Miami-Dade County

Discovering the key to happiness just off an Overtown street corner

From left, Eva Rodriguez, Amelia Junca and Sophia Isabella Belonio look on as fashion artist Karelle Levy talks about knitting at her space during the inaugural day of the World Happiness Summit taking place at Ice Palace Film Studios in Overtown, Miami, on Friday, March 17, 2017.
From left, Eva Rodriguez, Amelia Junca and Sophia Isabella Belonio look on as fashion artist Karelle Levy talks about knitting at her space during the inaugural day of the World Happiness Summit taking place at Ice Palace Film Studios in Overtown, Miami, on Friday, March 17, 2017. pportal@miamiherald.com

Just off an Overtown street corner, a doorway opens to an oasis of red hammocks that draws you in further. The yard is sprinkled with people socializing, some sitting around tables sharing healthy snacks, while others meditate solemnly.

Step inside the Ice Palace Studios, and the interior is decked out in bright colors with an indoor park complete with trees and clouds made from balloons at the center. A robot checks in on your mood, and if you aren’t smiling enough, he will dance and joke with you until you do. If the healthy food just won’t do, there’s a chocolate bar.

For one weekend at least, this is the Capital of Happiness.

The inaugural World Happiness Summit, a homegrown multi-day conference, opened on Friday with a full day of speakers from around the world sharing their expertise on the art and science of happiness, mindfulness and well-being, from all different vantage points — including science, academia, technology, media and business. The day before the summit, government leaders convened to discuss happiness and public policy, in the run-up to the United Nations’ World Happiness Day on Monday.

Why Miami? “You just have to look around you. This is a cosmopolitan city ... and I don’t know about you, but the sun makes me smile,” said Manuel Pieta, who founded the event with Luis Gallardo and Karen Guggenheim. “We are going to do this event every year and hopefully attract more and more people. This is a movement. We want to leave the people participating in this event with some actions.”

To be sure, the World Happiness Summit grows out of a thriving local mindful living movement. While yoga classes, spas and life coaches have long been a part of the scene, the past couple of years have brought businesses specializing in serene spaces, education and training, A number of wellness product and food companies, even mindful-tech, have taken root as well.

[READ MORE: Startups out to build a mindful Miami and How millennials shape a new generation of food startups]

While the summit drew the already converted as well as the curious, Gallardo, a branding expert who has spoken around the world about happiness, said it was important to bring scientific minds to the conference — and he did. Several speakers commented on how recent brain research based on real-time scans and biofeedback is validating the findings of psychologists for decades: Happiness is good for you.

Ask yourself how happy are you and why? “We never do that in real life but that self-reflection becomes therapeutic,” said Jennifer Moss, co-founder of Plasticity Labs, who works with populations of students, police officers, military and others. “We are trying to build up psychological fitness to be able to handle a stressful or traumatic event when it happens.”

One easy way to do that, she said: Practice gratitude. Write three things you are thankful for every day. Or schedule 10 minutes a week to thank someone. Ask your kids: What made you smile today? And learn something new and never stop, because nothing will do more to stimulate brain health, added Leanne Young of the Brain Performance Institute. Although, sigh, your brain’s development peaks at age 35 or 40, Young said, you can still help your brain health until the day you die. “It is a joyful time to be alive.”

Mo Gawdat, chief business officer of Google X, the division that is bringing you the driverless car, shared his story of rising above manic depression, as part of the summit’s technology track. After reading everything he could and not finding answers, he decided to engineer his way to happiness. “I wanted to write a piece of code that I could run every day,” and he did. His journey would face the ultimate test in 2014 when his adult son — who was also his best friend — died during a routine operation. Somehow he got through it and went on to author the just-out book “Solve for Happy.”

Ismael Cala, an author and journalist, also learned that success is not happiness. “Money is addictive, and you think you are happy, but it is only in silence ... that you really know if you are happy,” he told several hundred people who packed the cavernous main room. After a successful career in television, he stepped away to listen to his soul. For him, resilience is the key to happiness, and people contain the tools inside of them to find happiness.

His steps to happiness: Find your talents, be passionate about your goals, focus and filter your options, work toward meaningful goals and don’t give up — “then collect and treasure the happy moments you can collect for yourself. ... Happiness is a choice, and it is something we can grab with work.”

The summit contained much for the practitioners, too. Spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation, opened the summit with breathing and meditation, followed by yoga led by lululemon. Lululemon CEO Laurent Potdevin led the crowd in meditation on Saturday, and other meditation sessions closed each day of the summit.

And for the non-diehards, there was some of the harder-to-believe: Lynne McTaggart, consciousness lecturer and former journalist who said she has run hundreds of experiments challenging the power of the mind, led the packed room in a live group intention to purify a water sample in St. Petersburg, Russia. The group would find out the next day from a Russian scientist working with her if the intention was successful.

Outside the speaker rooms, the Happiness Village gave summit goers the chance to check out dozens of exhibits, including techie products that monitor your brainwaves, or you could literally contribute to the Interknit, a world wide “web” that connects individuals through knitting. Take advantage of the “free hug” spaces, and you may not need to check back in with MIT’s robot to see if your mood has improved.

The World Happiness Summit continues Saturday and Sunday and although the conference was only for ticket holders, the summit is holding a free community party at Margaret Pace Park on Biscayne Bay starting at about 2:30 p.m. on Sunday to close out the summit with food, yoga, Zumba, meditation and music.

Nancy Dahlberg: @ndahlberg

If you go

What: World Happiness Summit closing party, with yoga, Zumba, meditation, food and music

Where: Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Miami’s Margaret Pace Park on Biscayne Bay

Cost: Free

More information: www.happinesssummit.world

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