The International Positive Psychology Association wrapped up its second World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia last night. Greater Good editorial assistant Kelly Erickson attended the Congress; below she reports on highlights from the last two days. Click here for her dispatches from the first two days.
Monday, July 25
Yesterday, the Congress’s first full day, I felt excited as I got the lay of the land; today, I was in awe at just how deep and expansive the presentations and discussions have been.
Although I attended provocative symposia and workshops throughout the day—the conference’s program can be easily downloaded here—none of them gave my mind as much to chew on as Barbara Fredrickson’s talk this morning, “Love: A New Lens on the Science of Thriving.” Fredrickson completely transformed how I think about love and connection.
She first got my attention by: defining what love IS and is NOT. According to Fredrickson:
Love is NOT: sexual desire (there is love in sexual desire), special bonds (products of love), commitment (which is a decision), exclusive (love is not felt for just one person), and lasting (as with all other emotions, love is a reaction to changing circumstances). And, finally, love is not unconditional, in that it requires two preconditions: 1) safety felt when with another, and 2) connection in the form of co-presence, eye contact, touch, voice, etc.
Love IS: an investment in the well-being of others for others’ sake, and perceived responsibility for them and them for you (i.e., the feeling that others ‘get’ me/care about me, etc). Love, like other emotions, has a biological component.
Her resulting definition for love: an interpersonal, social situation with positive emotion marked by momentary increases in invested well-being in others, bio-behavioral synchrony, and mutual responsive action tendencies.
Taking a step back, Fredrickson gave an overview of the numerous positive aspects of positive emotions, especially the ways they make us feel connected to others emotionally and the way they make us better at taking others’ perspectives, which not only makes us more likely to help them but enables us to see past differences that may divide us, such as racial differences.
She then drew on several studies to highlight the behavioral and neurological effects when two people share positive emotions. The more connected two people feel—such as through sharing joy, gratitude, pride, laughter, inspiration, awe, etc.(!)—the more they will move their bodies in similar ways and the more their neurological activity will look the same.
So this sounds a lot like what she defines as “love,” doesn’t it?
In fact, Fredrickson proposed that when any positive emotion is shared between two people, the act of sharing that emotion changes it into one of love; in other words, love is any shared positive emotion.
Taking this a step further, she said that love is a single act performed by two bodies and brains. She concluded with a slide picturing two hikers on their journey to the top of a snow covered mountain: Love is the pinnacle of emotions, she argued. We are not “made to love,” she said, but “made for love.”
Tuesday, July 26
Despite a short half-day of events on this fourth and final day of the Congress, there was still heavy attendance for Richard Davidson’s 8am morning session, “Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind.”
Indeed, the running theme of today was mindfulness and meditation. Davidson ran through a number of studies showing evidence for the physical changes observed in the brain when people practice cultivating feelings of compassion through meditation, accompanied by changes in heart functioning while compassion is generated. They also report feeling less pain, have stronger reactions to flu shots, and heal more quickly from inflammations and wounds. Not only were these results found among longtime meditators; they were also found among those randomly assigned in research studies to maintain a daily meditation practice for three months.
Similarly, the day came to a close with presentations from a panel of researchers focusing on the “Science of Meditation.” Bethany Kok presented on the social, emotional, and physiological effects of lovingkindness meditation. Helen Weng discussed how changes in the physical qualities of the brain—“functional neuroplasticity”—caused by compassion predict pro-social behavior. Cliff Saron talked about how we can train our brain and open our heart through meditation—which, in turn, improves perception, attention, and our psychological and physiological functioning. Erika Rosenberg combated the backlash against positive psychology by asking, “What is positive about negative emotions?” Finally, Richard Davidson looked at research about decision making and applied it to decisions about when you should engaged in contemplative practices.
Reflecting back on the conference, I’m definitely struck by how international positive psychology has become, and how many areas of life it has touched. Two main themes were reinforced again and again: the all-encompassing benefits of positive psychology and the particular importance of social support for happiness.
Speakers from across disciplines revealed how positive psychology applies to everything from broadening one’s perspective to boosting altruistic behavior to increasing one’s desire to learn to being more creative—the list goes on!
Similarly, discussions of happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction kept returning to the importance of social support. I was particularly struck by this during the discussion with Roko Belic, the director of the documentary Happy, in an interview after a screening of his film. Belic said that making the movie changed his life. After flying around the world and learning how vital social connections are to happiness, he uprooted himself and moved to a new city to be closer to a bunch of his childhood friends.
Attending the World Congress gave me more than enough material to keep my mind and heart buzzing for a long time to come. But even if you couldn’t make it in person, the IPPA will be making a great deal of information from the conference accessible on its website, both in a PDF of the final program, available to all, and through the presentation slides and videos that (we’ve been told) will be made available to IPPA members in the site’s “members area.” Be warned: There’s a lot to digest. The field of positive psychology may still be in its infancy, but one wouldn’t know it from the size of its growth and impact.