This is Your Brain on Happiness

When people think of “science,” they naturally think of atoms, planets, robots — things they can touch and see. They know that subjective experiences such as happiness are important, but they believe that such experiences can’t be studied scientifically. That belief is dead wrong.

The litmus test used to determine whether or not a problem is scientific is measurability. If it can be measured, it can be put under the science microscope for investigation. We’ve long been able to measure microliters and blood glucose levels and rates of diffusion, but what about our seemingly subjective feelings, especially that one feeling that poets and philosophers have mulled over for more-than-a-lot of centuries — namely, happiness?

Every discovery in neuroscience to date has supported the view that our feelings and emotions are the product of brain cells firing in particular patterns across various brain regions. Since the Watson-Crick revolution of molecular biology, our inner world of subjectivity has been fully giving way to researchers in white coats with test tubes. Today, we can ask: Are there happiness genes? Are there neural correlates of happiness? What even is happiness?

Answers: Kind of. Yes. Squirts of dopamine. Just kidding about the last one. Let me say at the outset that happiness has no brain “center“; it is as spread out in the brain as any other hard-to-define feeling. Yes, the hippocampus and amygdala and prefrontal cortex and ventral tagmental blah and lateral-pre-neurobabble-areas are involved, but it’s the patterns of activity that define what it is we’re feeling. Along similar lines, there is no single “happiness gene.”

People so smart they only have one name perhaps were the first to define happiness. We are surrounded by their pithy instructions on how to achieve it. “Happiness is the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason,” says Aristotle. Buddha reminds us that, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened; happiness never decreases by being shared.”

Despite this wisdom, happiness still remains a foggy, mysterious thing. Fortunately, the science of happiness is a bourgeoning field. In the video above, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, piles on the data to demonstrate how people become happy and why we’re so quick to lose it. Gilbert has a great Edge essay summarizing much of his work. In the video, he also discusses how we’re armed with the ability to create our own well-being (“synthesizing happiness”); we’re also equipped with a “psychological immune system,” which enables us to bounce back from life’s slings and arrows better than we might think.

For example, after some event, a group of people responded by saying, “I’m so much better off physically, financially, emotionally, and almost every way…I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience… I believe it turned out for the best.”

That event was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and going to prison for 20 years. So these prisoners teach us a major life lesson on how to achieve happiness. Gilbert summarizes, “First, accrue wealth, power, and prestige, and then lose it. Second, spend as much of your life in prison as you possibly can. Third, make somebody else really, really rich.”

i.e., If they can synthesize happiness and truly feel it, surely we can too.

And yet, much of the data is like looking in the mirror — a humbling reality check indeed. We are, in fact, very bad at predicting what will make us happy, at what Gilbert terms “affective forecasting.” But we are all bad in systematic ways, making it possible to measure patterns in our errors. A followup video can be found here. Put briefly, our current emotional states vastly influence how we interpret a past event or how we predict a future event to feel like when we get there.

If I’m starving, the succulent pasta and meatballs that I will have for dinner, covered in a thick and gooey layer of melted cheese with a glass of vino on the side, will be the most appealing thought possible. In reality, the Chef Boyardee isn’t quite that satisfying; I’m just starving and imagine it to be mind-blowingly tasty. Or if I’m in lab, then that vacation I took last year was the time of my life: waves crashing gently into the sand as it gives way, sun rays performing a ballet on the water’s surface, a corona light with a lime wedged comfortably on the bottle in my hand as the breeze sifts in and out of my hair… Reality says it was actually a relaxing but chilly afternoon on a New Hampshire beach.

Here’s the crux of happiness in all its glory, as Gilbert reminds us:

Yes, the experience of saving money is not the same as the experience of saving orphans. But both experiences can be described as a set of locations on multiple dimensions, and one of those dimensions is happiness. The two experiences give rise to different amounts of happiness, but not different kinds….Science is an attempt to replace qualitative distinctions with quantitative distinctions.

Once upon a time there were two kinds — hot and cold — and it was a huge breakthrough when scientists realized that these two kinds were simply manifestations of different amounts of molecular motion. The same was true when scientists realized that oxygen and iron were not different kinds of stuff, but rather, were different amounts of stuff, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Similarly, different subjective experiences contain different amounts of happiness, which is a basic dimension or basic ingredient of experience. Experiences that have different amounts of happiness can feel as different as air and iron, as different as hot and cold. But if orphan-saving and money-saving feel different, that fact does not invalidate my claim any more than the different rigidities of iron and air invalidates atomic theory.

To take another example, most of us seek lucrative careers that yield paychecks with a 1, followed by as many zeros as possible; and yet, economists were the first to find out that money can only buy happiness if you’re really poor. If you’re in the middle/high-class, money buys transient happiness with diminishing returns. Unless, of course, you’re Gertrude Stein, who said “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.”

How about getting a great education, being young, having a high IQ, living in a place that ends in -alifornia (and begins with a “C”) and having lots of sunny days? False, negative, erroneous, nah-uh. None of these is a good predictor of how happy a person will be. How about friends? Bingo. As Time wonderfully reports,

A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois by [psychologists] Ed Diener and Martin Seligman found that the most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them…

As a result of [Diener’s] research, he finds three components of happiness: pleasure (“the smiley-face piece”), engagement (the depth of involvement with one’s family, work, romance and hobbies) and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end). Of those three roads to a happy, satisfied life, pleasure is the least consequential, he insists: “This is newsworthy because so many Americans build their lives around pursuing pleasure. It turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important.”

Moreover, if we zoom in the microscope a bit, we’d find that genes in particular can profoundly influence our levels of happiness. One study implicates the importance of a gene variant of the serotonin transporter gene 5-HTTLPR. Serotonin is one of those molecules in the brain especially important for modulating feelings of well-being, our overall mood, and even attentional processes. (Ecstasy increases this molecule to the extreme to cause feelings of euphoria.)

People with two long variants of this gene have been shown to process and identify positive images faster than aversive ones, and the converse held true in an earlier study for people with short gene variants. A reader-friendly review of this study can be found here, with a general role for serotonin discussed here.

Too, twin studies have revealed much of what we know with regards to a genetic basis of happiness, with genes accounting for approximately 50% of our overall happiness. That, of course, doesn’t mean that if your parents are unhappy that you will be unhappy. Take obesity as an example. People can be predisposed to weight-gain but their environmental BigMacs-with-extra-cheese must be taken into account as well. So how much of happiness is actually in our hands?

In 1996 University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken published a paper looking at the role of genes in determining one’s sense of satisfaction in life. Lykken, now 76, gathered information on 4,000 sets of twins born in Minnesota from 1936 through 1955.

After comparing happiness data on identical vs. fraternal twins, he came to the conclusion that about 50% of one’s satisfaction with life comes from genetic programming. (Genes influence such traits as having a sunny, easygoing personality; dealing well with stress; and feeling low levels of anxiety and depression.) Lykken found that circumstantial factors like income, marital status, religion and education contribute only about 8% to one’s overall well-being. He attributes the remaining percentage to “life’s slings and arrows.”

Finally, all of this research points to at least one bit of advice: within genetic constraints, to be happy, occasionally distract yourself from your own existence and matter to someone else. Or as philosopher Dan Dennett has quipped, “If you want to be happy, just find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.” Of course, if you’re really savvy, then you’ll find someone to pay you to do it.

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