afternoon opened with a musical-poetic performance by Logan Phillips, Molly Sturges and Aaron Stern of the Academy for the Love of Learning, who presented musical and poetic notions of a happier world, such as ‘we are a beautifully sung song.’
Richie Davidson introduced his old friend Dan Goleman, moderator of the morning’s session, who began by making clear that the discussions aimed to talk about being well in every sense; exploring different ways in which we can flourish. Richie referred to findings that changes in the body can be attributed to stress, but that there is new work to show that happiness and well-being have positive effects on the body too. His Holiness asked how you measure well-being and Richie said they rely on self-report. His Holiness was asked if he had advice on how to make well-being more widespread.
“I think you already know what I think.” he replied, “But these people in the audience may not have heard it before. At this point everyone here feels at ease, but if I think of you as somehow different from me, if I think that I’m Tibetan, I’m Buddhist, an Easterner, I’m a monk or even something grand like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this kind of thinking automatically creates a gap between us. It results in a sense of unease. On the other hand, if I consider you as another human being, just like me, then that source of anxiety disappears.
“I’m very happy and encouraged to be here. Some scientists don’t even accept the existence of mind, they think there’s only the brain. If that were the case we ought to be able change the way we live through surgery. However, the proper way to train the mind is by using the mind itself, not in connection with the next life or anything like that, but focussing on a healthy society and a happier humanity here and now. Everybody wants a happy life and a peaceful mind, but we have to produce peace of mind through our own practice.
“Modern science’s interest in mind or consciousness is new, and so is the public interest in mind and emotional training. Have I spoken for too long?”
Jonathan Patz noted the news that for the first time the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million. He said scientists are very concerned that if this continues and reaches 450ppm it will be very dangerous. He recalled that last time he and His Holiness met, they talked about global climate change and he had explained that it would bring heat-waves, hunger and drought. His Holiness had responded:
“If we have the knowledge we have to act.”
He talked about work he has done concerning the peregrine falcon, which is an endangered species. It was only when the focus shifted to habitat and the context of the falcons’ lives that they began to be effective.
“Consequently,” Patz said, “when we think of prospects for our own species, we need to see ourselves in the context a healthy environment, which means a healthy planet.”
His Holiness remarked that this is clear evidence of the need to focus on long term interests, of our need for moral principles and a sense of responsibility.
Don Berwick talked about developments in health care noting that when he began his career all children with leukaemia died, but now they don’t. However, health costs continue to increase, which means that spending on education, for example, has dropped. He mentioned three mistakes with regard to health care: the belief that more is better; the belief that the way to health is through technological solutions rather than looking at what we eat and how we live; and the belief that we can treat the body but not the mind. He said that when he explains that sometimes less is more, people feel they are being deceived.
His Holiness agreed that new findings are sometimes not easy to accept, which is why the public needs to hear more from experts like those on the panel. This is a role which the media can play; they should give such experts more exposure. People need to understand that if they want to live long and be comfortable, they may have to change some of the things they are used to.
Ilona Kickbusch began with the observation that she was both happy and unhappy to be the only woman on the panel. She said that great strides have been taken in relation to global health, but that we are reaching the limits of this particular model, the ‘vertical disease model’. Consequently, there is a need to rethink what health is, to combine a drive for equity and health care reform.
Last time His Holiness and Richard Layard met, he told him about Action for Happiness, which His Holiness asked to join. He explained that the movement has since been successfully launched and has attracted 30,000 members. What’s more, some governments have begun to adopt some of its objectives regarding well-being, among them Bhutan and the UK. Meanwhile the OECD, the club of developed nations, has drawn up codes to measure well-being rather than depending only on economic indicators; this is a major revolution.
Less encouraging was his report that within the context of general well-being, mental health is not taken sufficiently seriously, which amounts to discrimination. He said there is treatment and good prospects for recovery, but overall mental health is not regarded as seriously as physical health. He asked His Holiness how he interprets this finding.
“Knowledge of the mind is limited.” His Holiness said, “People have only a superficial view of what mind is, which is a cultural issue. I agree that the brain is complex and sophisticated, but the mind and emotions are also sophisticated and complex. Maybe it’s due to a fundamental misunderstanding that it’s the physical that you have to fix. We need to view these things in a different way. Because we take physical health seriously we have codes of physical hygiene, I’m proposing that equally important are codes of mental and emotional hygiene.”
Richard Layard concluded with two facts: every human being wants to be happy and every human being is equally important. If we acknowledge these, we can work to increase the spread of happiness. His Holiness responded that if we can let people know that adopting this or that measure will improve their peace of mind and improve their physical health, it will lead to a more attractive solution.
Moderator for the afternoon was Arianna Huffington, who began with the observation that our world has become unmanageable. She also remarked that while we all have a place of inner strength within us, most of us are not there most of the time and we need to ask how we can get there more often.
Richie Davidson offered five facts about well-being for consideration. 1. Well-being is a skill, 2. Well-being seems to be universally related to the mind’s well-being. He referred to a study that asked people: what are you doing? is your mind focussed? and are you happy? The response showed that people’s well-being is higher when they are focussed, but also that their minds wander a good deal. When the mind wanders performance suffers. It is a source of suffering; people are not happy living this way. His Holiness recognised Richie’s description of the wandering mind, saying he is familiar with it too.
Richie continued to explain the facts about well-being. 3. Well-being is associated with patterns of both mind and body. 4. Well-being has three aspects - returning to calm after a stressful event; mindfulness and generosity. 5. There is an innate disposition towards well-being, demonstrated by findings that young babies show a preference for altruistic behaviour.
Arianna asked what we can do to ensure that such well-being becomes more widespread. His Holiness replied:
“I mentioned this morning - education, in schools but also through our various media. We need to see reports of positive as well as negative news. Basic human nature is gentle. We are born from our mothers, who show us affection. We are social animals and depend on each other to survive. People who receive more affection from their mothers are happier and more secure. The basic gentle nature we are born with tends to become dormant as we grow up, we need training and education from an early age to ensure that it remains fresh instead. This is an example of using our human intelligence for the well-being of ourselves and society.”
Jonathan Patz said that his theme for the afternoon was interdependence. Without awareness of interdependence we won’t understand that our energy consumption is affecting the world’s climate. We need to be mindful of that, just as we need to be mindful of our consumption. His Holiness commented:
“We must address these problems like global climate change and the global economy as one community. We can’t expect our population of 7 billion human beings to live the life of a hermit. When the world population was smaller each country was self-sufficient, but today’s reality is that everyone is interdependent; the old way doesn’t work anymore. For example, you spend a huge amount of money and resources on developing and maintaining nuclear weapons, and yet, because, quite rightly, no one dares use them, the money is in effect wasted. We must find ways to change the way things have been done until now.”
Matthieu Ricard suggested that we have so far underestimated the power of mental health, but expressed confidence that this can change. Arianna wanted to know if His Holiness feels we have reached a tipping point. He replied:
“If we make consistent effort, based on proper education, we can change the world. We are selfish, that’s natural, but we need to be wisely selfish, not foolishly selfish. We have to concern ourselves more with others’ well-being, that’s the way to be wisely selfish. We have the ability to take the long-term benefit into account. I think it is possible to make real change in this century.
“Education is the best way to train ourselves that we will secure our own well-being by concerning ourselves with others. It is possible to create a better world, a more compassionate, more peaceful world, which is not only in everyone’s interest, but is everyone’s responsibility to achieve.”
His Holiness offered each member of the panel a kata, a white silk scarf, and then standing hand in hand with them at the front of the stage, energetically appealed to the audience.
“Great changes start with individuals; the basis of world peace is inner peace in the hearts of individuals. This is something we can all work for. If what you’ve heard here interests you, if you think it’s something you can act on, share it with others. If there are a thousand people here and each of you shares this with ten friends, ten thousand people will hear about it, and so on. That’s the way we can change our minds and change the world. Thank you.”
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