Happiness Part 2: Where Does Happiness Live?


In my last Blog, we started on our discussion of Happiness. We looked at several peoples’ interpretation of happiness throughout the ages and realized this has been a fairly central theme for a lot of people in the past. Several people have asked, “Why are we not pursuing this field of happiness now in present time?” Actually we can say that there is lots of research on happiness over the last decade. In fact we can say that we are in a Happiness Revolution, to coin Dr. Howard Cutler, co-author with the Dali Lama of the The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living. Since their book was first published in 1998, it has hit the mainstream, becoming a:

“cultural milieu in America, spontaneously showing up on TV sitcoms, game shows, even MTV—the very icons of popular culture in America at the time: Friends, Sex and the City, Jeopardy!, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, MTV Cribs—and even the season’s opening game on Monday Night Football,”.

Even though when the Dali Lama was first interviewed for this book, there was very little research done by psychology on happiness, this is definitely not the case today. A whole new area of psychology has opened up:

“The formal birth of this new branch of psychology took place in 1998, when a highly influential psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, the newly elected president of the American Psychological Association, decided to dedicate his term as president to the establishment of this new field, which he dubbed positive psychology. “

Before this, most study in psychology was on problem areas and physical locations for various behaviors.

How things have changes, as Dr. Cutler (a psychiatrist) says:

“At Harvard University, for instance, “The Happiness Course” has now replaced Introductory Economics as the most popular undergraduate course, with enrollment quickly soaring to well over 1,400 students each semester. The impact is even being seen on the governmental level in nations around the world, with the country of Bhutan, for instance, replacing GDP (Gross Domestic Production) with GNH (Gross National Happiness) as its most important measure of success as a nation. Policymakers in many nations are now even exploring the idea of shaping public policy based on happiness research. As one government official in Scotland exuberantly asserted, “If we can embrace this new science of positive psychology, we have the opportunity to create a new Enlightenment.”

In the past decade there has become a significant level of evidence-based science on Happiness. The Neuroscience of Happiness is pretty much understood. But unfortunately knowing the neurophysiology of happiness does not make the researchers and grad students studying it happier. With all this work on happiness, you would think we would have more happy people, but this is plainly not happening. Happiness cannot be pegged down by hard facts.

When the Dali Lama was asked for the 10 anniversary of his book, what was the most important thing to take home from his book after a decade, he simply repeated,

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; and if you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion.”

Now this is not to say the Dali Lama is not interested in science; he definitely is, having hosted many summits on science. It is that happiness is just more mercurial than science, seeming to slide between the cracks, not really art and not really science.

Happiness is both an action and a result. According to current research, happiness is made up of:

1. 50% genetics

2. 10 – 20% life circumstances, such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation

3. The rest is how a person thinks and acts.

Some people lucked out, having won the cortical lottery and have a strong genetic disposition for happiness, but this does not assure happiness. Life situations, even income, seem to have very little influence. It is how a person thinks and acts that can push them to the top, or the bottom, of their personal happiness range. The decisions a person makes on how to live their lives is the strongest factor in effecting their happiness.

When I was a kid growing up on the edge of Calgary, Alberta – a city with a distinct Western flavor – it wasn’t uncommon to go horseback riding. I didn’t spend a lot of time riding horses, but I was at least familiar enough with it to realize riding a horse was a process of two-way communication between the rider and the horse if you wanted to have a good time. In subsequent years I noticed younger riders had a harder time enjoying riding. It seemed they tried to over ‘steer’ the horse. When I wanted to go for a backcountry trail ride with a friend, they were worried that they weren’t a good enough rider. They were afraid they would steer the horse over a cliff. The difference was that they grew up playing with go-carts and learned to drive a car. These were mechanical devices that needed to be steered. The horse on the other hand is a conscious participant and was not going to go plummeting to it death over a cliff, just because someone on its back was poor at steering. The rider is just that, a rider and not the ultimate decision maker on where they are going. The rider, especially a neophyte rider, is just a guide.

In fact it is pretty hard to get a 1000 pound (450 Kg) horse to do something that it doesn’t want to do. If there is agreement between the rider and the horse, the ride will be smooth and all are happy.

In our last blog, we saw from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, his use of an analogy of the conscious mind being a rider on an elephant, with the elephant being the subconscious (un-conscious) mind. Even though the rider has some influence over the elephant, it can really only has influence when it makes the elephant happy. Even though our conscious, ego driven, logical brain thinks it is in control, it is ultimately just along for the ride. Billions of years of evolution has given the elephant biological momentum over the latest arrival on the scene, the human grey matter of the brain.

As modern research has proven, and we see daily in the clinic, this analogy is true. For a person to have harmony in their life, there has to be communication and agreement between the elephant and the rider. But ultimately the elephant is much larger and more powerful than the rider, even though the rider wants to pretend it is in control.

We saw in our last blog that the elephant is processing a half a million times more pieces of data per second than the rider. This means that the elephant is often perceiving different data and making ‘decisions’ on different sets of factors than the rider.

Sometimes we get a gut feeling about something, but instead of following it we follow our logical, decision making conscious-mind instead, ‘knowing’ that the rider is better at making decisions. There is nowhere in the body other than the gut where this elephant analogy rings truer from my clinical experience. The bowels have been shown in recent years to be the location of a ‘second brain.’ Our intestines have a vast network of 100s of millions of neurons used to handle all the needs of running a chemical refinery that processes and extracts nutrients from food. This ‘gut brain’ is like a regional administrative center that handles stuff the head brain does not need to bother with. You might expect that this gut brain takes its orders from the head brain and does as it is told. This is not true as the gut brain possesses a high degree of autonomy, and it continues to function well even if the vagus nerve, which connects the two brains together, is severed.

In fact we often see the opposite, when the head brain does not pay attention to gut brain. If the head brain doesn’t listen to early signals sent by the gut about stress, diet, and lifestyle, it sends stronger signals producing constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, or Crohn’s. Again the elephant perceives different data than the conscious brain. Unfortunately the conscious brain is too easily influence by marketing and the opinions of others, and has a hard time paying attention to what the gut voice is trying to communicate.

The autonomic nervous system has been shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action in the face of emergencies. This includes parts of the brain that makes us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and parts that trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus). This automatic system has its finger on the dopamine (pleasure hormone) release button. The rider-controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. A rider is placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps. One thing the rider cannot succeed at is to order the elephant around against its will. We can say that the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. Both the elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well, they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. Then we have a happy camper. Unfortunately they don’t always work together well.

When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If pushed to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really have reasons for why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons. The rider searches for plausible reasons for liking the painting, and latches onto the first reasons that makes sense (maybe something about the light, or color, or the reflection made in a tear drop).

Moral arguments are much the same: if two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, do you generally change their mind to agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of their position; their argument was also made up after the judgment was already made.

When listening closely to moral arguments, you can often hear something surprising: it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant that is deciding what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically, but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people.

In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view. Our minds are loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to one part: conscious verbal thinking. Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere.

We are the rider, and we are the elephant. Both have their strengths and special skills. In future blogs we will discuss how harmony between these two gives us a greater glimpse into the area of Happiness.