Money can't buy these free lectures on happiness

2013-10-06T00:00:00Z 2014-07-03T12:02:21Z Money can't buy these free lectures on happinessBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The sun is just lighting the front range of the Santa Catalina Mountains as David Raichlen takes the track at Catalina High School.

Raichlen, a biological anthropologist, researches the evolutionary role upright locomotion played in the evolution of humans and has recently tested the role that the physiological boost called “runner’s high” might have had in our becoming homo sapiens.

You might call this morning routine research — or simply David Raichlen in pursuit of his own happiness.

Raichlen is one of five experts from the University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences who will lecture on the subject of “Happiness” on Wednesday evenings beginning Oct. 16 at the Fox Theatre downtown.

Raichlen doesn’t confuse the chemical boost that comes from strenuous exercise with the much richer concept of happiness, but he sees it as a foundation for it.

Running gives him the opportunity to have little victories every day, a physical boost and a psychological sense of well-being.

“There are lots of things that go into generating the way we feel at any given moment. One is basal neurotransmitter changes that allow us to have these feelings of reward. It’s the foundation for why exercise can help us change our psychological situation.”

For Raichlen, it means starting each day with a little boost in his self-esteem. “You get to decide that, if I go for a three-mile run, that’s a victory.”

That sense of well-being is also critical for Esther Sternberg, a medical doctor who researches the mind-body connection — specifically “how the environment where we live and work and spend our time can contribute to our well-being.”

Sternberg, who has a joint appointment with the Integrative Medicine Center at the UA and the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, felt that link personally when her arthritis pain ebbed during a stay on a Greek island.

“I had this ‘aha’ moment, sitting watching the fishermen who live according to the seasons and the rhythms of the day and seeing that they were happy and they were healthy.”

Place alone is not the answer, she said. She also swam and danced and replaced her “fast-food” diet with healthy Mediterranean cuisine.

She has found equal benefit in Tucson “which has a long history of being a place where people came to heal from arthritis and tuberculosis — a long history of being a healing place.”

Sternberg said her talk will focus on her research and will also provide some tips for “how you can create your own space that supports your own well-being.”

The inaugural lecture in the series will be given by Celestino Fernandez, a sociologist who teaches a popular general-education class at UA each spring titled “Happiness.”

He promises to “cover a lot of ground with an overview from historical to philosophical to social science data.”

There are many “elaborate measures of happiness,” he said, “but one simple one is, ‘Did you laugh or smile yesterday?’”

Smiling for a day is one of the homework assignments he gives his class, along with “doing something good — a service activity for which you expect nothing in return.”

Fernandez said he plans to ask the audience a series of questions that will get them thinking about how they might make their lives happier. He doesn’t promise happiness but does say, “We’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Psychiatrist Charles Raison will deliver the second lecture and will focus on a method of making ourselves happier through “compassion training.”

Raison studies how meditation can reduce stress and inflammation. “My work is largely looking at how systems in the body and brain talk to each other to make people feel emotionally well,” he said.

Much of Raison’s recent work has focused on techniques he helped develop at Emory University, called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, with a colleague, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi.

Drawn from the lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the practice is adapted to a modern, secular world, and results are measured in a clinical setting, said Raison.

It “challenges people to reframe how they see the world around them,” he said.

We respond to things in our environment, including our fellow humans, in one of three ways — with desire, aversion or by simply ignoring them, he said. Looking at others more compassionately and developing empathy toward them can create a healthful sense of equanimity in ourselves, he said. “You’re not doing it to be a Buddha, but to have a better life.”

Daniel Russell, whose lecture will be the final one of the series, is a UA professor of philosophy who will speak on ancient and contemporary thinking about how good people create good lives, according to the college’s website about the lecture series.

According to the Department of Philosophy webpage, “his work focuses on ancient philosophy mainly as a source for expanding contemporary options for thinking about how to improve our lives.”

Russell recently completed a book called “Happiness for Humans,” which will be published by Oxford University Press.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

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