Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

28 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Lessons for the Living from the Brink of Death

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How to take life one ephemeral dinner party at a time, or why hope is a gift of the hopeless.

Lessons for the Living is a poignant documentary by Lily Henderson exploring the unique subculture of hospice volunteers as they contemplate their own philosophies of life and death. This grounding excerpt from the film follows Kathleen, who is both a hospice volunteer and a hospice patient. She has been preparing for her own death for over a decade, but has managed to master that art of living from sheer presence — a powerful lesson, indeed, for the rest of us.

I’ve talked to people who say they feel sorry for me for not having any hope. I say, hope is a thief. I am living today as fully as I am able.”

Kathleen has since passed away.

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”: A Neuropsychology Reading

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Unpacking the lyrics of the iconic happiness anthem to find surprising science-tested insights on well-being.

In 1988, Bobby McFerrin wrote one of the most beloved anthems to happiness of all time. On September 24 that year, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” became the first a cappella song to reach #1 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart. But more than a mere feel-good tune, the iconic song is brimming with neuroscience and psychology insights on happiness that McFerrin — whose fascinating musings on music and the brain you might recall from World Science Festival’s Notes & Neurons — embedded in its lyrics, whether consciously or not.

To celebrate the anniversary of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” I unpack the verses to explore the neuropsychology wisdom they contain in the context of several studies that offer lab-tested validation for McFerrin’s intuitive insight.

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double

Our tendency to add more stress to our stress by dwelling on it is known in Buddhism as the second arrow and its eradication is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. But now scientists are confirming that worrying about our worries is rather worrisome. Recent research has found prolonged negative cardiac effects of worry episodes, following a 2006 study that linked worrying to heart disease.

Here, I give you my phone number
When you worry call me
I make you happy

Multiple studies have confirmed the positive correlation between social support and well-being, and some have examined the “buffering model,” which holds that social support protects people from the adverse effects of stressful events.

Harvard physician Nicholas Christakis has studied the surprising power of our social networks, finding profound and long-term correlation between the well-being, both physical and mental, of those with whom we choose to surround ourselves and our own.

Cause when you worry
Your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down

Mirror neurons are one of the most important and fascinating discoveries of modern neuroscience — neurons that fire not only when we perform a behavior, but also when we observe that behavior in others. In other words, neural circuitry that serves as social mimicry allowing the expressed emotions of others to trigger a reflection of these emotions in us. Frowns, it turns out, are indeed contagious.

Put a smile on your face

Pop-culture wisdom calls it “fake it ’till you make it”; psychotherapy calls it “cognitive behavioral therapy“; social psychology call it story editing. Evidence abounds that consciously changing our thoughts and behaviors to emulate the emotions we’d like to feel helps us internalize and embody those emotions in a genuine felt sense. Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of facial expressions, found that voluntarily producing a smile may help deliberately generate the psychological change that takes place during spontaneous positive affect — something corroborated in the recently explored science of smiles.

Don’t worry, it will soon pass
Whatever it is

In 1983, UCLA psychologist Shelley E. Taylor published a seminal paper [PDF] in the journal American Psychologist proposing a theory of cognitive adaptation for how we adjust to threatening events, based on evidence from a number of clinical and empirical studies indicating that we grossly overestimate the negative impact of the events that befall us, from cancer to divorce to paralysis, and return to our previous levels of happiness shortly after these negative events take place.

As Daniel Gilbert puts it in Stumbling on Happiness, one of our 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness, “The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.”

* * *

So there you have it: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” timeless oracle of mental health science. For more on the profound and fascinating intersection of music and mind, see our omnibus of 7 essential books on music, emotion, and the brain.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Geography of Bliss: The Secrets of the Happiest Places on Earth

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From Iceland to India, or what medieval depictions of heaven have to do with the neuroscience of well-being.

The French call it la chasse au bonheur. Americans have it inscribed into their constitution. The hunt for happiness seems to be a global, fundamentally human pursuit — but what exactly is its actual prey and does that prey have a natural habitat? That’s exactly what Eric Weiner explores in The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World — a fascinating tale of psychology, geopolitics, science, travel and humor, and a fine addition to these 7 essential books on happiness. From the relationship between democracy and happiness to the role of religion, temperature and failure in happiness, the book offers a provocative perspective on what happiness is — and isn’t — and where we might find it.

Weiner came of age as an NPR correspondent, reporting from some of the gloomiest, unhappiest places on Earth. So he decided to seek out their opposite and spent a year traveling the globe, hunting down the world’s unheralded happy places, where one or more of the ingredients we consider essential to well-being — pleasure, money, spirituality, family, chocolate — flow unabated. The itch for his quest came from a what-if we’re all familiar with:

What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then?”

Our tendency to conflate geography and happiness seems to be more deeply embedded in our thinking and even our language than we realize. We speak about “looking for” happiness and “finding” joy as though these were specific locations on an actual map. Until the 18th century, people even believed the Garden of Eden, the biblical notion of paradise, was a real place, so they depicted in on maps — located, as Weiner notes the irony, at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq lies. At the same time, the entire self-help industry is built — and billed — on the premise that happiness is inside us and we simply need to dig it out. But, Weiner argues, both of these notions are wrong — the line between “out there” and “in here” is much finer than we’ve been led to believe and, as he puts it, where we are is vital to who we are.

The journey wavers across ten countries — The Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India and the United States — to uncover the greatest enablers of, as well as obstacles to, happiness, examining in the process a wide spectrum of definitions of what happiness actually is, from Aristotle (“a virtuous activity of the soul”) to Weiner’s personal favorite, by an unhappy man named Noah Webster who penned the first American dictionary (“the agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good”).

Happy feelings register in the regions of the brain that have evolved most recently. It raises an intriguing question: Are we, in evolutionary if not personal terms, slouching towards happiness?”

In Bhutan, Weiner contemplates their Gross National Happiness as an alternative to GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being. In The Netherlands, he tracks down Ruut Veenhoven, the godfather of happiness research and proprietor of the World Database of Happiness.

Throughout the narrative, intriguing factoids add delight to journey (did you know that in 1962, the citizens of the Dominican Republic reported the lowest level of happiness recorded in history, a mere 1.6 on a scale of 1 to 10, or that the ubiquitous yellow smiley face graphic was invented by graphic designer Harvey Ball in 1963?), and some perplexing paradoxes begin to emerge — the world’s happiest countries also have high suicide rates; people who attend religious services report being happier than those who don’t, but the world’s happiest nations are secular; countries with a wide gap between rich and poor are no less happy than countries with even wealth distribution.

Weiner’s subtle humor and charming self-derision bring a wink and an exhale to the cerebral, the empirical and the philosophical concepts at the heart of his findings.

Every religion instructs followers in the ways of happiness, be it in this life or the next, be it through submission, meditation, devotion, or, if you happen to belong to the Jewish or Catholic faith, guilt.”

In the end, Weiner comes full circle to the famous words of Henry Miller, with which the book opens:

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

The Geography of Bliss is neither a self-help manual nor a pop-psychology book. Instead, its ultimate quest for the objective elements of happiness is, ironically yet intriguingly, just one man’s subjective interpretation of the conditions and complexities of well-being. And, like happiness itself, the book’s beauty lies in the layered insights of its subjectivity.

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15 SEPTEMBER, 2011

George Price and the Quest for the Origins of Altruism

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From Darwin to Skinner, or what vampire bats have to do with amoebas and random acts of kindness.

Where does true altruism come from? Does it really exist? These are the questions that occupied the brilliant and troubled mind of population geneticist and author George Price, who developed what’s still regarded as the most accurate mathematical, biological and evolutionary model for altruism before taking his own life at the age of 52. In The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, Oren Harman tells the fascinating story of Price’s life and his tireless quest, intersecting it with the seminal work of iconic psychiatrist B. F. Skinner, renowned Darwinist Bill Hamilton, and father of population genetics J. B. S. Haldene.

[I]f the search for the natural origins of goodness has woven a historical tapestry of unusual complexity and color, of strikingly original science and dramatic personalities and events, one important thread has so far been missing. It is the thread of the unique life and tragic death of the forgotten American genius George Price, atheist-chemist and drifter turned religious evolutionary — mathematician and derelict, the man who rests in an unmarked grave in Saint Pancras Cemetery to this very day.”

In his quest to understand altruism, Price inevitably dissected such complex and timeless concepts as self-sacrifice and kindness, and eventually became so vexed by the selfish reasoning for kindness embedded in his own mathematical theory of altruism that he set out to prove the theory wrong by committing a seemingly endless number of random acts of kindness to complete strangers. He spent the latter part of his life helping alcoholics and the homeless, often inviting them to live in his home and, though he had most of his belongings stolen, he went undeterred until he was forced to move out of his house due to a construction issue. Unable to help the homeless any longer, he went into a deep depression. On January 6, 1975, Price committed suicide using a pair of nail scissors to cut his own carotid artery.

But Harman’s story is less about the tragedy of Price’s demise than it is about the scientific rigor of his work and the complex, profound ideas at the heart of his curiosity.

Why do amoebas build stalks from their own bodies, sacrificing themselves in the process, so that some may climb up and be carried away from dearth to plenty on the legs of an innocent insect or the wings of a felicitous wind? Why do vampire bats share blood, mouth to mouth, at the end of a night of prey with members of the colony who were less successful in the hunt? Why do sentry gazelles jump up and down when a lion is spotted, putting themselves precariously between the hunt and the hungry hunter? And what do all of these have to do with morality in humans: Is there, in fact, a natural origin to our own acts of kindness?”

For a taste of this extraordinary story, see Harman’s recent RSA talk:

Biology is not destiny — it’s capacity. Clearly, the evolutionary process has given us the capacity for empathy and for altruism, and it’s also given us the capacity for violence and for xenophobia and for aggression. But the question of whether and under what circumstances we exercise this kindness is no longer a biological question… This is fundamentally a human social and political, in the broad sense, problem.”

A fascinating blend of tragedy and optimism, The Price of Altruism is the kind of perspective-shifter that stays with you for a while — perhaps for the entire duration of your minuscule stretch in the journey of evolution.

Image via Flickr Commons

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