Happiness Part 2: Where Does Happiness Live?


happiness 400 300x225 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,”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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