The pursuit of happiness seems to be a big deal. Bookshelves and blog articles fill volumes on the topic, and self-help gurus and motivational speakers have thriving careers educating people on what makes humans happy. Humans are perhaps the only species to consciously experience pleasure and contemplate their future happiness. So what exactly is happiness?
Aristotle was the first philosopher to define happiness as a combination of Hedonia (pleasure) and Eudaimonia (a life well lived). In the last century ‘a feeling of engagement’ has been added to this definition. All human beings have come equipped with the pursuit-of-happiness impulse, or the urge to find greener grass on the other side of the hill. To quote Aristotle, “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. Yet the concept of happiness remains as elusive as ever.
The Neuroscience of Happiness
For the first time in history, technology has allowed us to pinpoint which part of the brain is responsible for happiness, using PET and MRI scanners. It turns out that the frontal cortex processes emotions such as happiness, and it is also the last structure to have evolved in living things. This may explain why humans are the only mammals thought to contemplate happiness and actively chase after it.
The neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex, just behind and above the eyes, fire wildly when the brain anticipates or experiences pleasure or pain, loss or gain. Those with damage to this area find ife becomes surprisingly simple. When making decisions, rationality then becomes their only guidance. Although this may sound like a good deal – we all have anguished over a forkroad in life’s path – finding the motivation to make life choices becomes difficult when you don’t experience the pleasure that comes with a good decision.
The Focus on what is Wrong
In the late 1990’s, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania questioned why psychiatry is based on everything that potentially can go wrong in the human brain. For example, the handbook of modern psychiatry “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” is a resource detailing all of the failures of the human psych. Where are the studies of people’s healthy emotional experiences and their successful adaptations to life’s circumstances? What do scientists have to say about happiness?
In the End it is all about Adaptation
Professor Jonathan Haidt wrote a book about happiness, and said that life’s circumstances to do not contribute to our own joy. In the end, a person who wins the lottery will be just as happy as the person who breaks their neck. The reason for this is adaptation: human’s have the remarkable ability of adapting to whatever life throws at them. While the lottery winner may be very happy to begin with, in the end both individuals will find that their levels of happiness to even out. The person who breaks their neck will adapt: he or she will soon be able to speak again, move, and eat solid foods, and experience tremendous joy with each new milestone of recovery.
And Enjoying the Moment
Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, one of the co-founders of positive psychology, conducted a study where participants carried a pager and wrote down how much they enjoyed the task they were doing each time the pager rang. The idea was to avoid the memory’s tendency to focus on the peaks and troughs of happiness (as happens with retrospective documentation), and focus on the present moment. Csikszentmihalyi’s study found that humans are most happy when completely immersed in what they are doing.
The Benefits of being Happy
Why should you be happy? Well, as it turns out,
being happy is addictive – stimulating the same receptors in the brain which drugs, sex and food do. Happiness also promotes the growth of nerve connections, improves cognition by boosting mental productivity, strengthens reasoning abilities, affects your perspective, makes you more attractive, and leads to more happy thoughts.
Our advice? Stop chasing happiness, enjoy what you are doing right now, and focus on the good things in life, not the bad.