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Stanford spotlights compassion, innovation at technology conference

Stanford brought together educators and entrepreneurs at the first-ever Compassion and Technology Conference to discuss how to uplift humanity in a gadget-driven society full of distractions.

L.A. Cicero Seppala and Doty

James Doty, right, director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research & Education, smiles as Emma Seppala, associate director of CCARE, answers an audience question about her presentation.

Social entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists explored how to open hearts in a world of cell phones, texting and computers at the inaugural Compassion and Technology Conference at Stanford on Dec. 6.

"Science shows us that compassion is fundamental to our health and well-being," said one of the panelists, Emma Seppala, a psychologist and associate director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Hundreds of people filled the room at the Li Ka Shing Center for the all-day affair.

Seppala said that positive social connections are important to living a happy life, adding that compassion is the emotion people feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.

"We are completely wired to connect with each other. We are wired for empathy," she said.

The challenge, Seppala said, is how to use technology by focusing attention and awareness. Sometimes technology can distract us – texts, email and phones can overwhelm, isolate and lead to addictive behavior. Research shows our mind wanders 50 percent of the time, but homing in on the present moment – as in making genuine social connections – can lead to healthier emotions, she said.

Other studies show that people with low social connections are more prone to anger, violence and suicide.

Bottom line: compassion works, whether in business or personal relationships. "Kindness is the highest rated attribute in studies" in what people look for in romantic partners, she said. Even Charles Darwin wrote about how sympathy for others helps increase offspring and drive societies forward.

The vocabulary of emotion

One problem is how we use the language of emotion, said Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. People can benefit from a more accurate vocabulary in describing how they feel. For example, "envy" refers to an object whereas "jealousy" concerns a relationship – the two are often misused.

"If you can name it, you can tame it," said Brackett, referencing the psychological strategy that if you can define something that bothers you (for example, a fear or bad habit), you may be better able to overcome it or its negative effects. "Being more granular about your emotions" is important, he said.

Brackett's center has worked with teachers of Inuit children to teach them a rich vocabulary for understanding and managing their feelings. While the Inuits may have 52 words to describe snow, they have few to explain how they feel emotionally. And the suicide rate is extremely high among these Arctic peoples.

Therefore, mindfulness of the causes and consequences of emotion is critical. "When we're hijacked by emotion," Brackett said, "it's harder to regulate it than when we feel a mild intensity."

He offered this challenge: "We need to be better 'self-scientists' and build self-awareness."

Efficient empathy

Monica Worline, the president of Vervago, a corporate training company, explained why compassion matters in the workplace. A business that is perceived to genuinely care about its employees will attract smart, talented people who thrive and produce in collaborative settings where complex tasks are tackled confidently, she said. Plus, compassion results in better customer service.

Compassion can drive innovation, said Worline. "It helps people experience more and think more creatively, which results in bold ideas that lead to new and better products, companies and services."

On the other hand, when low morale and employee disengagement prevail, a company's financial costs can soar.

Is empathy inherited or learned?

That was the issue raised by Sara Konrath, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and director of a research lab focused on empathy and altruism. While generally stable across the adult life span, she said, one's empathy level can be strengthened through personalized teaching and coaching.

"Teaching empathy face-to-face is the best approach, though not always possible," she said, due to cost or distance issues.

Stephen Porges emphasized compassion's physiological underpinnings. The University of Illinois-Chicago professor emeritus talked about the neural pathways in the upper and lower body that give rise to particular emotions, good and bad.

"The manipulation of breath, posture and vocalizations can lead to greater compassion," said Porges, who formerly directed the Brain-Body Center at his university. One of his slides read, "Breathe it all in, love it all out."

Attendees also learned how compassion can be tracked geographically through mapping tools, used as a source of inspiration, and implemented as an intervention in communities where it is most needed (prisons, at-risk schools, trauma populations and health care systems).

Designs on compassion

Along with Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, sponsors of the conference were Facebook, the 1440 Foundation, HopeLab and The Dalai Lama Foundation. The event included presentations by innovators, engineers and designers who devised compassion-inspired applications and competed for best design idea before a panel of judges and the audience.

Sam Reiss, founder of X-Change the World, received the top prize of $10,000. His project involved improving the level of conversational English among young people and building cross-cultural bridges online between American and global students.

Kasley Killam, a recent psychology graduate of Queen's University in Canada, and Ralph Vacca, a doctoral student at New York University, each won $5,000 awards.

All prize-winners will receive an hour-long consultation with a growth capital fund executive and the opportunity to meet the 14th Dalai Lama when he visits the Bay Area in February.

Another contestant, Belinda Liu, co-founder of Tech urSelf, said that her project involved "compassion circles" in which teams of up to six friends connected around daily acts of "kindness and heroism." The idea was to help people activate their inner "super-heroes." Her company's goal is to promote the use of technology for the "common good and to inspire people to use technology purposefully," she said.

"It's not the technology that's the problem," Liu said. "The challenge is how we use our technological super-powers for good."