How to be happy: a neuroscientist's view of #HEhappiness

What brings joy? This week, as part of our week of articles on #HEhappiness, academics from five disciplines address this most difficult of questions

October 2, 2017
Source: Alamy

In August, a report by Rand Europe confirmed what many had long suspected: that academics face a greater mental health risk than the population at large.

This week, academics from five disciplines ranging from philosophy to neuroscience share their insights into how the search for happiness should be conducted – if it should be conducted at all. We will publish one a day from 2-4 October. 

Available now: the full #HEhappiness feature, including all the individual perspectives (including the one below)



Morten Kringelbach, associate professor and senior research fellow in the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford and professor of neuroscience at Aarhus University, Denmark. 

Self-interested desires seldom last and, instead, meaningful pleasures more often arise from helping others

In early spring of 1940, the American novelist John Steinbeck travelled to the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) with his close friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. During their six-week specimen-collecting expedition, they continued their deep conversations on philosophy, ecology and science, grappling with the many contradictions found within the storytelling animal struggling to find a place within the natural world.

Their resulting joint book, Sea of Cortez: A leisurely journal of travel and research , is a most unusual mix of narrative and biological records, which was reflected in its sales (they languished). But it contains deep insights that resonate with contemporary brain research. In one of the most interesting sections, they write: “Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps, as has been suggested, his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming, bound by his physical memories to a past of struggle and survival, limited in his futures by the uneasiness of thought and consciousness.”

It is true that we are limited by consciousness and, especially, by our unmatched ability and desire to predict an uncertain future based on a difficult past. While this helps us to survive, it can also stop us from truly enjoying the present.

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We spend much of our time trying to predict what to do to obtain the rewards, such as food and sex, that allow us to survive – and we subsequently tell ourselves and others stories of these endlessly fascinating exploits. Research has started to provide some insights into the art of prediction. The 2017 Brain Prize was given to research by Wolfgang Schultz, Peter Dayan and Ray Dolan, who have demonstrated that the mammalian brain contains specific mechanisms for learning to predict how to obtain rewards. These findings are closely linked to more general research into the underlying fundamental mechanisms for pleasure and well-being. Over the short term, reward learning can be thought of as a recurring chain of events. Its initial phase involves wanting a reward, becoming motivated to seek it out and predicting how best to quell the desire for it. Once the reward has been obtained, there follows a liking phase, resulting in momentary pleasure, until satiation sets in. Then the cycle repeats – although usually for a different reward.

During this cycle, the brain is trying to balance the available resources by optimising the trajectories of dedicated neural networks. Groundbreaking research in rodents by neuroscientist Kent Berridge from the University of Michigan has identified the brain regions, networks and neurotransmitters that facilitate the underlying choreography of the pleasure cycle. Imbalances in this cycle are at the root of mental health problems, and are usually described as “anhedonia”: the lack of pleasure. Take, for example, addiction , which is strongly associated with problems transitioning away from the wanting phase. Addicts describe how the strong desire for their drug of choice persists even as the pleasure obtained wanes over time. Or as the French polymath Blaise Pascal described it: “Description of man: dependence, desire for independence, need.”

Over the past 20 years, I have used brain scanning with ever greater precision to measure the activity elicited by the pleasure of many different rewards, such as food, sex, drugs and music, in both healthy and unwell volunteers. We have even started building whole-brain computational models that can describe normal and disordered human brain activity. These are providing us with unprecedented insights into the pleasure cycle, which may in turn lead to new treatments for disorders such as addiction or depression.

But, as Aristotle pointed out, there is a major difference between “hedonia” (pleasure) and “eudaimonia”: a life well lived, embedded in meaningful values and generating a sense of engagement. Pleasure is but a brief moment during a state of well-being – and while we can reliably elicit hedonia with, for example, food, it is much harder to elicit and measure eudaimonia.

Also in this series

A sociologist's view of #HEhappiness
A psychologist's view of HE happiness

Moreover, happiness tends to evaporate when we try to introspect, and we are not very good at it. This is why self-report studies of happiness are difficult to interpret and why the progress in understanding eudaimonia has been painfully slow. Still, research is starting to uncover the underlying brain networks. In particular, the study of meaningful pleasures is yielding important results. This is especially true when combined with whole-brain computational models that allow you to establish causal relations that can be used to rebalance the actual brain.

Getting into the groove of funk music or enjoying the appeal of infant cuteness are social activities that are highly likely to bring meaningful and long-lasting pleasure. In addition, the resurgence of brain research into the efficacy of psychedelics such as magic mushrooms in treating addiction and depression might permit the triangulation of all the studies to reach a deeper understanding of the brain ingredients of a meaningful life.

Meanwhile, the present evidence suggests that the social pleasures, in particular, are vital for counteracting anhedonia. Our constant balancing act of matching exploration and exploitation in the pursuit of rewards requires variation rather than repetition. This is especially pertinent for academics, who are often stuck in the office on their own, performing repetitive tasks.

Self-interested desires seldom last and, instead, meaningful pleasures more often arise from helping others. Sharing coffee and laughter can instantly make us feel better. And we can only gain from practising empathy and compassion in our relationships with students and colleagues. It might help, for instance, to be less critical in reviewing and to take pride when colleagues do well, rather than to succumb to the old joke about how to make an academic miserable.

This can bring about the ability to enjoy long moments of bliss – in spite of the tragic miracle of consciousness. Over time, empathy and shared joy might even bring about catharsis: the deeply meaningful release or cleansing of emotion essential to both science and art.

The full HE happiness feature has now been published.

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