Stanford University Roundtable on Happiness

We enjoyed the live webcast of an excellent Stanford University roundtable on happiness last week. Moderated by Katie Couric, a noted American television interviewer, the panel of mostly Stanford professors talked about happiness. Stanford posted the video to YouTube; the roundtable starts after 13 minutes.

Here are some things we got from the roundtable, but please watch the video to see for yourself or share with a meaningful other.

What is happiness?  Finding pleasures and meanings. What you think, say, and do is in harmony. Feeling that life is good — positive emotions that you want to continue doing. Being present and having fun. Finding meaning or a higher purpose.

Are some people happier than other people? Yes, people have their own set points, the level of happiness that a person returns to over time. The set point is a product of genetics and environment.

How does stress affect happiness? Stress can be good in a situation where you have to perform or experience fight or flight, provided the duration is short and there’s enough down time in between stressful situations. Stress can be bad if the duration is too long. Quoting Yoda, fear is the path to the dark side. Fear can lead to anger, which can lead to hate, which can lead to suffering. People are in between most of the time.

Pleasure vs. meaningful. A person faced with a terminal illness looks for the meaningful. You make deals with God (which you might not keep later). You ask what’s fun for me, what’s important for me, what am I on earth for. Pleasure seekers are takers; meaningful people are givers. Grandparents with grandkids is pleasure without taking. Meaning feels good.

Happiness from being creative. Many students don’t feel creative. Leading students through series of successes enhances creative. With confidence, people take on more difficult problems and stick to problems in order to solve them. Insecurity is the opposite of confidence.

Are we more depressed than before? Yes, higher rates of depression with earlier onset than before. Don’t know why.

Are expectations of happiness too high?  Culture demands happiness, so people sometimes closet unhappiness. We can’t be happy all the time; it’s okay to feel bad sometimes. Stressors are good. Grieving is normal, not a psychiatric disorder.

Can money buy happiness? Money is related to happiness, but as long as the basic needs (food, shelter, security) are met, money doesn’t add much. Buying experiences yields happier results than buying things. Would you engage in an experience if you could tell no one about it?

What’s the role of technology? Connecting people is good, but there’s some damage due to reduced interaction — fewer facial clues, less empathetic. Pros: when focused goal bigger than yourself and others share it, tech can help; if a person is shy or has a rare interest, technology can ease connecting with similar people. Social support can buffer stressors, and technology can harness social support. Interaction must be genuine and authentic. Cons: seeing other people happy increases fear of missing out; Facebook time makes people feel negative.

Does having children increase happiness? Parents are a little happier than non-parents, but parents have more meaning. Children go off and do their own thing.

What about over-parenting? Parents say they want their children to be happy. Parents can be too protective, having difficulty letting their children fail. Protecting children can lead to less resilience, so they don’t learn to cope with stress and failure.

Happiness as a function of age. Happiness is high through the 30s, declines in the 40s, then increases from 50 to 70. On the average, a 45-year-old woman with children is the least happy. The meaning of happiness shifts with age: it starts with excitement for 18-20, satisfaction, pursuit of goals, balance, juggling goals, savor what created in life, and contentment.

Hedonic adaption. People adapt to happiness, so that happiness dissipates in 2 years, on average. We’re not satisfied for long with new things: relationship, job, car, phone. Instead, pursue meaningful life goals.

Takeaways important for happiness:

  • Meaning

  • Giver rather than taker

  • Support system

  • Your actions are meaningful to the people around you

  • Sleep may be biggest restorative factor

  • Autonomy (sense of control in life), personal growth, relationships

  • Gratitude. When authentic, one is more humble, connected, and happier.

  • Appreciating what you have combats hedonic adaptation

  • Be present and mindful when something good happens. Celebrate positives. Positive thinking is real, the bedrock of treatment for emotional disorders

  • How you spend time. Getting the to-do list done is a treadmill. Are you present with people in relationships, giving to others?

  • Authenticity and genuineness

  • Everyone has tough times. Identify when you need help, then request and accept it. Give when asked.

  • Generosity

  • Deep, meaningful relationships. At a funeral, why didn’t I take time to learn about more about this person?

  • Live your life as if you will move far away in a month. Spend more time with family and friends, favorite experiences and places. That’s what older people do.

  • At a meeting, check in (share what’s going on) at beginning, to build relationships.

  • Did Thomas Jefferson get the Declaration of independence wrong about pursuit of happiness being a right? Wouldn’t meaningfulness be better? In those days, happiness meant material happiness.

The roundtable concluded with hugs for all. 🙂


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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