The neuroscience of happiness

New discoveries are shedding light on the activities that make us happy. An expert explains

Published January 28, 2012 10:00PM (EST)

             (<a href=''>Zurijeta</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Zurijeta via Shutterstock)

They say money can’t buy happiness. But can a better understanding of your brain? As recent breakthroughs in cognitive science break new ground in the study of consciousness -- and its relationship to the physical body -- the mysteries of the mind are rapidly becoming less mysterious. But does this mean we’ll soon be able to locate a formula for good cheer?

Shimon Edelman, a cognitive expert and professor of psychology at Cornell University, offers some insight in "The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life." In his new book, Edelman walks the reader through the brain’s basic computational skills – its ability to compute information, perform statistical analysis and weigh value judgments in daily life – as a way to explain our relationship with happiness. Our capacity to retain memories and develop foresight allows us to plan for the future, says Edelman, by using a mental “personal space-time machine” that jumps between past, present and future. It’s through this process of motivation, perception, thinking, followed by motor movement, that we’re able not only to survive, but to feel happy. From Bayes’ theorem of probability to Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," Edelman offers a range of references and allegories to explain why a changing, growing self, constantly shaped by new experiences, is happier than the satisfaction any end goal can give us. It turns out the rewards we get for learning and understanding the workings of the world really make it the journey, not the destination, that matters most.

Salon spoke with Edelman over the phone about the brain as computer, our cultural investment in happiness, and why knowing how our brains work might make us happier.

In the book, you approach neuroscience from a popular perspective, using language and allegories laypeople can understand. How can even a superficial understanding of how the brain works aid in one’s self-understanding?

Well, I think the principles in question are actually pretty accessible on what you call a superficial level. When we make decisions it basically boils down to value computation: Different options get weighed and chosen on the basis of mathematical processes.

Well, if pursuit is the key to happiness, is this kind of happiness sustainable? And if so, what might it look like?

Let me say firstly the answer is yes, and then I’ll have to elaborate a bit. There’s an example that made it into the book last minute because I’d just watched a movie, a Canadian film called "One Week" about a guy who gets diagnosed with cancer. He gets on his motorcycle and rides west and comes across all kinds of people and places. At one point, he goes on a hike, gets lost and meets another hiker there, a woman. They end up camping around a fire and he asks her at one point, "If you knew you had one week to live what would you be doing?" And she says without any hesitation, "What I’m doing now." So what better definition of true happiness than that? And that’s definitely obtainable. If you just pause and ask yourself.

Your title, and indeed your book, seem to conclude that pursuit itself, rather than an end, is what makes us happy. What's the best balance to achieve this happiness, what you call “flow”?

In the book I don’t attempt to come up with very specific advice for how to be happy, but just some general tools for understanding your own mind. Flow is the enjoyment derived from being engaged in an activity that is challenging, but not frustratingly so. Evolutionarily, we are selected for being good at certain kinds of things. You’re not challenged if you’re not tested, so I think we have this drive that pushes us to maybe overstep the boundary every now and then. And for success, we get rewarded incredibly with this feeling of well-being and excitement.

What distinguishes Americans’ attitudes toward happiness from those of other parts of the world?

Well, we are told happiness is our inalienable right, but we are not told what to do with it once you catch it. So in that respect I guess we’re exceptional because happiness made it into the foundational documents of this republic. This guy in Holland tabulates large-scale studies of well-being across different countries, and we are nowhere near the top. I don’t want to sound like someone who preempts or tries to write over scientific research, but I do speculate why. I think one scientifically, psychologically validated reason for not making the most of one’s happiness is investing in the wrong kind of acquisitions. If you have some money to spend and you spend it on buying goods that’s not nearly as effective in making you happy in the long run as buying experiences. If you buy an experience, you can basically revisit it and enjoy it over and over again, whereas with material goods, the fun goes away. Running the risk of sounding too corny, quality time with yourself, with your family and with nature is worth a lot.

You talk about the default human mind as constantly wandering in order to avoid the present moment, what you call “the tyranny of the here and now.” What about practices like Buddhist meditation, which aim to quiet the mind into a state of contentment?

That’s a really good question. I set out to write the book because I wanted to find out why I was restless in situations where I supposedly should have been perfectly content. You know, literally sitting on a mountaintop, seeing the countryside, I would still feel restless. And I think I found a kind of answer. To put it very bluntly, if you are successful in following the Buddhist precepts, you cease to be human. In fact, I think one can find support for this view in the Buddhist sources themselves. If you succeed to cease desiring, you’re no longer human. Of course, the Buddha himself supposedly remained enmeshed with humanity to teach others. But if you do succeed in obtaining the state that you’re supposed to obtain, then you’re no longer human. And that kind of invalidates the questions because a psychology would need to be developed for understanding those kinds of minds – they are not regular human minds.

One perhaps controversial claim your book makes early on is that the brain can literally, rather than metaphorically, be thought of as a computer – and following from this, that an identical, non-biological computational device could be created (as in artificial intelligence). Is this idea widely accepted in the field of philosophy of mind today?

In philosophy of mind I would say, maybe 50/50. It used to be very popular when Hilary Putnam formalized the solution of functionalism with regard to minds: the idea that what the system does is what matters, not what it is made of. But then he repudiated his stance and it gets a bit complicated. I think as far as the -isms go in philosophy, there’s a blend between an old-fashioned school (mid-1950s), which says the mind is literally what this brain does, it’s this brain’s mind. But then you have to admit there are very simple philosophical arguments that when certain changes are made to the composition of the system, its function would not matter. For instance, right now you and I are interconnected cognitive mental states. So if I tell you, Look at your hand and count your fingers, while I’m looking at mine, we both see five fingers. We have the number five in our minds; what does it reside in? It’s definitely not your neurons because your neurons are yours and my neurons are mine. So it cannot be those neurons specifically; it’s what those neurons do. So if you accept that, the question then becomes, is it a slippery slope? Where does it stop, what can you do with or to a system without disrupting the mind that exists in it? And that’s a question that would take much longer than a couple of minutes to get into.

You also assert that the idea of being a unified self with free will is an illusion, but that this can be seen as liberating. How so?

I guess in part this feels liberating to me because as a scientist I’m very pleased that this great big mystery dissipates into thin air. And then the question becomes kind of technical – what kind of free will is worth wanting and how to compare it with what you apparently have. This was done by the philosopher Daniel Dennett in "Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting" and I basically channel him in my take on those matters. I don’t think I can squeeze into a two-minute reply the technicalities of how one can reconcile what is known about the physics of free will (which is, there isn’t any) and the way we feel about it (which is, of course, that we feel we have it) and what can be done about that. But I think the starting point for this line of thought is clear so once we understand that the self is a web of cause and effect that is part of a larger web, I think everyone can translate this insight for themselves into how to conduct themselves. I guess the bottom line is, again, at the danger of sounding too corny, to realize that we have to be in tune with the rest of the world, which includes other people and the universe around us.

Is this what you mean when you say that our happiness depends equally on our inner selves as it does on the world around us?

I hope the impression you get from the book is not that the self is in a definite way distinguishable from the surrounding universe in so far as there are causal links. We are interconnected with the rest of the universe so I think it only makes sense that our own mental states when we perceive them will depend on what’s going on around us.

What do you think of Barbara Ehrenreich’s "Bright-Sided," an account of what she views as the current happiness industry of positive thinking and affirmation culture? Does our obsession with happiness go too far?

Well, if you’re preoccupied with your happiness at all times then it’s definitely counterproductive and can safely be called an obsession. No obsession is good, and an obsession with happiness will not make you happy.

What do you think of the current popularity of competition-based reality shows, where the end goal of getting married, winning a large sum of money or being America’s Next X, Y, or Z promises happiness? This formula seems an interesting combination of the idea that a goal promises happiness while at the same time, it’s really the journey that the contestants go through that people are watching.

Well, I’m hard-pressed to decide which of the two activities, between watching or participating in such a show, which is the worst possible thing you could do with your time and which is the second worst. But I guess I have to moderate what I said because I haven’t seen these shows, and only know about them by hearsay. Of course we humans have a long history of primates watching other primates fight, but I think the kinds of tools we have now for finding and experiencing happiness can be put to better use than watching these kinds of competitions. But I do watch TV, sometimes when the only pleasure one can get from watching is vicarious. I like to watch the Travel Channel, especially the food programs like Anthony Bourdain’s show "No Reservations," and I can only be envious when he goes to Singapore because watching all those food stalls, I can only salivate.

By Lucy McKeon

Lucy McKeon is an editorial fellow at Salon.


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Neuroscience Philosophy Science