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The Science of Happiness

Our minds buzz with thoughts of the future, but why can't we predict what will make us happy? "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert (Harvard University) and "Happiness The Science Behind Your Smile" by Daniel Nettle (The University of Newcastle) detail many scientific studies and findings which answer this question. You and I can apply their conclusions to promote happiness for ourselves and those we mentor.

Nettle defined happiness as a subjective state involving positive feelings and positive judgments about the feelings. He identified three levels: (1) A feeling like joy or pleasure with little cognition; (2) A judgment about the balance of pleasurable and painful feelings across time and involves comparison with other possible outcomes; (3) The person flourishes and fulfills his potential. Life flows. The feeling comes after judgment.

Gilbert explained how evolution has dictated the way our brains perceive and judge emotions. About 500 million years along the course of human evolution the frontal lobe of the brain (seat of planning ability) suddenly increased in size. When the negative emotions of fear, anger, sadness and disgust are felt the brain automatically drives us to escape. What happens when we experience the positive emotion of joy? Opioids (hormones) are produced which make us focus on one thing we need for fitness. We feel joy, then when they shut down, joy subsides. Why? Humans would not survive in a perpetual state of joy. (1) We would forget to provide necessities. (Lovers forget to eat.) (2) Joy is accompanied by rapid heart beat, elevated blood pressure, etc. In time these heightened responses would exhaust us unto death. Evolution has not designed us to be happy. However, joy acts as the bait that makes us seek ways to repeat that feeling. We would not try new things, invent or explore without the goal to repeat joy. Evolution has designed us to seek happiness.

Gilbert reminds us not to confuse the pursuit of happiness (joy) with desire, which is run by a different part of the brain, the mid-brain dopamine circuits. Evolution created desire, competition for status and resources, which our cave-men ancestors needed to survive. Status and material goods may not bring joy. Nettle quotes: "In Buddhism, happiness depends on the mind, not on external trappings" (of desire).

Gilberts also describes blind spots in our brains which make us act and form judgments counter to happiness. However the final authority is the part of the brain that consciously directs. We can redirect our actions and rephrase our judgments (Cognitive Therapy) so that happiness comes in spite of the blind spots.

Tales from my life illustrate blind spots in our brains and show how the brain counteracts depilating effects. When I was eight, my parents couldn't afford to rent the usual summer cottage. Instead my sister and I were each allowed to plan "our days." For my day I chose to visit friends, the Harts, who had moved away. Mrs. Hart, the mother of my sister's friend, Nola, had heard me play the piano and said I played well and she talked with me like I was an adult. My mind buzzed. I predicted a happy scenario: She would again compliment me and we would have fantastic conversations. On that day my Mom must have prepared my favorite picnic. We arrived before noon. My Dad went to talk with Mr. Hart, my sister and Nola went to play, and Mrs. Hart took my Mom to see her sewing project, or garden or something. I was on my own. Things didn't happen as I planned. In memory that holiday was miserable. Gilbert's findings explain why: The brain likes to control. Views of future happiness are based on the person?fs past experience. We believe we are special and want confirmation. In memory we exaggerate and summarize the feeling, leave out detail. (Remembering with glee the compliments and conversation, I was in control and happy planning the day. In memory I exaggerate the disappointments, can't recall any happy details.) We worry more about past inaction than action. (I ask myself why I didn't plan a different holiday.) Though my father's death a few years later was devastating, I came to terms with it realizing that his brain tumor was incurable and rationalized that I wouldn't have become self-sufficient if he were around. Gilbert's findings answer why I had this reaction to a more horrendous occurrence: Small things bother us more because we have a restless desire to explain how and why something happened, but large things seem out of our control. We have a psychological immune system which helps us find something redeeming in rejection, loss or misfortune. We find a more positive view of things we can't change than with things which we can change. (Regarding the trivial holiday, my brain says "You should have planned differently," and miserable sticks in my mind until I rephrase the judgment. Regarding my father's horrendous death, my brain says, "It wasn't in your control. Let it go. Find something positive."

From the findings I see applications. James, a 2nd grader, bounced into his Mom's kitchen. "Guess what we did in school? Division!" When we see someone happy in an activity we are apt to imitate their enjoyment. James had a happy teacher. Other findings generate their own prospects: Regarding control, allow children to have a say in experiences. People with greater social capital (a wide range of friendships) are happier because they can buffer the setbacks with different points of view. People with many interests are happier. Shifting attention to broader themes like nature lifts us away from our self-centered focus. Having a purpose brings feelings of well-being. Focus on the here and now.

I'm fired-up-to pass along knowledge about how the human brain functions. We are not designed to be happy but to seek happiness. I see how we use meditation, Cognitive Therapy and wide experience to bring happiness. I see how we fall into happiness when we free our minds from the automatic blocks evolution put in place.
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