The World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, is not what you’d call a “woo woo” gathering. It convenes chief executives from over 1,000 member-companies—some of the largest in the world—to discuss the big social, economic, and political issues of the day. Arriving there, we felt apprehensive. We had accepted the invitation to present at WEF with some reservations—would all these businesspeople welcome the GGSC’s science-backed insights for a more meaningful life?
But we were pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and receptive they were. The 2019 program tagline (stitched and embossed onto the gray knapsack and moleskin swag) was “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” WEF has begun to incorporate well-being into their programs and outcomes over the last few years, and we were part of that objective.
Over five jam-packed days, we learned a bit about what goes on at WEF—and what attendees are looking to learn. Here are three key points.
1. Inner happiness is its own currency
We held our three sessions in a quintessential Swiss mountain-top chalet, amply equipped with hot chocolate and cheese. The first session was called “Discovering Happiness,” led by one of us, GGSC science director Emiliana Simon-Thomas, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche, an esteemed scholar/teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and celebrated author on the topic of human happiness.
Participants were intrigued by Rinpoche’s crimson robes and beaming smile, and moved by his wise words and simple message of happiness that comes from within and exists independent of outside circumstances. Simon-Thomas argued that a great deal of scientific research supports this Buddhist notion: that happiness is not the same as a pleasurable momentary state or a reaction to gratifying circumstances.
In another WEF session on loneliness, fellow happiness expert Laurie Santos of Yale University explained that most people hold inaccurate beliefs about happiness, mainly that it comes from outer circumstances that do not actually help happiness. Believing that happiness will come when you get the biggest bonus or comfortably retire often leaves people, even ambitious executives, lonely and insecure. Instead, suggested Rinpoche and Simon-Thomas, happiness is more of an overall characteristic of life that buoys all kinds of experiences, from terrible to terrific.
People at the “Contemplating Meditation” session were fascinated by insights from Hedy Kober, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation on the brain at Yale University. Hearing about how meditation changes brain anatomy and activation patterns in ways that increase happiness, Davos-goers seemed increasingly willing to embrace meditation, which is simply a way of becoming more aware of, acquainted with, and able to adjust long-held mental habits and beliefs that might be getting in the way of happiness.
Providing accessible tools that people can use to cultivate skills of inner happiness is core to the GGSC’s mission. Many of these—like letting go of that searing inner critic or learning to watch what is happening in your own body—are fundamentally adapted from the canon of traditional contemplative practices, and now validated by science. It turns out, plenty of people were looking for strategies for inner happiness at Davos.
2. Purpose doesn’t come with power, prestige, or workplace perks
Before the event, we had heard about something called “Davos moments.” This is when you have a chance encounter with someone you would never have met otherwise, that ends up being revelatory. Starting with our outbound flight and lasting through the very last train back to the airport, conversations with fellow participants revealed a deep interest and need for purpose, particularly when it comes to work.
Most WEF participants already had power, prestige, and privilege, which was something of a requirement for entry. WEF participants must either be personally invited or have their way paid by large corporations. The desire we heard in different forms from all of them was for purpose and genuine meaning in their day-to-day work.
We discovered that Googlers, famous for their coveted Silicon Valley campus, are still asking, “But what am I doing here?” Bankers from Brazil were heartened by the opportunity to imagine how practices like affirming values, active listening, and expressing gratitude can build greater shared purpose amongst a workforce and measurably boost engagement. An Indian solar-power farmer described an approach of reminding employees of how their specific effort was contributing essentially to projects that help the planet. Participants from one D.C.-based nonprofit were interested in encouraging employees to recognize small wins each day as a way to highlight personal progress, which can be crucial to feeling purpose at work.
3. We can make peace with stress
One of us, director of training Eve Ekman, led the session “Harnessing Stress” with celebrated UCSF psychiatry professor and expert on stress and aging Elissa Epel—a somewhat ironic offering amidst the high-octane, overlapping schedule at WEF. “On” and “Off” program sessions began at 7:30 a.m. and continued in a superimposed, concurrent jumble until 9:00 p.m., followed by a panoply of after-hours receptions and parties all over town.
The session started with a reflection on intention: “Why are you here?” The resounding response was a desire to avoid the harmful consequences of unavoidable stress and even use it to fuel better health and success. Participants recognized that stress is not going away, and they wanted to learn how to shift their experience of it.
While stress is there for a reason, many of us respond to it in ways that prolong it and make it more harmful; this session—which started with brief practices of various forms of meditation led by Ekman—explained how to listen to and harness stress to your advantage. As Epel told the audience, “You cannot control what happens in your life, but you can control how you relate to stress.” Participants were curious about how emotions fuel or fizzle stress and how to adopt a “challenge” mentality—the attitude of I can face this!—rather than a “threat” mentality that just makes you want to fight or run away. We suggested simple practices like supportively rooting for ourselves as we might encourage a friend, or adopting a different perspective during difficult times.
It is difficult to quantify what impact we can have on the Davos crowd. Will global leaders’ mountain-top moments of mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude trickle down for the benefit of entire workforces? We certainly hope so. Did our presence as ambassadors of purpose, resilience, and genuine happiness adequately confront long-held competitive business ethics of aggressive self-interest and zero-sum scarcity? Again, we hope so.