By Tom Still 


It’s not easy being the Dalai Lama. Not only are you handpicked for the job at age two, with no real choice to become a firefighter, artist or cowboy, but you spend much of the rest of your life – at least, this reincarnation – answering the unanswerable. 


Such was the “what-is-the-meaning-of-life” tone of a Madison discussion with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, at which six experts on human well-being sought to engage him on some of the mysteries of what it means to be a happy, healthy inhabitant of the planet. 


At several points during the two-hour discussion on Wednesday, I wished the Dalai Lama had been free to reply, “I’m just a simple Buddhist monk… how the heck do I know?” Then again, that’s why he’s the Dalai Lama. He’s long on the kind of patience most of the rest of us lack. 


Held under the title of “Change Your Mind, Change the World,” the event brought together experts in neuroscience, health care, psychology, economics and the environment to talk about global health and emotional well-being. Speakers made a compelling case that physical health is often linked to emotional or mental health, yet health-care systems in most countries don’t often see the connection. 


Ilona Kickbusch, director of the Global Health Programme at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, said society has made great progress in treating and curing a number of physical diseases. However, there are many conditions outside the “vertical disease model,” she noted, such as chronic obesity, that appear to be more strongly tied to how people live. 


“Mental health explains more of the misery in rich countries than physical health,” added Richard Layard, an emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics and a member of the House of Lords. But no country spends more than a fraction of its health dollars on mental health, he noted. 


Richard Davidson, the UW-Madison professor whose work through the Waisman Center has brought international acclaim, noted there is mounting evidence that stress affects brain development in children as well as physical health and mortality in adults. 


Dr. Don Berwick, a former Obama administration official and one of the nation’s leading authorities on health care quality, said rising health care costs are taking money from society’s other spending priorities. “There’s an inverse relationship between the cost of health care and results,” he said, in part because people think they can get healthy if only they had more care. The real answer, he said, should be more emphasis on emotional and mental health. 


That’s where the Dalai Lama came into the picture. After hearing from each expert, he was asked to provide his insights on well-being, happiness and training one’s mind to deal with adversity. That was all within his job description, of course, and he handled each question with a combination of humor and attentiveness. 


He also noted that most of the questions could just as easily been asked of the people sitting in the audience – those who have a stake in their own well-being and what it takes to sustain it.


Because the brain is one of the last frontiers of medical science, much work remains to be done to figure out how it works. Part of the answer involves research. Over the past 40 years at the UW-Madison alone, scientists have discovered some of the causes of autism, disclosed the genetic roots of rare neurodegenerative diseases, manufactured cell- and gene-based pharmaceuticals to cure diseases, found ways to use medical imaging to “see” the brains of people with autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders, discovered how infants learn language and even shown how meditation can change the brain. 


The rest of the answer may involve harnessing science to influence public choices – and knowledgeable people taking responsibility for their own well-being. For those who scaled the mountaintop in Madison, the Dalai Lama didn’t have all of the answers, but he might have prompted many to think about their own choices.