Here's one weird trick to being happier right now: Stop falling for tricks that tell you there's a secret to happiness.
In the most charming and witty book about neuroscience you'll read all year, Welsh scientist and comedian Dean Burnett explores the chemistry and geography of our most self-sabotaging organ to understand what makes us light up — and why contentment always seems so fleeting. (Hint: It's a frustrating evolutionary incentive.)
Salon caught up with the author of "Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From, and Why" via Skype recently, and what transpired was a happily entertaining transcontinental conversation about Tinder, pizza and other things we can't quite make up our minds about.
For your first book, you wrote about the "Idiot Brain." What made you choose happiness as your next mountain to climb?
I wrote the first book thinking it would be my one and only chance of ever writing a book. I thought I splurged all my stored-up knowledge in it. It was a good umbrella subject for all the things I had in my mind to say. I’m not an unhappy person, but I’m sort of cynical or maybe cautious person when it comes to predictions. I assumed I'd I put it out there, and a few of my blog readers would buy it, a few libraries, a few universities. Then we'd all move on with our lives and never speak of it again. It didn’t go that way. It was more popular than anyone expected. Then people started asking me, "What's the second book about? You need follow it." I had nothing, the tank was empty.
I kept asking lots of my friends, colleagues, co-workers, fellow writers, “What do you think I should write about?” Honestly, I had no idea. They all gave different suggestions. Nothing really stuck as an idea for a full book. I kept knocking them back saying, “No, no, no.” They really got frustrated and would eventually say, "At the end of the day, just go write about whatever makes you happy."
I’m a very literal person. When I'm told something like that, I start looking at it like, well, that’s an idea. What does make me happy? Why did this make me more happy than other things? Why does our brain really react positively to certain things in the modern world and not other equally complex or involved things?
I looked into it with mild curiosity. You see all the different places that are out there with "the to secret happiness, the key to happiness, the ideals for happiness. If you do this you will be happy." All done with such conviction, such firm statements. "This is how it works." If you study the brain any length of time, you know that nothing is ever simple and never will be. That got me a little bit suspicious about that. I realized it was a interesting subject. I can be objective. I don’t have any particular dog in this hunt. I have no axe to grind. So I thought, let’s just see what the science says. That’s where the journey started.
As I was reading, I realized, “Oh, I understand what this is. This the story of 'Yes, but' and 'No, and.' Every chapter was: This makes you happy except when it doesn’t. This doesn’t make you happy unless it does. There is no one thing, no one set of circumstances. Everything makes us happy until the point that it does not.
Pretty much, yes. The brain is so flexible and plastic. That means it adapts to anything which becomes predictable and regular. That doesn’t have to be anything boring. You can read war diaries of soldiers who still managed to sleep on the front lines with regular explosions and death all around them. They still managed to get some shuteye. The brain says, "This is awful but I still need to sleep. So I might as well tune out for a bit." The brain is very good at that, which is one of its main strengths. It can adapt to anything. It’s good, because the world is so complex and unpredictable on a day to day basis. If we couldn’t do, that we'd be paralyzed with fear and collapse.
The human condition is that we have ways of compensating for the things that would make us unhappy. But then we also reach a certain point with happiness when we become discontent. We’re happy in cities until it’s too much. We’re happy in our jobs, we’re happy being challenged, until we become unhappy to be challenged.
On a biological level, the brain and body is a system of balances. On some occasions, one side gets the upper hand. On other occasions, it is the other. That also governs our sensations, our feelings.
The first chapter of the book deals with music. There has to be a nice combination of syncopation and randomness and predicability. A metronome or a ticking clock isn't something you can dance to, because it’s a very regular noise. But something too unpredictable or chaotic, like freeform jazz or experimental music, can be very stressful to people who don’t like it at all. It's like, "I don’t know what this is. I can’t see patterns in it." A nice combination of predictability and unpredictability makes music enjoyable.
The brain seems to find comfort in things that are familiar and novel, but not all of one or all of the other. Something completely new can be quite scary. Something completely familiar, completely known, is boring. I know exactly what this is; there’s nothing to offer me here. Novel things in familiar context — that balance tends to be something which the brain will respond to.
In the modern world, when you first get to know someone, it's all new and exciting. Then you become familiar with them. Affection is still there, but it’s taken a different form now. The same with jobs — you can enjoy one job for the challenge it offers. But if it's just challenge constantly with no reward or no change, you will adapt to that. You will become less stimulated. The brain will start to ignore it because it’s the same old, same old.
We have as human beings this desperate desire to unlock the key to find out what is that secret to happiness. The idea that happiness would be a predictable state of being runs counter to what true happiness feels like. It is not a stable thing.
No, the brain doesn’t do that. The brain doesn’t do things by default. The argument I try to use is that, in an evolutionary sense, the experience of happiness, pleasure, and joy is technically meant to be a reward for when things are going right. The subconscious parts of your brains don’t really do all the thinking: You have a house, you find yourself a partner, you find yourself good food. Good, enjoy that. Be happy now.
Happiness is a motivator. Finding things that make you happy is a big spur to action. It makes us do things. It makes us want to seek things out, to achieve things; it gives us ambitions. That’s all good. But the idea of brain can achieve a state default happiness where you’re happy all the time no matter what, that would be counterproductive. Why do anything different if you can feel the same reward just by lying in bed all day as you did from getting up achieving things? If I said to someone, “I’ll give you $500 to build me a cabin or I’ll give you $500 to not do that," odds are they wouldn’t do that because it has the same reward.
The circuits in the brain seem to monitor likely outcome for an action and the amount of effort it takes to do it. Everyone's brain is different, but they're all doing the calculation of "Is it worth my time? Shall I do this?" Anything that offers you maximum reward with minimum effort is very appealing. If you say to someone, “I can make you happy with just three simple steps, you will be happy forever,” that’s a huge reward for minimum effort. Like playing the lottery. Minimal investment, potentially huge reward. It’s worth the risk because of the potential outcomes.
Humans already inclined to look for the answers with minimal effort to actions. That’s helpful and unhelpful in different ways.
The tremendous amount of subconscious calculation that we are doing constantly in our lives is so interesting. We’re just constantly like Robocop, scanning around how much effort we want to put in to things.
You see it reflected a lot lately in social networks and dating apps, things like that. They provide maximum interactions for minimum effort. As a social species, we need approval from others; we need interaction. We need status. We need all that stuff. The brain is geared to obtaining these things.
But every social interaction you have in person comes with a risk. You have minimal time to think of your responses. You are trying to present the best view of yourself to the outside world. I can make a good attempt to come across as classy and clever for a half an hour, but then if I look down and my fly is undone, I've wasted half an hour.
You talk about that too, the way that we relive our shames, the way that we process the worst things that we’ve done and the greatest embarrassments.
The brain is so geared toward the idea of being rejected by others. It’s such a negative thing for the human brain because we’re such a social species. That’s in our evolution. The idea of being mocked, ridiculed, rejected by the people around us was at one point that our evolutionary history a matter of life or death. If you were thrown from the tribe, you were unlikely to survive, because that’s how humans work.
But social networks give us far more control of how we present ourselves and far more time to think, far more control of how we look. We can edit our responses. This idea of putting minimum effort and maximum control to coming across as best as you can to as many people as possible is really alluring to the brain.
On a dating up, like Tinder, there are 50 partners here. I like these three. I could talk to this one but in three seconds of swiping, I could find the better one.
I want to ask you about the tyranny of that. There’s a level at which it’s too much choice and then there’s no choice. Then, I’m actually miserable. Or I post something on Twitter because I know that I want the reward of a response. But every study shows that the more time we spend on social media, the more miserable we actually become. It’s a misery delivery device. Why do we human creatures, with our brains that were developed to be so big that it hurts our mothers to pass a human head, seek out continuously things that make us unhappy?
I think it comes from idea of the brain is one thing. One marvelous lump which is doing lots of different things but doing them as a committee, or like an operating system in a computer with lots of different bits doing different things. The brain — in particular the cortex, the thinky bits — expanded about 50 percent in two million years. Which is obscenely fast in evolution terms.
The example I offer to you is there's this new part of the brain. It is almost entirely fresh and brand new. All the old parts are still in the same form they've been for millions and millions and millions of years. It's like in an office — one person's really old school with a typewriter; the other is fresh out of management school, full of big ideas and no experience. You have to work on the same project together. You get something, but you don’t necessarily get the best approach.
In a cerebral sense, we have ambition. To get to this point requires long term time investment and effort. You want to be a top athlete. You know you have to spend all time in the gym. You have to do training. You have to practice. You have to compete. It's a lot of work and effort, but you tell yourself the reward is worth it. But, that means avoiding things that would impede that like, deep fried, deep dish pizza. That fundamental part of your brain which responds to sensory things is going, “Yeah, but I do like that. I know that if I work hard for many years I can experience the glory of being a champion. Or, if I order a pizza now, I can have it in ten minutes." This again, becomes the balance thing of how much self-control we have, which part of the brains are dominant.
One of the things that I really took away from this book that gave me a great sense of reassurance and pleasure, is that you might be happy enough. The one thing you need to do to make you happy is a myth. But in your day to day, if you’re interacting with other people, and you have a degree of challenge and stimulation, your brain's probably doing okay.
I think it's better to look at it as a statistical average. If you look at your life and you spend more time happy than not, then great. I think the idea now is that it becomes an aspirational thing. If you’re not happy then you’re at fault. This idea of happiness as a fundamental right that we should be having all the time. Average happiness or occasional, recurring happiness is, I think, the norm.
Do you think that part of why this book is happening now and why there is this fascination with the concept of happiness is because we are in unhappier time than we have been in the past? Or is it that we have the luxury right now, because we’re not being chased across the veldt, to sit and contemplate our own emotional state?
If you look at actual population metrics at the moment, we tend to be better off than we’d ever been in terms of life expectancy, general health. The news always dominates the here and now, which is worst case scenarios. There are plenty of things going in the right direction in many ways. Humans are actually doing OK in terms of the overall the population.
But that isn't an objective measurement, it's a subjective measurement. Even if you're born into immense privilege, you can easily be extremely unhappy because that's your baseline. Or if you are born in to massive wealth, you never work a day in your life, and then something slightly bad happens, you’re going to feel really sad because you think life should be all roses and constant pleasure and no strife whatsoever.
The fact that now we a greater standard of living gives us the time to look into these things. I think this idea of ultimate happiness, it’s almost like the gold at the end of the rainbow. You’re going to get closer and closer, but it takes more and more effort to get there.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.