If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself. Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.
~RAINER MARIA RILKE
In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff refutes the social origins of beauty, in favor of far more prosaic and evolutionary explanations. Looking for a partner with clear skin? You’re actually checking for parasites. And let’s just say there’s a reason high heels are always in fashion.
Her recent research into the question of happiness exposes results that not only are surprising but reinforce things we should’ve known all along: like the fact that having flowers in the house really does make us happier. As the instructor of “The Science of Happiness” at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Program in Aesthetics and Well Being at Massachusetts General Hospital, Nancy Etcoff is uniquely qualified to solve the mysteries of contentment.
The Pursuit of Happiness
My first point is that the pursuit of happiness is obligatory. Man wishes to be happy, only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so. We are wired to pursue happiness, not only to enjoy it, but to want more and more of it.
We try to be happier
So given that that’s true, how good are we at increasing our happiness? Well, we certainly try. If you look on the Amazon site, there are over 2,000 titles with advice on the seven habits, the nine choices, the 10 secrets, the 14,000 thoughts that are supposed to bring happiness. Now another way we try to increase our happiness is we medicate ourselves. And so there’s over 120 million prescriptions out there for antidepressants.
But these routes to happiness haven’t really increased happiness very much.
The field of psychology hasn’t contributed
My field, the field of psychology, hasn’t done a whole lot to help us move forward in understanding human happiness.
In part, we have the legacy of Freud, who was a pessimist, who said that pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest, is propelled by infantile aspects of the individual that can never be met in reality. He said, “One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of creation.” So the ultimate goal of psychoanalytic psychotherapy was really what Freud called ordinary misery.
And Freud in part reflects the anatomy of the human emotion system — which is that we have both a positive and a negative system, and our negative system is extremely sensitive.
- Detect sweet at 1/200. Bitter at 1/2 million.
- People hate to lose more than they love to win.
- Marriage formula: the 5-1 ratio.
- Stress response overkill.
- If we were only governed by pleasure seeking we could not survive.
The New Science of Happiness
We’ve come away from the Freudian gloom, and people are now actively studying this. And one of the key points in the science of happiness is that happiness and unhappiness are not endpoints of a single continuum. The Freudian model is really one continuum that, as you get less miserable, you get happier. And that isn’t true — when you get less miserable, you get less miserable. And that happiness is a whole other end of the equation. And it’s been missing. It’s been missing from psychotherapy.
So when people’s symptoms go away, they tend to recur,because there isn’t a sense of the other half — of what pleasure, happiness, compassion, gratitude, what are the positive emotions. And of course we know this intuitively, that happiness is not just the absence of misery.
People have also wanted to deconstruct. We use this word “happy,” and it’s this very large umbrella of a term:
Sensory Pleasures, amusement, contentment, relief, excitement, wonder, ectasy, elevation, gratitude, compassion, fiero, schadenfreude, naches.
Reward and Pleasure Paths
We have basically at least two systems here, and they both are very ancient.
1. One is the reward system, and that’s fed by the chemical dopamine. And it starts in the ventral tegmental area. It goes to the nucleus accumbens, all the way up to the prefrontal cortex, orbital frontal cortex, where decisions are made, high level. This was originally seen as a system that was the pleasure system of the brain.
It turned out that it wasn’t, that it really is a system of motivation, a system of wanting.It gives objects what’s called incentive salience. It makes something look so attractive that you just have to go after it.
2.That’s something different from the system that is the pleasure system, which simply says, “I like this.”The pleasure system, as you see, which is the internal opiates, there is a hormone oxytocin, is widely spread throughout the brain. Dopamine system, the wanting system, is much more centralized.
Forget about yourself
People are happiest when in flow, when they’re absorbed in something out in the world, when they’re with other people, when they’re active, engaged in sports, focusing on a loved one, learning, having sex, whatever.
Can money buy happiness?
The data isn’t terribly supportive of money buying happiness. But it’s not irrelevant. So if you look at questions like this, life satisfaction, you see life satisfaction going up with each rung of income. You see mental distress going up with lower income.So clearly there is some effect. But the effect is relatively small.And one of the problems with money is materialism. What happens when people pursue money too avidly, is they forget about the real basic pleasures of life.
Men’s value shifts after ‘Quantum Change’
Pleasure—> God’s Will
Be respected—> Honesty
Self-esteem—> Faithfulness to others