The Science of Happiness

happinessofpursuit.jpg 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.

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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 in 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.

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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, motivatons, 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 space-time machine -- a perfect vehicle for scouting for and harvesting happiness.

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Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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