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The Happiness of Pursuit: What Science and Philosophy Can Teach Us About the Holy Grail of Existence

“When fishing for happiness, catch and release.”

The secret of happiness is arguably humanity’s longest-standing fixation, and its mechanisms are among the most consuming obsessions of modern science. In The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, Cornell University psychology professor Shimon Edelman takes an unconventional — and cautiously self-aware of its own unorthodoxy — lens to the holy grail of human existence, blending hard science with literature and philosophy to reverse-engineer the brain’s capacity for well-being. What emerges is a kind of conceptual toolbox that lets us peer into the computational underbelly of our minds and its central processes — memory, perception, motivation and emotion, critical thinking, social cognition, and language — to better understand not only how the mind works but also how we can optimize it for happiness.

As it turns out, a fundamental truth about happiness lies in the very language of the Declaration of Independence, which encouraged its pursuit:

The focus on the pursuit of happiness, endorsed by the Declaration of Independence, fits well with the idea of life as a journey — a bright thread that runs through the literary cannon of the collective human culture. With the world at your feet, the turns that you should take along the way depend on what you are at the outset and on what you become as the journey lengthens. Accordingly, the present book is an attempt to understand, in a deeper sense than merely metaphorical, what it means to be human and how humans are shaped by the journey thorough this world, which the poet John Keats called ‘the vale of soul-making’ — in particular, how it puts within the soul’s reach ‘a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence.’

Though much of the book is rooted in scientific inquiry and research, Edelman begins with a disclaimer against the classical conception of science, one that echoes this beautiful recent definition of science as “systematic wonder”:

According to one popular conception of science that goes all the way back to Francis Bacon’s invention of it in 1620, scientific endeavor is all about getting answers from nature. That said, given the quality of answers one gets depends conspicuously on the quality of the questions one asks, scientific inquiries lacking in intrepidity, imagination, and insight are likely to yield little more than scientifically validated tedium.

Edelman goes on to explore “three things everyone should know about life, the universe, and everything.” (Cue in Neil deGrasse Tyson on the most important thing to know about the universe.) The first has to do with the arrow of time and the idea that the universe is built around an asymmetry between the past and the future, governed by the basic laws of physics. The second hinges on the predicament of being alive and the awareness that “life is fragile and time is irreversible,” and that terrible things can happen in a flash, leaving us unable to undo them, but we can anticipate and try to prevent them through insights from our past experience. From these two follows the third fact: that the future is predictable from the past, but only up to a point.

The reason for this predictability is the sheer physical inertia of the universe. On an appropriately short time scale, things are guaranteed to stay as they are or to carry on changing in the same manner as they did before. There are also many kinds of long-term regularities, such as cycles of seasons. Animals can evolve to rely upon seasonal changes n the environment and to anticipate them from telltale cues (think of migratory birds that respond to the first frost.) Or, animals can evolve sophisticated brains that represent patterns of change in the environment and anticipate the future by treating it as a statistically projected extension of the past. Either way, it is the capacity for forethought that distinguishes, on the average, between the quick and the dead.

Forethought, in fact — the distillation of experience using statistical inference — plays a large part in how the brain computes mind, and computation is a central element of cognition. The best way to understand the building blocks of the mind, from perception to action, Edelman argues, is by considering them as a web of interlinked computations:

Computationally… the unfolding of behavior can be thought of as a ball rolling down a continually shifting landscape of possibilities, always seeking the deepest valleys. This computational understanding of the nature of perception, motivation, and action offers some intriguing insights into the meaning of, and the prospects for, the pursuit of happiness.

Of particular note is this discussion of the function and nature of memory, something we’ve previously explored:

Far from being a mere repository for odd pieces of information, your memory is charged with relating the episodes of your life to each other, seeking recurring patterns — crisscrossing paths that run through the space of possible perceptions, motivations, and actions.

Because of its likely evolutionary roots in way-finding, episodic memory relies heavily on taking note of locations in which events happen and of their spatial relationship, turning a representation of the layout of the physical environment into a foundation for the abstract space of patterns and possibilities that it constructs over the mind’s lifetime. As they fall into place the paths through the possibility space can support mental travel in space and time, which are both simulated to the best of the mind’s knowledge and ability. Episodic memory is thus the mind’s personal space0time machine — a perfect vehicle for scouting for and harvesting happiness.

Among our most potent weapons in the arsenal of happiness, however, is one of the defining characteristics of our species: language. Paralleling Mark Changizi’s insights on how language helped us evolve and Mark Pagel’s case for language as the origin of the human social mind, Edelman observes:

Language is unique among cognitive functions in the degree to which — in the best co-evolutionary tradition — it both helps and is helped by social interactoins. As social animals, we revel in group play, which is what language evolves to promote and we evolve to master. Happiness and misery being the two-pronged stimulus with which evolution prods its pack animals, is it any surprise that we can be moved to tears or to laughter by a few well aimed words?

(Cue in Terin Izil on the power of simple words.)

Edelman ties it all back to foresight:

Both in language and in cognition in general, mastery comes down to the same two abilities: first, understanding the world by seeking patterns in sensorimotor activity and learning to relate them to a wider context, including your own and other people’s experiences and mind processes; and second, using understanding to support foresight. The big picture is in fact even simpler than that: understanding and foresight are really two sides of the same coin, because they both hinge on knowledge of the causal structure o the world.

One particularly fascinating discussion deals with the concept of concepts — a corollary of our tendency to think in terms of generalized patterns of information, from which we distill causal knowledge about the world to employ in our understanding, prediction, and forethought. This capacity for pattern-recognition, Edelman argues, is what gives rise to the Self, presenting a fine addition to this ongoing exploration of what is a person and what constitutes character, or personality:

A persistent cluster of such conceptual knowledge accrued by a mind becomes the effective Self…

Learning the code that one must live by is hard work for which we, as creatures that are subject to evolutionary pressure, are rewarded with transient effort- and success-related happiness — not because we are entitled to it, but because creates that are thus rewarded learn better and are less likely to go extinct. To be happy, or for that matter to have any kind of feeling toward a percept, a thought, or an acton, a cognitive system must have a capacity for phenomenal experience — a capacity that is predicated on certain structural qualities of the representation-space trajectories that the system’s state can follow. Insofar as feelings are included in the evolutionary causal loop, creatures like us, which take life personally by virtue of constructing and using phenomenal Selves that feel, have a competitive edge over zombies that by definition do not (which explains why the latter are such a rarity in real life.)

This gathering of experiential patterns, in fact, appears to be a central component of happiness:

Cognitively transparent (hence peaceful), gradual self-change of the kind that promotes well-being and, indeed, happiness is helped along by the accumulation of experience. That life experience is good for your practical wisdom has been noted by philosophers; more importantly, this notion turns out to be very much along the lines of what science has learned about the role of experience in cognition.

That blend of philosophy and science is indeed the defining, winning characteristic of The Happiness of Pursuit, the underlying message of which may seem simple — roughly captured by the tired yet infinitely true adage, “Stop and smell the roses,” and premised on the idea that experience itself, or “pursuit,” is the true fountain of happiness — but it cuts to the heart of what we intuit to be true, and does so with a razor-sharp blade of science and critical thought.

Edelman sums up the practical advice that emerges in seven words:

When fishing for happiness, catch and release.

Public domain images courtesy of Flickr Commons

Published March 26, 2012




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