Happiness: A Theory — Talking Things Through

August 10, 2010

If, as current research on the brain suggests, talking about things may have as much to do with restoring serotonin levels as anything else, an urge to discuss the status of a relationship may be a chemically-induced reaction, and the disinclination to talk may be the sign of an intact sense of well being.  If so, then there may be little if any moral dimension to reticence, and volubility may represent the equivalent of the family pet digging into its bowl. 

A reticent partner may emerge from an interaction feeling somehow responsible for whatever in a relationship is “broken”, while the voluble one may come out with the hazy feeling of being right without clarity as to exactly how this is so.   Because the conscious brain ascribes meaning to behavior to which it attends, while lacking the biochemical information that might best account for it, the risk of confabulation is high.

Our happiness may depend in part on a willingness to reject whatever mythology arises around certain social behavior, to recognize that, although we often have limited access to the impetus for our conduct, we may be hypnotized by our transcendence.  The random-access, multivariable character of conscious thought helps us feel responsible for whatever just happened, even though “we” may have had nothing to do with it.


Happiness: A Theory — Being Wired for Belief (or Not)

August 4, 2010

One of the more interesting ideas in neuroscience suggests that there are some of us who are simply wired for skepticism, others, for belief. It stands to reason that a mix of the types makes for a stronger overall culture. If so, the notion that exposure to critical thinking enhances the self-doubt of one who is inclined toward belief may be unduly optimistic. If one is wired for skepticism, one intuitively sees the fit between this mindset and the limits of our ability to know. If one is wired for belief, however, is it any less intuitive to perceive the fit between that mindset and the elegant architecture of a belief? There certainly appear to be so-called critical thinkers who are just as chained to their comfort zones as any faith-oriented folks they may wish to ridicule. The cultivation of an open mind is no simple task.

Steadfast belief is a strength, no less so than healthy skepticism.  These two attitudes appear to be constituents of our evolutionary glue, no less so because we misapply them.  We doubt in the face of profound evidence, and we believe fervently in, among other things, disbelief.  But just having such neural pathways may allow humans, as a group, to stumble upon a workable perception, then cobble together a culture to support it. 

It is when we tease out one attitude or the other and attempt to superimpose it on the universe that we get into trouble.  The feeling of knowing appears to be an emotion, which may or may not correspond to a rational deduction based on testable evidence.  What some of us term a spiritual experience might be nothing more than stimulation of the feeling of knowing without accompanying content, so that we fill the empty container with whatever cosmology is rattling around in our personal tin cup.  See On Being Certain, by Robert Burton, one of the very best tomes to emerge from the current study of the brain.  When we criticize our neighbors for the contents of their cup, we may be doing little more than succumbing to another dab of evolutionary glue: the addicting notion that our “in” group trumps someone else’s “out” group.

Recognizing that neither belief, nor skepticism, in themselves, warrant judgment (in the form of belief, or skepticism), is an important step in cultivating happiness.

Happiness: A Theory — The Probabilistic Machine

August 3, 2010

                    If our essential functionality is probabilistic – any of an infinite number of synaptic connections may lead to one event or another within us – then our happiness must, in some measure, accommodate this chance-based essence.

                     We analogize to computers in conceiving of the brain, but, so far, this is a poor analogy.  We demand consistency from our computers, and, under ideal circumstances, consistency is what we get.  We never get consistency from our brains.  Rather, we get a constantly shifting array of possible outcomes, which helps us contend with a constantly shifting array of stimuli. 

                     Our greatest drawback is also our greatest talent.  By being so unpredictable, we are attuned to an unpredictable milieu.  The emergent behavior is so hard to copy, it is derived from such complexity and chance, that it is a root frustration of robot scientists who seek to duplicate humans.  But it also means that feeling happy, feeling attuned to our own essence, is highly unlikely to be, in its essence, consistent.

                     Our happiness may, in some measure, depend upon appreciation of whatever happens, because, no less daunting than our incapacity to govern our milieu is our incapacity to govern ourselves.  We are, very much, passengers, spectators, possessed of a well-honed delusion as to our powers.

                    “The brain is like a Ferrari – pedigreed and difficult to keep balanced.”  –  Louis Cozolino

Happiness: A Theory — Chasing an Illusion

August 2, 2010

Is happiness something that is achieved after struggle (cause and effect), or is it a way of being, all the time?

Are we hamstrung in our understanding of happiness by viewing it in cause-and-effect terms?  Think about lying out looking at stars on a summer evening.  That feeling of well-being, does it have anything to do with cause and effect?

In our ruminations about larger questions, we conceive of the universe in terms of cause and effect; but is that paradigm misplaced?  Why is it any more pertinent to ask what caused the universe than to ask how may it be that the universe has no cause?  Perhaps cause and effect is merely a mode of intermediate understanding, pertinent to our milieu, but inadequate at a higher level.  Perhaps because we are mimetic in our grasp of things, we demand that the universe we seek to fathom imitate – or correspond to — our primitive mode of comprehension.  The same restlessness that serves us so well in fathoming our immediate world becomes a means of unsettling rumination when applied to this larger question.  And, perhaps, a similar confusion affects our perception of our own well being. 

Certain properties of the universe, like consciousness, may exist only insofar as they emerge from constituents, that, viewed alone, offer no hint of their consequence.

Animate life , like an action film, often comes down to a chase.  In the case of our happiness, though, there may be nothing there to catch.

Happiness: A Theory — The Beauty (and Problems) of Science

July 31, 2010

What we think will make us happy is not what will actually make us happy.  So goes a key revelation of the brain science renaissance.  As higher-order mammals, we not only develop ideas about what to do, we also carry within us a meta-notion that these ideas are good ones.

The problem, however, is that our perception that we are on the right path lends nothing to the integrity of our view.  To the contrary, human history is replete with the poisonous residue of proclivity.  Like King Procrustes, when it comes to a treasured idea, we often prefer to cut off the feet of our guest than to acquire a larger bed.

The beauty of science is that it incorporates an algorithm of self-doubt.  No sooner does a hypothesis arise than, under the scientific method, it is subjected to testing.  The testing process, if done with quality and integrity, attempts to disprove the hypothesis.  Whatever emerges from this treatment may legitimately be termed a going hypothesis – i.e., something we do not know, but that we have not yet shown to be false.  Such is the pinnacle of human “knowing”.

The problem of science is that it is conducted by humans, who often think they are right when they are wrong, so that their foibles contaminate their conclusions.   Properly pursued, however, the scientific method seems to be the best means we have to discern what is, as opposed to what we think should be.

A second problem of science is that, like so many other facets of our lives, we tend to ascribe to it a magical significance, as part of neuronal circuitry that chirps, open-beaked and red-throated, for a cosmological parent.  It seems, nonetheless, to be the best game in town, as we (most of us) happily concede when we are truly ill.  We go, with misgivings perhaps, but we go, to that repository of the scientific method’s achievements, the hospital.

Happiness: A Theory — The Gift of Listening

July 30, 2010

Another component of a personal theory of happiness may be the willingness to listen. It seems that we all share a craving to be heard, to have others receive our story. Phenomena such as this blog are an illustration of this craving, I believe. Michael Nichols observes: “The reason we care so much about being listened to is that we never outgrow our need to communicate what it feels like to live in our separate, private worlds of experience. Unfortunately, there is no parallel need to be the one who listens. Maybe that’s why listening sometimes seems to be in short supply. Listening isn’t a need we have; it’s a gift we give.”

I submit that when we fathom the lesson of Nichol’s excellent work, The Lost Art of Listening, and we seek to give that gift, we enrich our lives, and, hence, our sense of well being.

Happiness: A Theory — On Judging and Being Judged

July 29, 2010

No one likes to be judged, yet, it often seems, the impulse to judge runs strong within us.

The desire for the good opinion of our peers may be more fundamental than the quest to adhere to an absolute.  But we are unlikely to put it to ourselves in this way.  It seems we are more likely to say: I believe in such and such principle, and that is why I blah blah blah.  If we monitor our own behavior closely, however, we may soon find that any given principle has little to do with it.  Can we teach ourselves to not mind when others think ill of us?  If we strive to present a truer picture of ourselves to others, might we not improve our standing, through candor, and, so, ironically, lessen the sting of judgment?

What sort of potential for happiness is there in a world in which we care deeply about how we are perceived, yet we are possessed of an abiding urge to judge everyone else (and not so as to increase their esteem)?  We seem to like it when our relative standing is above that of our peers.  The stage is set for: 1) diminishing others through judgment; 2) deceiving ourselves into viewing others as inferior; 3) some combination of 1 and 2.   In such a milieu, there should be a good number of us who correctly, and, unhappily, perceive ourselves as being judged.  Note, though, that, if we consider the bias and diminished capacity of those doing the judging, we may discover good reason for giving their judgment short shrift, even if we have difficulty transcending our aversion to being judged.  

One possible solution for us, in all the above examples, and perhaps many others, is to see those around us who pursue their own biology as doing no more and no less than that; seeing that they are not our enemies, and that we need not change them; seeing, rather, that the pursuit of happiness involves changing our own perception of the situation, rather than our milieu.  Such a project is arduous; if our own biology acts like a spring on a screen door, we must train ourselves to hold the door open, to perhaps come closer to seeing things as they are.  We can recognize the behavior of others that might displease us as behavior we ourselves exhibit, to one degree or another; behavior with strong evolutionary origins; and we can use this insight to fuel our resolve to do something different.  It may not be easy, but it seems that it is possible, to transcend our biology in this manner, and, hence, to avoid the blues.

Happiness: A Theory — Gate Crashing

July 28, 2010
If the universe doesn’t care that we are here, yet we are sufficiently sapient to meditate on the question, then the door is open for inflated self-importance, or metaphysical angst over our supposed abandonment.  The very mirror neurons that allow us to posit selves in others appear easily susceptible to recruitment for creative notions about what other, larger self or selves there might be.

In the world of mental health, there is much to be said for valuing oneself, without regard to any supposed lack of love from any anticipated quarter.  A healthy narcissism breeds, among other things, an enhanced possibility of finding desired companionship.  Put differently, we are more likely to be attracted to those who portray themselves as worthy of attraction.  Recognizing that we deserve love whether or not there is sufficient supply appears to be an important ingredient of happiness.

Similarly, if we just happen to be here, it seems possible that we may transcend our inclination to grieve over our orphan status, and, instead, view ourselves as party crashers, uninvited guests, sampling what is before us with the relish of those who appreciate their good fortune, and are determined to make the best of it.

The evidence suggests that we may, indeed, be in such a position.  There is beauty in things that just happen to happen.   If we view our own lives as unfolding works of art, refrain from insisting on how the works unfold, and strive to appreciate what happens next, we may increase our happiness.

Happiness: A Theory — The God Question

July 28, 2010


We conceive of the universe as having a beginning, hence, a moment of birth, or creation.  Such a scenario implies a creator.  But we may think in terms of cause and effect, beginnings, because that is our milieu.  Our brains evolved in an environment steeped in birth, in beginnings.  The concept of something eternal is simply not part of our thought process.  We may posit a deity to set the universe in motion, but what about a universe that has always been here?  Why can’t that be true, without a prime mover?  If we insist on perceiving an original moment of creation, we merely perpetuate the conundrum: if creation is the way all things begin, how was god created?  If god is an exception, why can’t the universe be an exception?

Consider how many different competing conceptions of how the world began are to be found in the religions of the world.  Consider how fervently adherents to these faiths propound their particular creation stories, and all the other precepts.  Yet, how testable are these beliefs?  One thing can be known: insofar as they each claim their own exclusively true account of how the world began, they must all be wrong, with the possible exception of one.  If we select just one of these stories and claim it to be the one true account, how likely are we to be correct?

All of this should leave us with one abiding perception:  when it comes to matters of god and our metaphysical plight, we should be humble.  We may feel as though we we know, but we should not claim to know.   This humility should not be so difficult to come by, for the simple reason that we do not know.  Being brought up to believe one story or another is not knowing; it is simply the belief that we know.

There is something else.  There is a kind of metaphysical bravery in accepting that we, ourselves, may be the ultimate arbiters of our own lives.

Happiness: A Theory — On Being Open

July 24, 2010
Our brains appear wired to adopt a belief about our milieu, consecrate it, then bar the door to our consciousness against any competing belief.  If a different belief gets past our mental bouncer, the result is conflict, sometimes labeled cognitive dissonance.  This process should be familiar to most of us, yet how likely is it to reflect some objective quality of our universe?  The transcendent achievements of our brains help to blind us to their concomitant evolved limitations.  There appears to be little circuitry in the brain encouraging it to adopt a critical posture towards itself. 

There is, so to speak, a pantry full of ingredients, and a universe of possible recipes, tucked into this convoluted organ and the larger organism it serves.  Much as a solitary person may infrequently feel the urge to cook, however, we seem inclined to ignore the culinary opportunities. 

Perhaps in questioning the integrity of our thinking, we may take a seat at one of life’s great feasts.   If we cultivate within ourselves the capacity to hold two competing beliefs, simultaneously, we may proceed from there to a perhaps unlimited gathering of data and ideas within us, resisting the persistent impulse to clear the room of intruders.  The very moment we feel the zing of eureka — that we have figured something out, and we would banish the inconsistent data and perceptions — we may do well to resist this deportation.  The process of keeping our minds open – familiar to our tongues but rarely to our hearts – may require an ease with dissonance.  Our brains appear to crave certainty, solidity.  The question arises: can we rewire our reward circuitry to appreciate uncertainty, fluidity?  What if your enemy can teach you something that would change your life?  What if you wander down an aisle in the bookstore and select something you might never see?  Might there be an idea out there to complement your treasured hypotheses, but your brain’s bouncer leaves it shivering on the sidewalk? 

Recent neuroscience is littered with accounts of compensatory perceptual achievements in the face of lost functionality.  See, for instance, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor.  It stands to reason that our neuroplastic brain can adapt to see things, including ideas about our milieu, in new ways.  Is there a meditation that would assist our brain to get out of its own way?  Knowledge is knowing that we cannot know, said Emerson.  In that simple phrase may lie a mantra which, if we utter it daily, may help us not only to keep our minds open, but to find doing so a pleasure.