Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An important skill

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

Have you noticed that economics has taken front seat in every discussion about local and world events? The media is so quick to measure everything—from education to oil spills to rice crop yields—in terms of economic costs and rewards that I find myself waiting for some kind of utopian free-market MSNBC heaven to emerge from history, one in which supplies and demands and trade negotiations will have brought everlasting peace and tranquility to the planet. If the Messiah were to return tomorrow, we might expect him to be dressed in a suit ready to talk interest rates and currency exchanges.

Purchasing power has become a default measurement for success, but how effective are economic indicators like gross national product and consumer price indexes at measuring what ultimately matters most in our lives? Are there ways other than economic productivity to measure human progress?

Brain researcher Richard J. Davidson measures the brain-wave patterns of Buddhist monks who have spent thousands of hours in meditation practice. His work brings together the field of neuroscience with spiritual revelations at the core of many religions. In the process, he may have hit upon a way to acquire that most elusive prize—lasting happiness.

Davidson is director of the Waisman Lab for Brain Imaging and Behavior and is the William James and Vilas professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He will come to the Wood River Valley this month to share the latest findings about how meditation changes the brain. His free lecture—at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17, in The Community School auditorium in Sun Valley—is co-sponsored by St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center and the Sun Valley Wellness Foundation.

Davidson is one of the world's leading investigators in the field of neuroplasticity. He and others have found that the brain is constantly evolving in response to experience, and that changes from mind-training exercises like meditation can be measured by brain-scanning technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging. Davidson has published his findings on meditation in the world's most prestigious science journals. He believes that even the so-called "happiness set-point" of a person's brain can be changed for the better with even a small amount of meditation. Happiness, it would seem, is an inside job, and need not depend on staying at the top of the financial heap.

Tibetan Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard is a longtime participant in an ongoing research study led by Davidson. He has been described as "the happiest man in the world" by the news media for having registered very high on a measurement scale of brain activity associated with contentment. His meditations are often focused on compassion toward others.

Ricard describes happiness as a trainable skill in his 2006 book "Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill." He explains in the book that developing compassion and generosity of spirit can bring about contentment more reliably than acquiring more stuff. He points to studies that show that acquiring material wealth far beyond what we actually need does not bring a commensurate increase in happiness. Davidson's studies have shown that meditation also has beneficial effects on the immune system.

The work of Davidson and Ricard indicate that focusing on others and developing generosity and compassion, rather than focusing only on satisfying our own desires, is the key to lasting happiness. If only we had a way to figure these findings into the study of economics.

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