Yale faculty at Davos explore the state of mind that is happiness

Professors Laurie Santos, Molly Crockett, and Hedy Kober talk with participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Left to right: Professors Laurie Santos, Molly Crockett, and Hedy Kober talk with participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 22.

Does your mind lie to you about what will make you happy? Are popular notions of happiness supported by science? To explore these questions, three Yale faculty members — Professors Laurie Santos, Hedy Kober, and Molly Crockett — discussed the neuroscience of happiness with participants at an IdeasLab during the 2019 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 22.

President Peter Salovey introduced the event by highlighting how Yale’s faculty members are leading research on thought and behavior, with the goal of advancing human understanding, improving physical and mental health, and optimizing performance.

The research entails a broad, interdisciplinary effort that spans molecules to minds, he said.

At one end, biology, chemistry, and physics are improving our understanding of the molecular and cellular mechanisms of nerve cells, synaptic circuits, and neuronal development,” Salovey said. “At the other end, the disciplines of psychiatry, neurology, and psychology link neural processes and systems to the mind and behavior.”

Salovey emphasized, “Yale integrates strengths across multiple disciplines to reveal how an individual’s brain can inform differences in behavior, developmental trajectories, performance, and dysfunction.” Neuroscience is one of the five top-priority areas identified by the University Science Strategy Committee.

During the IdeasLab, Santos, Kober, and Crockett discussed the cognitive biases that lead us to make bad choices for our own well-being, the strategies we can use to improve our own happiness, and the relationship between moral decision-making and happiness.

Santos, professor of psychology and the head of Silliman College, teaches “Psychology and the Good Life,” the most popular class in Yale’s history. Kober, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology, is an expert on mindfulness and meditation and how those practices can change brain processes and lead to healthier lives. Crockett, assistant professor of psychology, studies human morality, ethics, altruism, and decision-making. 

Participants at the World Economic Forum indicated that they were particularly interested in understanding the science behind happiness because they know that a critical element of any successful global collaboration is how we work as individuals and as a team — a goal related directly to our happiness and well-being.

Crockett shared with attendees that her lab has “been studying how the value of money depends on whether it was earned morally. Our studies suggest that ill-gotten gains are less valuable than money earned decently.”

Kober noted that “one classic instruction is to pay attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally. Mindfulness practice allows you to respond to the world, rather than react to it. Together, the data suggest that mindfulness changes your brain, your experience, and your body, making you more resilient to stress and disease.”

The Neuroscience of Happiness with Yale University” was so popular that many people waited outside the door, hoping for a spot in the overcrowded room. The discussions of the IdeasLab were carried over to the Yale reception later that evening. Santos, Kober, and Crockett will lead guests through interactive exhibits that feature strategies for improved well-being and encourage positive change in day-to-day living. They will teach participants what psychology and neuroscience reveal about our emotions and our misconceptions about happiness.

Throughout the rest of the week at the World Economic Forum, Salovey will highlight how Yale’s research collaborations around the world are addressing pressing challenges — such as addiction, extremism, climate change, crime, inequality, and migration.

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