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Happiness, New Technologies Focus of Meeting of Pioneering Thinkers

Gretchen Rubin (right).  Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

Author Gretchen Rubin’s “formula for happiness” could have very well been the cri de coeur for this week’s Atlantic Meets the Pacific forum—the second annual collaboration between The Atlantic magazine and the University of California, San Diego.

“Being happier,” she writes in her bestselling book The Happiness Project, “requires you to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

The three-day conference, which follows in the tradition of The Atlantic’s prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival and the Washington Ideas Forum, had the distinct aura of being ‘an atmosphere of growth’ where some of the greatest American minds examined the many ways entertainment, technology, politics and new research into human psychology can, as Rubin puts it, “boost our good feelings, put a stop to our bad feelings, and pursue our right feelings.”

Director of Calit2, Larry Smarr

The event is something of a ‘feather in the cap’ for UC San Diego—and in particular for UC San Diego Extension, the driving force behind the move to establish the world-class conference series in La Jolla.

UC San Diego professors were well represented among the speakers. Included among them were Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2, a UCSD/UC Irvine partnership), as well as James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science, Samuel L. Popkin, professor of political science, and Santosh Kesari, chief of the Division of Neuro-Oncology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Attendees at the event were also treated to tours of several hallmark facilities at UC San Diego and on the nearby Torrey Pines Mesa, including the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Calit2, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, and The Scripps Research Institute. Scripps also hosted the Monday and Tuesday sessions at the Scripps Seaside Forum.  

"Scripps Institution of Oceanography is proud to host this confluence of great intellectual and entrepreneurial minds on our campus," said Scripps Acting Director Cathy Constable. “We appreciate the opportunity to showcase the breadth of Scripps research to such an impressive group of interested thinkers, further enhancing our mission of communicating science for the benefit of society and the environment.”

Genomist, J. Craig Venter (right)

This mission was mirrored in the remarks of speaker after speaker at the event, many of whom are known for their world-class research, contributions to the entertainment world, or philanthropic efforts. In addition to Rubin, speakers and panelists at the event included famed genomist J. Craig Venter, Co-Chairman and CEO of DreamWorks Studios Stacey Snider, Facebook’s Vice President of Products Chris Cox, and Co-Founder and Executive Vice Chairman of the Michael J. Fox Foundation Debi Brooks.

In a session called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy Now,” Atlantic Senior Editor Corby Kummer interviewed Rubin about her task-oriented, list-driven, “practical” approach to happiness, which emphasizes that little things like making one’s bed and taking the time for warm greetings and farewells can improve the quality of one’s life.

For her bestselling book, Rubin spent a year examining twelve crucial components of her own happiness, one for each month. Her new book, “Happiness at Home” focuses on how to cultivate domestic peace and serenity and debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Rubin says she learned so much about happiness from her research that she now has to hold herself back from being ‘a happiness bully’ when she sees people engaging in behaviors that are shown to undermine happiness.

“You know, people who constantly cut everything too short so their whole day is frantic, or people who won’t unplug from the phone, or people who stay up all night cruising the Internet,” she noted. “You’ve got to go to bed on time!”

One point that seemed to particularly resonate with the very plugged-in audience (Twitter comments can be read at #AtlanticMeetsPacific) was Rubin’s advice to set boundaries and time limits for electronic devices, especially in the context of family time.

“With these devices in our pockets we have this sense of constantly needing to connect and also this sense of being hunted;,” she remarked. “What works is to set boundaries: From 6-9 p.m. is family time and you put your cell phone in an inconvenient drawer. Some people even follow a ‘tech Sabbath’ where they take a day off from technology.” Rubin says she keeps her own phone on ‘mute’ and has disabled audible tones that announce when she has a new email.

“You hear that announcement and you can’t resist checking it,” she said. “A lot of this has to do with not just falling into the mindlessness of it. Technology is a good servant but a bad master. You have to assert your domination.”