Category: Happiness

Affective forecasting: When is happiness?

Affective forecasting: When is happiness?

Last week, we discussed what happiness looks like in the brain, but noted that, because happiness is subjective, it’s not something we can systematize; we’ll just never be able to name a thing that makes everybody happy.

Before we get to some of the things that make us happy, the when of happiness turns out to be very interesting. You might be smiling now, but what are you happy about? Is it even the thing you think it is? We’ll see.

“If we have a shred of cosmic gratitude,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, we should be happier than we used to be. “An American in 2015,” he continues, “compared with his or her counterpart a half-century earlier, will live nine years longer, have had three more years of education, earn an additional $33,000 a year per family member … and have an additional eight hours a week of leisure” (p. 262).

In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra goes back even farther, noting that “in 1919 relatively few people could become disenchanted with liberal modernity because only a tiny minority had enjoyed the opportunity to become enchanted with it in the first place” (p. 26).

In other words, are you bored? Be happy with what you have — a century ago, we didn’t have the luxury of being bored with what we had because we really didn’t have anything, most especially the leisure time to get bored.

For the first time, he writes, “people understand themselves in public life primarily as individuals with rights, desires and interests” (p. 12).

But our happiness doesn’t even relate to our own pasts, never mind those of people we never knew a century or half-century ago — and especially not to the pasts of hypothetical people who were the average of their times.

In fact, no wonder people in the mid-20th century were anxious — two World Wars in 35 years, a stock market collapse, impending Cold War, a third World War with atom bombs seemed inevitable and there were plenty of totalitarianism and fascism in the world, Rollo May wrote in Man’s Search for Himself (p. 19).

Now, we really have to make up things to be worried about, like fighting on Twitter.

“On the deepest level, the question of which age we live in is irrelevant,” May writes. “The basic question is how the individual, in his own awareness of himself and the period he lives in, as able through his decisions to attain inner freedom and to live according to his own inner integrity” (p. 206).

But more on that next time. I want to talk about the future.

Yes, the future.

“The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real,” Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “and it is this ability that allow us to think about the future” (p. 5).

“Forestalling pleasure,” he continues, “is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience” (p. 18).

Gilbert goes on to relate a study involving a fancy dinner. “Thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there,” he writes.

When participants in the study were told they won dinner at a fancy French restaurant and asked when they would like to go, most opted to wait a week. “These people not only go to spend several hours slurping oysters and sipping Chateau Cheval Blanc ’47, but they also got to look for to all that slurping and sipping for a full seven days beforehand” (p.18).

But be careful with that, though. Jonathan Haidt notes in The Happiness Hypothesis that “we are bad at ‘affective forecasting,’ that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future.”

Win the lottery? Lose control of your limbs? What do you think? “Within a year,” Haidt writes, “lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness” (p. 85).

Crazy, right?

We’re also much better at recalling our feelings, not what got us to those feelings. If we didn’t like the wine or we did like the pie, Gilbert writes, we remember that, not the actual taste or texture of either (Gilbert, pp. 44-45).

Anticipation often gives us deeper feelings than achievement. “Set for yourself any goal you want,” writes Haidt. “Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack and the end of a long hike” (p. 84).

It’s the same with small goals, too. Make a to-do list for your day; include the small things like brushing your teeth and driving to work. See how good it feels to knock items off your list? But what happens when you complete your list? You mark off the last item, toss the list in the recycle bin and wonder what’s next and how you’re going to get a little dopamine hit from hitting completing something else.

And it really is about anticipation. Anticipating unknown pains is scarier than known ones, even if the known ones are more intense, Gilbert writes. Sure, “fear, worry and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives … we motivate ourselves by imagining the unpleasant tomorrows that await us should we decide to go light on the sunscreen and heavy on the eclairs. In short,” he continues, “we sometimes imagine dark futures just to scare our own pants off” (pp. 20-21).

We really do want that control we talked about last week, too. Gilbert points out that we will pay a fortune to people who say they can predict the future (psychics, investment bankers, weather forecasters, etc.) so that we can feel like we have some control over what’s coming (p. 22).

Let’s talk briefly about exceptions. Gilbert writes about people with prefrontal lobe damage.

“Damage to the prefrontal lobe can make people calm,” he writes, “but it wipes out their ability to plan — in the lab, this means not being able to solve mazes or puzzles, in the real world they can’t discuss what they’re going to do do that afternoon. Both planning and anxiety are intimately connected to thinking about the future” (p. 14).

Of course, so is anticipating something like that fancy dinner.

A person with frontal lobe damage has no concept of the future, of “subjective time” and is living in what Gilbert calls a “permanent present.” “Such an existence is so difficult for most of us to imagine … that we are tempted to dismiss it as a fluke — an unfortunate, rare and freakish aberration brought on by traumatic head injury” (p. 16).

Gilbert goes on to say that, in fact, it’s not an aberration. In the animal kingdom, it’s the norm. Humans are the only animal that considers the future.

Our happiness isn’t now. It’s how we feel about later. And we’re not going to be happy when later becomes the present. The anticipation is the key.

Next time: What actually makes us happy.

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer: What is happiness?

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer: What is happiness?

Everybody wants to be happier, right? Well, what, exactly, does that mean?

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment,” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”

Meh, that doesn’t get down to specifics.

How about the origin of the word? Maybe that’s more instructive? It’s not much better: “1520s, ‘good fortune,’ from happy + -ness. Meaning ‘pleasant and contented mental state’ is from 1590s.”

The etymology of happy gets a little more down to it:

late 14c., “lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune” + -y (2). Sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “greatly pleased and content” is from 1520s.

So, specifically, happiness is the feeling of pleasure you get when you’re lucky.


That doesn’t seem as specific as the clear neural pathway we can see when empathy is engaged.

We do know there are happiness chemicals substances present in the body and brain when we’re happy.

Writing in Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland identifies seven:

  1. Endocannabinoids: “Endocannabinoids,” he writes, “are self-produced cannabis that work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the cannabinoid system.” This is why products such as chemo kush work the way they do with our body. “Anandamide (from the Sanskrit ‘Ananda’ meaning Bliss) is the most well known endocannabinoid.” Basically, we have a bunch of different receptors in our brains meant to receive different chemicals from cannabis (about 85 of them, actually. With some of them being found in many products by different providers like Caliper CBD and others), and we make some of those ourselves. Endocannabinoids are responsible for “runner’s high,” so I guess that feeling is accurately named.
  2. Dopamine: This is our reward system. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine hit our dopamine systems. It’s also what keeps us checking Facebook and Instagram for likes. Just. One. More. Hit.
  3. Oxytocin: This is our romantic bonding hormone. Skin-to-skin contact, cuddling and other forms of intimacy all increase oxytocin (apparently this may affect men and women differently; vasopressin might serve this purpose in men, Bergland writes).

    We can also increase oxytocin by doing things like drinking coffee and eating chocolate.

  4. Endorphin: “The name Endorphin translates into ‘self-produced morphine,'” Bergland writes. “Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm.” So, while runner’s high is handled by our endocannabinoids, pushing through an intense workout hits the same chemicals as orgasm.
  5. GABA: GABA is your chill-happy molecule, Bergland writes. Yoga and meditation increase GABA, and benzos (like Valium and Xanax) work as anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives thanks to GABA.
  6. Serotonin: “Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it,” writes Bergland, who calls it the “confidence molecule.” Many anti-depressants are classed as SSRIs selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors these increase levels of seratonin in the brain, but you can increase it without drugs by doing confidence-boosting things like challenging yourself and doing things that give you a sense of purpose.
  7. Adrenaline (epinephrine): This is your overdrive molecule. “A surge of adrenaline makes you feel very alive,” writes Bergland. “It can be an antidote for boredom, malaise and stagnation. Taking risks, and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximizing your human potential. However, people often act recklessly to get an adrenaline rush.”

    I can tell you from getting a shot from an EpiPen once that’s artificial adrenaline, basically that it is indeed a crazy reaction when you get it artificially. I passed out for a few seconds, and then immediately broke out into hives all over my body. I got a shot from a cortico-steroid to bring that down, and I sat on the couch and probably put down 3,000 calories the rest of the day and managed to wake up having lost a couple of pounds. I’d avoid that as a weight-loss plan, though.

Some of these chemicals can even be gamified.

That, then, is a bit of an overview of how pleasure, which I guess is happiness, presents in the brain.

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer may all seem different, but they generate similar patterns of neural activity, meaning they all lead to happiness #betterhumanhood Click To Tweet

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer may seem different, but each of these “generates a roughly similar pattern of neural activity,” writes Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, so it makes that in some form, these all lead to happiness (p. 35).

Gilbert relates three distinct types of happiness: emotional, moral and judgmental (p. 33). But this brings us to the same issue we had when we were looking at definitions and word origins: it’s hard to pin down what each means.

In fact, unlike empathy, there isn’t an objective outward manifestation of happiness. We can see it in the brain with the release of certain chemicals, as we noted above, but what makes you happy might not be what makes me happy, and vice-versa I may enjoy my runner’s high; you might think I’m crazy for even seeking it out with a three-hour run. Meanwhile, you might love spending hours listening to mumble rap on Soundcloud and I just don’t get it.

If asked to define emotional happiness, Gilbert writes, “we would either point to the objects in the world that tend to bring it about, or we would mention other feelings that it is like. In fact, this is the only thing we can do when we are asked to define a subjective experience” (p. 34).

He goes on to write that some people would say “subjective studies are ‘irreducible,’ which is to say that nothing we point to, nothing we can compare them with, and nothing we can say about their neurological underpinnings can fully substitute for the experiments themselves” (p. 34).

Unlike empathy, then, we can’t systematize happiness.

This makes happiness a lot more work than empathy. There’s no truly objective outward measure (some people cry when they’re happy and appear to smile when they’re constipated), and nothing is guaranteed to make everybody happy (you think you have a thing or two in mind, but, as you’ll find out in future installments, you’re wrong).

Kelvin and I talked about this last month on JKWD, but one thing we are all interested in is control. Gilbert, again:

Human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed (p. 22).

This is a little foreshadowing on part three, but control what you can, and you can be happy.

Next time, we’ll talk about when we find happiness, and the research will probably surprise you.

Fuck busy; remember what’s important

Fuck busy; remember what’s important

If I’m honest with myself, I’m feeling a little roots-less this week.

In mid-June, we took a final trip to the house I grew up in, and brought some furniture and family keepsakes back to Syracuse. My parents have, by now, made it to Charleston, SC, where they bought a house a couple of years ago. My dad has retired, and my mom will probably find 14 adjunct and distance positions so she can teach college students how to teach young kids until she’s in her 90s.

On Saturday, we spent several hours packing up a moving truck in Minoa, because Frank, Nicole and their Small Man were moving to Ohio. This is the same Frank who wrote this piece about home a little over a year ago. [You should really take a few minutes to read that. You don’t need to know him to feel it.]

After packing up on Saturday, they drove the 7-plus hours to Ohio on Sunday, only to turn around on Monday and drive all the way back to see Frank’s dad before he passed Monday night. I stopped in at calling hours last night. There were smiles and friends and people and that sort of thing, the way it should be. Small Man, by the way, has been a fucking Buddha about the whole thing. I shared that story with my staff this week and got tears.

» Read This From Ashley. Seriously.

There’s a reason the author of the Jewish mourner’s prayer didn’t include death. We need to remember to celebrate life.

I’m of a generation that has been taught that being busy is important in life. And I’ve fallen into that trap. I took on an extra role at work that added about 3 hours in front of a computer to my workday. I’ve said yes to a lot of organizations in my nine years in Syracuse. I’ve worked with 40 Below, Alchemical Nursery, Future Fund, Tapestry, several different recreational sports leagues, a poetry reading and a bunch of other stuff.

I’m paring back.

When the current seasons are up, I’m going down to one night of rec sports a week. I’ll volunteer heavily with one organization at a time and give them a lot of my attention, rather than just squeezing them in (and I’ll probably do some on-going thing, too, that requires a check-in here and there). I shed the extra role at work. Sure, it’s less money, but now I’m working 8 hours a day instead of 11, and I don’t feel the need to be attached when I leave the office. I’m going to start training and work on overcoming some fears (heights and such).

You can already see I’m writing more. I’m also reading more. I’m getting time at home and with friends. My calendar has more white space in a week now than it used to have in a month. I actually spend time each morning sitting out on the deck with a newspaper, a cup of coffee and the dog, leaving the technology inside.

And that’s where I’m headed right now. Later, gators.