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Happiness Can Be Learned at a Biological Level

Leading neuroscientist to deliver lecture Oct. 16; participate in panel discussion

• Richard Davidson ‘one of the most influential neuroscientists’ in last 50 years

• Investigates how contemplative traditions can change one’s brain to make us happy

• Happiness can be viewed as a skill that can be practiced and cultivated

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Richard J. Davidson, the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will deliver a free public lecture at Northwestern University titled “Happiness as a Skill: The Brain’s Ability to Change Itself Through Mental Training.”  

Part of the University’s Symposium on Mind and Society, the talk by Davidson, a pioneer in the study of the neuroscience of emotion, will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.

(Davidson also will participate in a panel discussion about the concept of happiness as a skill with three other leading academics at 4 p.m. Oct. 16.)

“Richie Davidson is arguably one of the most influential psychologists and neuroscientists in the last 50 years,” said Robin Nusslock, assistant professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Affective and Clinical Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern. “Richie is truly a pioneer in the investigation of the human mind and brain.”

Davidson is the director of UW-Madison’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience. He also is the founder and chair of Waisman’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, supporting investigation of how contemplative traditions can physically change our brains and help us live healthier, happier lives.

Davidson spearheaded the scientific investigation of how the brain generates emotion and motivation, and he and his team of scientists are at the forefront of the emerging hybrid discipline of contemplative neuroscience.

Author of “The Emotional Life of Your Brain” (Penguin, 2012), Davidson will talk about the brain’s ability to change itself and enhance emotional well-being through mental training. He will discuss the effects of neuroplasticity and how our behaviors, thoughts and actions have a robust and measurable effect on brain function and structure.

Cultivating positive thoughts and behaviors can alter our brains -- at the level of biology -- in a positive manner, according to the research. From this perspective, happiness can be viewed as a skill that can be practiced and cultivated. 

His talk will be the featured event of this year’s Symposium on Mind and Society, sponsored by Weinberg’s department of psychology.

The panel discussion, “Developing Well-Being: Social, Cognitive and Neural Factors,” will take place at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, in the James L. Allen Center’s McCormick Auditorium, 2169 Campus Drive, on the Evanston campus. This event also is free and open to the public.

Besides Davidson, panel participants will include Nobel laureate James J. Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Lindsay Chase-Landsdale, the Frances Willard Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and associate provost for faculty at Northwestern; and Edith Chen, professor of psychology and fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.

“The Northwestern Symposium on Mind and Society was developed to initiate dialogue within both the Northwestern community and the general public about ideas that are central to our society and well-being,” said Nusslock, an organizer of the event. “This biennial event is designed to foster dialogues that involve prominent thinkers and researchers in our society.”

Davidson is the recipient of numerous awards for his research, including a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Award, a MERIT Award from the National Institute of Mental Health; an Established Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Affective Disorders; a Distinguished Investigator Award from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation; the William James Fellow Award from the American Psychological Society; and the Hilldale Award from UW-Madison.

He was the founding co-editor of the American Psychological Association journal Emotion and previously was president of the Society for Research in Psychopathology and of the Society for Psychophysiological Research. He also was the recipient in 2000 of the most distinguished award for science given by the American Psychological Association -- the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.

In 2003, Davidson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2004 to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. In 2006, he was awarded the first Mani Bhaumik Award by the University of California, Los Angles, for advancing the understanding of the brain and conscious mind in healing. In 2006, he also was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, and in 2007, Madison Magazine named him Person of the Year.

For additional information on the talk, visit

Free parking is available in the garage south of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall after 4 p.m. on weekdays at 1841 Sheridan Road in Evanston. For more information on the venue, visit

Topics: Brain, Events
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