BookNotes: Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From, and Why
By Dean Burnett, W. W. Norton, May 29, 2018, 0393651347
Burnett goes on a treasure hunt to figure out what is happiness and what makes us happy. It ain’t so easy. He meets with a lot of researchers and people, but doesn’t come to any solid conclusions.
Even something as simple as comedy, doesn’t make us happy. As Robin Williams said (decades ago), “Comedy is like changing a diaper. It doesn’t cure anything permanently, but it does take the crap away for a little while.” And, we sadly, it didn’t keep Robin Williams happy, even though he was one of the greatest of comedians of all time.
We are happier in groups. People make us happy and stave off Alzheimer’s. We are happier when we have meaningful jobs, but that’s hard for most people.
I’ve been lucky in this regard: I have always had challenging, meaningful work with a ton of freedom. However, work doesn’t make me as happy as it once did, and that’s another summary of the book: there’s no key to lasting happiness.
The Happy Brain was featured on You are Not So Smart #128: The neuroscience of joy, comfort, happiness, and bliss.
[k820] Our desire for space goes deeper than these concerns; our brains need a specific amount of space to feel calm and to avoid feeling stressed.
[k898] Their findings showed that there was a direct link between changing homes often during childhood and reduced psychological wellbeing, life satisfaction and meaningful relationships as adults.
[k896] An extensive study by Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Schimmack, published in 2010, interviewed over 7,000 people who had moved homes frequently as children (for instance those whose parents were in the military and were regularly posted to new places). Their findings showed that there was a direct link between changing homes often during childhood and reduced psychological wellbeing, life satisfaction and meaningful relationships as adults.
[k1046] Physical activity seems to have an even more “direct” effect on the brain, by increasing output of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, BDNF, a protein that stimulates growth and production of new brain cells. This could explain the many reported neurological benefits of physical activity, such as enhancing learning ability and memory,9 increased hippocampal volume and higher levels of gray matter throughout the brain.
[k1068] So, working means we engage in some form of physical and/or mental activity, and this (eventually) improves our brain’s functioning, making us smarter and happier. How handy! Just one slight problem with this conclusion: it’s nonsense.
[k1123] The very nature of much of modern employment means a sense of futility is easy to come by, so perhaps it’s no wonder that many (if not most) people refer to work in a generally negative way, and regularly wake with a sense of at best apathy or at worst dread on Monday mornings.
[k1125] Expending physical effort may be good for our brains and have a positive effect on cognition and happiness overall, but it’s a slow and subtle process. In comparison, investing effort for no obvious reward is a sure-fire way for our brains to label a task as unpleasant.
[k1127] And because of the nature of many modern jobs, effort going unrewarded is a very common occurrence.
[k1281] Evidence suggests that our ideal self is a big factor in our happiness while working. Basically, if our brain recognizes that what we’re doing moves us closer to achieving our ideal self, we’re happier. If it doesn’t, we’re not. So if you’re doing a job that doesn’t conform to your own personal goals, or even actively detracts from them, it’s hard to be happy while doing that job.
[k1452] For instance, happy people aren’t that good in negotiations; they often capitulate more readily, to avoid negative interactions. Angry people tend to do better here. Being constantly happy at work also means your outside life suffers in comparison, so your home life and familial relationships can become strained, canceling out the benefits.
[k1482] But by insisting on constant happiness, as many workplaces and even much of modern society seems to, we’re throwing things out of balance, simultaneously cutting our brains off from a more diverse range of emotional experiences, and overtaxing it.
[k1604] Indeed, many argue that humans becoming monogamous was a key step in our intellectual development, and at least one theory suggests that in humans (and other primates) the neurological mechanisms supporting pair-bonding were somehow “detached” from the mating process,13 meaning we could form long-lasting, emotionally rewarding bonds with multiple individuals, not just reproductive partners.
[k1621] Essentially, if you give a chimp a banana, it’ll focus on the banana. “A banana. I like bananas. I’ll eat that.” If you give a human a banana, they’ll focus on you.
[k1619] Even comparisons between humans and chimpanzees (our closest evolutionary cousins) show this: tests reveal chimps are better at visual, sensory processing than we are, whereas we’re far better and more inclined towards social processing. Essentially, if you give a chimp a banana, it’ll focus on the banana. “A banana. I like bananas. I’ll eat that.” If you give a human a banana, they’ll focus on you.
[k1624] This is what happens when a species evolves according to social rather than environmental pressures. If your survival depends on your community, your group, the more social you are, the greater your chances of acceptance and survival. Being shunned or rejected by the group, that’s no little thing; in the hostile world we evolved in, it’s tantamount to a death sentence.
[k1734] It’s possible to do these things alone, but people rarely do; having someone else along to share in the experience is a big part, sometimes even the main part, of what makes it so enjoyable. And part of this may stem from the fact that our brains allow us to “experience” the happiness of others, as well as our own. So, we do something we enjoy, which makes us happy, and if we’re with someone who also enjoys it we empathize with them,
[k1733] Many things can make us happy, like fine dining, exploring exotic locations, creating artworks, working on your home, going to the theater or cinema, playing sports, and so on. It’s possible to do these things alone, but people rarely do; having someone else along to share in the experience is a big part, sometimes even the main part, of what makes it so enjoyable. And part of this may stem from the fact that our brains allow us to “experience” the happiness of others, as well as our own. So, we do something we enjoy, which makes us happy, and if we’re with someone who also enjoys it we empathize with them, which makes us happier, plus our brain rewards us for our social interactions, which makes us happier again, and so on.
[k1782] The study even goes so far as to argue that our brain processes financial and social rewards in the same (or at least similar) ways, so we can get the same sense of pleasure and satisfaction from both. This would help explain why living to help others can make you as happy as,41 if not happier than, just pursuing money, as Kevin Green observed.
[k3086] Compared to crowds of people laughing at your words and applauding your name, a “meets expectations” rating in your bi-annual performance review is going to seem pretty feeble.
[k3097] This probably explains why people typically react with more shock, awe and horror when I say I do stand-up comedy than to anything else I tell them about myself. Remember; I’m a doctor of neuroscience who used to cut up corpses for a living!
[k4063] Studies reveal that things that make you happy, that increase activity in the reward pathway, seem to directly combat the physical effects of stress in the brain and body.
[k4204] Older members of a primitive human community may not have been much good at hunting or the physical stuff, but they were still perfectly capable of looking after the babies and children, and didn’t need to spend time pursuing mates or any of that other exhausting stuff.
[k4211] But it does seem that keeping in touch with others is what is required to stay happy and stave off the inevitable, for the aging brain.