Neuroscientist Dean Burnett dives deep into what makes us happy.
IT’S HUMAN NATURE TO want to be happy, but people know relatively little about the science behind the emotion.
Scientists are only just beginning to grasp how the human brain processes emotion – the chemical processes and how they affect our thoughts and behaviors. What does it mean to be happy? And what’s actually happening in people’s brains when they are?
These are the questions neuroscientist Dean Burnett set out to explore in his new book, “Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From and Why,” an attempt to understand one of humanity’s most potent emotions.
It’s clear the brain’s process of forming emotions is incredibly complicated. Do you have a unified theory of what makes us happy?
The process itself is incredibly complicated, a reward pathway deep in the middle of the brain. We share it with lots of other species. It’s a small circuit, but it’s incredibly important and it allows us to experience pleasure. The brain recognizes that as a good thing, saying, ‘You should do that again, here’s some pleasure.’
And it can be anything. For instance, it happens when we experience something bad, where we experience fear or something scary, but then it goes away. People want to know why horror is so appealing. You were scared a minute ago and but now you’re not. Every experience can be traced back to that process, so many things that can determine how powerful it is and to what degree it’s triggered, like if something is familiar or not.
Novelty is a big part of that. Humans need money so we can purchase what we need to survive. And you’d think the more money we have the happier it tends to make us, but it’s not that straightforward. If you have $500 that goes into your account every two weeks in your paycheck, that’s nice but that doesn’t really excite you, whereas if you find $20 in the pocket of your jeans, that’s brilliant. It’s a lot more rewarding. But familiarity can makes us happy, too. There are a lot of things in the environment that lead to stress and fear and terror and anxiety, and the brain is primed for threat detection, but in our homes we’re surrounded by things that calm us down. We’re more content, we know what goes where. The brain goes, ‘I’ve been here before and at no point have I died.’
The ‘pursuit of happiness’ is in the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right alongside life and liberty. Why is happiness such a powerful motivator?
The evidence that has accumulated is that happiness is a reward, the brain telling us that something has gone right or we’ve done something which is beneficial. The reward part of our brain identifies sources of pleasure in our lives. You want to do things that make you happy, and the quest for happiness is a big part of who we are, and it’s a way for our brain to tell us when things have gone right, what things are beneficial.
It all comes down to the fact that it’s a positive sensation. We have a lot of other emotions – embarrassment, fear, guilt – but they’re unpleasant, they’re meant to discourage us. At the most basic level, emotions are the shortcut the brain uses rather than having to think through a scenario every single time, weighing the pros and cons. The brain can think rationally and logically. Emotions are the shortcut we have to that. I tried something, but it made me feel guilty. Or there’s something we enjoy, we like, we want to feel good.
But happiness isn’t necessarily the most powerful emotion. Fear, for example, is about survival – we don’t want to be happy for a few minutes but then end up dead.
As for the pursuit of happiness, the pursuing itself is a good thing. In modern culture, we think happiness should be the default state, otherwise something is amiss. But that’s not how the brain works. The brain adapts to anything: You could have a favorite meal that makes you happy, but if you have it all day, every day, you’ll be fed up with it in literally every sense.
Your brain stops paying attention, it doesn’t idle well. So while you don’t have to do anything to make yourself happy, it loses all its potency. The pursuit is a good thing. It’s all about motivation. People who are born into wealth, great privilege and power, they don’t seem particularly happy because they don’t have to strive for anything.
If you’re constantly happy, you’re avoiding all sorts of experiences. The more emotions you experience, the more you develop emotional competence. Something bad will happen to you eventually. If you’ve always been happy, you don’t know how to deal with it and your brain gets really confused. It’s the same as if you were to only exercise one muscle – you might end up with a really strong leg, but you’d have trouble getting around. It’s not great.
A lot of our brain is set up for the purposes of survival. Most of us no longer constantly face mortal threats. How has that changed how our brains process happiness?
Modern life, counterintuitively, can actually cause more of a problem. Since survival isn’t necessarily a big deal anymore – we don’t really have life-or-death situations, no predators, no readily immediate fatal dangers – there’s so much more opportunity to indulge ourselves, our basic hedonistic instinct.
All of this stems from the fact that the human brain evolved very rapidly. The cortex was half the size it is now 3 million years ago. That is phenomenally fast for evolution. But the underlying parts of the brain – the reptile brain – is the same as it’s always been. It keeps us alive. The incredibly complex, highly advanced part of the brain and the more primitive part of the brain don’t always work together easily. It’s like trying to install Windows 10 on a 5-year old laptop – you can do it, but neither side really enjoys it.
As a result, there are lots of different parts of the brain that rival other parts of the brain. The basic instinct to seek out basic pleasures competes with the survival instinct – conflicts like that are often coming to a head inside the brain. The instinct to binge eat comes from the need for survival in the wild. When you came across a plentiful, nutritious food source when food was otherwise scarce, the instinct is to eat as much as you can beyond your fill. The pursuit of happiness can make us blind to more long-term advantages.
Why is so much of our happiness contingent on our relationships with others?
We are such a social species, perhaps the most social species of all, and that’s part of what drove our evolution. We don’t tend to kill each other. That’s a really strong selling point of the human race. In New York, there are 8 million people and relatively few murders. If you put 8 million chimps in New York, in a few days you’d have 4 million chimps, and then 2 million. They’re an aggressive species in that regard, whereas we can happily live side by side.
Other people are such a big part of how we experience emotions. Guilt and embarrassment only exist in the context of other people. So if your bathrobe falls off when you get out of the shower, no big deal. But if it happens in a hotel lobby, it’s terribly embarrassing because there are other people around to see and judge you. Rejection is such a huge part of our make-up.
We’re a pair-bonding species, and we seek out partners. Not everyone’s the same, of course, but it’s the human norm, as it were. When we find the one person who we want to settle down with, it causes all manner of reactions in the brain. We’ve evolved to encourage us to maintain a link with one person. It means that when you first fall in love, you spend a lot of time not aware of that person’s tics and flaws. Your hazard-detection system is shut down. That can be harmful, such as when people cannot recognize that their partner is awful. It can be really quite disturbing, when people are maintaining relationships they shouldn’t. The part of your brain that can recognize that is suppressed, and the longer you stay with someone the harder it is to leave. It’s a form of self-sabotage.
On the other hand, we’re able to form that kind of connection with more than one person. We’ve detached it from pure mating instinct. We can have friends now, a strong emotional bond with someone we’ll never mate with. Friends make us happy because we can form that strong connection.
There’s an impression that these things are straightforward, but the brain is so incredibly diverse that these chemicals can sometimes have radically different effects. We’re evolved to make friends but not necessarily with all other people. There’s an ingroup and an outgroup. The outgroup, who aren’t part of us, can be perceived as a threat.
We’re a tribal species. To a degree, the only thing that’s really a threat to a human is another human. Oxytocin enhances emotional bonds, romantic bonds, friendship bonds, familial bonds. But not every bond is helpful. It can make us more negatively predisposed to people in the outgroup, even racist.
We have a strong sense of status. We want to be top dog, respected, looked up to as much as possible. We have a strong instinct, rooted in the amygdala, which regulates emotions like fear, that anything that boosts our state, we seize upon it. If you have a goal, say, to be the world’s best sprinter, that’s fine as a goal. But it means nobody else can have it. It’s a zero-sum thing. A lot of what makes us happy is dependent on making other people less happy. We are a hierarchical species. For us to go up, someone else must go down.
Presumably, you get asked a lot for advice on how to be happy. What do you tell people?
There are two things I try to emphasize.
First, happiness isn’t the default – expecting it isn’t realistic. Happiness should be a goal rather than a permanent state. The brain has to work hard to be happy – to be happy all the time would be exhausting. High energy, extroverted people can be pretty tiring to be around. It’s nice to try to aim for happiness, but it’s not something we can ever get to permanently. The closer you get, the harder it is. Sure, there should be more times that you’re happy than you’re not, but you shouldn’t be happy all the time.
And, second, because it’s not easy to be happy, the theories about a secret to happiness aren’t realistic – or at least they’re a huge oversimplification. Anyone offering a quick-fix solution – and there are plenty of self-help books that do – should be taken with a massive grain of salt. For every person they help, there’s at least one for whom it won’t work, because the brain is the most variable thing in the world. There never will be any simple answer.
And one other thing: The cultural notion that you can find happily ever after, that when you find the one person you should be with, that’s it. That’s an ironically romanticized version of love, and it doesn’t really work that way. It sets you up to fail. It’s unhealthy, and it sets an ideal that isn’t going to happen. When you buy a car you’ve always wanted, you don’t just park it in the driveway and look at it, you drive it and put fuel in it and service it. The same is true in a relationship – it should be used and appreciated.
All these ideas of constant happiness, they’re culturally induced rather than biological. There’s no guarantee that you should be happy constantly.