24 March 2010

The Science of Happiness

It may not immediately sound like a subject worthy of rigorous scientific study, but who wouldn't want a clear-cut, scientific explanation of how to be happy?

Perhaps we think we already know what makes us happy and that we don't need neuroscientists, economists and psychologists delving into such nebulous subjects to reach conclusions that are based on entirely subjective information. But the state of mental contentment we dub "happiness" is a psychological state like any other, and must involve certain neurochemical patterns and other markers which make it an observable and measurable phenomenon.

We do not even need to resort to MRI or other brain-scanning techniques in order to study happiness scientifically. We accept the findings of empirical studies in many other fields of scientific research but perhaps we feel, innately, that "our" happiness is special and somehow different from the kind of "general purpose" happiness that studies might throw up.

In his scintillating book "Stumbling on Happiness" psychologist Daniel Gilbert covers, in great and highly-entertaining depth, the repeated "errors" we make in the daily process of trying to gain happiness, both in the present and for the consumption of our "future selves". It is a curious and exclusively human trait to suffer relative "pain" now in order to achieve happiness ("gain") for a person that we do not yet even know (our future self). Gilbert goes into some of the fascinating neuroscience behind this "prospection " or "nexting" behaviour. He contends that humans engage in a mental process of "making future" that is very different from superficially similar processes observed in other creatures.

I've written in the past about "psychological continuity" and this, I think, is an example of the way in which we unquestioningly see ourselves on a continuum from childhood to old age as the "same" entity, despite all the physical and psychological evidence to the contrary. The resulting conclusion could be paraphrased as: "why wouldn't I wish to make provision for that future entity when we are one and the same?"

Gilbert discusses the role of the brain's frontal lobe in "nexting" behaviour and gives us the grisly example of Phineas Gage who, after having a steel tamping rod blasted through his skull and into his frontal lobe, underwent a complete character transformation and began to behave in ways that indicated that he had lost all regard for the future consequences of his present actions.

One of the ideas in Gilbert's book that most struck me was that of a "psychological immune system" that we all possess, to protect us from life's various knocks and traumas. This set of thought-pattern readjustments eventually kicks in, some time after the initial stimulus, in order to allow us to regain (and maintain) a consistent and reasonably positive self-image. This, to me, certainly makes evolutionary sense - a human with a volatile and decaying self-image may make a poor mate, indeed he may seldom feel confident enough to mate. But Dan Gilbert is not attempting to make an evolutionary point here - he is simply pointing out that consistency of self-image is important in order to allow us to function in society.

This ties in, somewhat, with a phrase I once heard: "everyone is the hero of their own story". I don't normally pay much attention to this type of cod-psychology but the more I thought about this phrase the more it appealed. One can, of course, take this point to the extreme. A mass-murderer can be the hero of his own story. This is neither inconceivable, nor inconsistent with the idea of a psychological immune system. The mass murderer must also experience a "reckoning" within his own psyche and, albeit subconsciously, find a way to reconcile the disparate parts of his personality into one consistent self-image. He can be happy too.

So what do mass-murders and tamping irons through the brain have to do with happiness? Well, understanding the neuroscience and psychology of ideas like prospection and self-image-consistency could be a novel route to understanding why we keep getting the "technique" of happiness so horribly wrong. For example, errors of prospection can lead us to feel less, not more, happy because we are brooding on a future over which we may actually have very little control. Scientific studies in this field demonstrate that control is key. People need to feel that they have "agency" over their own path to the future; that they are making decisions which are positively influencing the outcomes, not just floundering in a sea of randomness. This may be self-delusion but it is delusion that appears to have positive effects.

We also make errors in our attempts to estimate how bad we think future calamities will make us feel. For example, if you ask a volunteer in a study how she will feel if she loses her job in the next six months, the chances are that she will give quite a high rating on a scale of how much distress she estimates that would cause her. If you speak to the volunteer again in a year's time, upon finding out that she did in fact lose her job, you will likely find that she rates the distress of the actual event lower than her original estimate. Studies of this type lend weight to the idea that, despite all the personal evidence available to us, we seldom realise that we will be able to quickly readjust to new circumstances and find new reasons for optimism and happiness. This "readjustment" process even applies to dire circumstances, such as permanent disability or the death of a loved one.

Is science any closer to being able to tell us how to be happy? If we choose to pay attention to the evidence we will at least see that many of the behaviours and thought processes we engage in actually detract from our contentment. If we begin to behave in ways that systematically attempt to mitigate the "errors" then, perhaps, we can find a path that contributes to our daily sense of well-being.

There are certainly worse experiments you could do on yourself.

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