Explaining the causes of happiness – Part I

Understanding the influences that consumption and other factors have on our happiness could be quite tricky. We will therefore dedicate a special three-part post to explore the fundamentals behind happiness in a little more detail.

Feelings of happiness and general life satisfaction are primarily generated by internal hormone reactions and neural circuitry triggered by external (or sometimes internal) stimuli. But because humans are such complex creatures, the way in which these stimuli influence the hormone balance and the established neural connections in our brains is also very complex – hence the uncertainty and grayness typical of so-called “soft sciences” like psychology.

A good place to start building the appropriate understanding is the very entertaining and enlightening TED presentation given by the Harvard professor, Dan Gilbert. I would strongly advise that you watch the whole thing, but the central message is quite simply that humans have a pretty amazing special power: the ability to synthesize happiness.

Perhaps the most striking example of this amazing psychological finding is that researchers have found that the happiness of lottery winners and quadriplegics are essentially identical. Quite amazing, isn’t it? People who have been given enough money to buy or experience anything they could ever dream of are just as happy as people who have essentially lost the use of their entire bodies. Take a look at the video below for a rather special example (Hint: keep some tissues handy).

I definitely do no want to take anything away from Nick’s remarkable personality, but the main reason why he can be so happy is because the human brain is capable of adjusting to almost any given set of circumstances.

If you win several million dollars, your brain will simply raise the bar through something psychologists term “increased material aspirations” where the pleasure brought by any expensive purchase is immediately cancelled out by the ten new desires that took its place. When quadriplegics lose the use of their limbs, their brains make a similar adjustment, allowing them to synthesize happiness even within their subjectively terrible circumstances. In other words, quadriplegics can gain the same happiness from an interesting conversation as lottery winners can gain from a million dollar yacht.

So, how does this relate to the simple guidelines given in the previous post; that happiness is best pursued through vibrant health, nourishing personal relationships and free creative expression (while chasing happiness through consumption is a fool’s errand)? Well, the answer is quite simply that these factors give our brains the best possible chance to synthesize happiness in a sustainable manner.

We will take this discussion further in Part II of this post. Stay tuned…

Filed under: Mental control – Happiness

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