happiness science

Selective attention is one way to be happy according to The Daily Beast‘s recent post (here) about optimists who were placed in an MRI machine to determine how their brains function. The neurology behind optimism suggests this may require a prefrontal cortex mechanism (in other words, “top-down” control over emotional processing). Optimists tend to emphasize positive emotional information while disregarding fearful emotions. But what is this new research on the “Science of Happiness” all about?  

(see -Time magazine’s review here- )

Or is this some kind of hoax, merely a  way for psychologists like Martin Seligman to sell self-help books?

New York Times opinion article (-link here-) by Gary Gutting poses a philosophical question:

“Consider whether we would choose to attach ourselves to a device that would produce a constant state of intense pleasure, even if we never achieved anything in our lives other than experiencing this pleasure.”

Perhaps this is the difference between us and animals, for lab rats will starve themselves to death if given a choice between food and self-stimulation of pleasure circuits  in the brain (as discovered by James Olds and Peter Milner in the 1960s-more info here). Another caveat of happiness has to do with reward expectations.  Here’s what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has to say about our expectations for happiness:

Gilbert’s insight points out our common misconception of “the unalienable right” to happiness,

“We didn’t evolve for happiness, we evolved for survival and reproduction. We’re not supposed to be happy all the time. We want that, but nature designed us to have emotions for a reason. Emotions are a primitive signaling system. They’re how your brain tells you if you’re doing things that enhance—or diminish—your survival chances. What good is a compass if it’s always stuck on north? It must be able to fluctuate. You’re supposed to be moving through these emotional states. If someone offers you a pill that makes you happy 100 percent of the time, you should run fast in the other direction. It’s not good to feel happy in a dark alley at night. Happiness is a noun, so we think it’s something we can own. But happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.” 

reprinted from Harvard Magazine (here); also see Psychology Today (here)

For more on our happiness expectations, see “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Interesting?” (video from philosopher Slavoj Zizek) and positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s  book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 

Overcoming difficult challenges can actually make some people happier in the long-term, as discussed in Eric Barker’s BLOG POST on FAILURE and The Uses of Difficulty suggesting the brain likes a challenge. However, it is critical to note that stress responses vary from individual to individual, and certain challenges may overburden some people. For more on the clinical psychiatry of depression within a spectrum of normal emotions, see this “Charlie Rose Brain Series” video here. 

You can actually train your brain to focus on positive events: see Self-help for skeptics” (WSJ article here). This is where emerging technology (mobile apps) might help us boost mood with daily reminders and analytics of stress levels. For more on mobile therapy see Northwestern University’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (info here).

And how do social cues factor into happiness? Slate asked its readers Is Facebook making us sad?  and noticed that, “Women’s happiness has been at an all-time low in recent years.” Regarding “the male-female happiness gap,” Slate magazine’s Meghan ORourke has proffered some explanations regarding Decision Fatigue in women:


“Desperate Feminist Wives”

What Is Happiness? <– link to article from business management perspective

The Benefits to Optimism Are Real <– link between bodily health and your mood

Sheena Iyengar talks about the art of choosing:

Here’s a video about achieving mental “Flow” or how to engage in the moment (Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience book):