[Paleopsych] The Sunday Times: So what do you have to do to find happiness?
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Sun Oct 30 01:06:53 UTC 2005
So what do you have to do to find happiness?
So what do you have to do to find happiness?
Are we wired up to be cheerful, or are some of us destined to languish
in abject misery? Dorothy Wade reports on the new science of feeling
Behind the neoclassical facade of the Royal Institution, in London's
Mayfair, the latest in a 200-year series of lectures was taking place
in a hushed amphitheatre this summer. Standing on the shoulders of
scientific giants such as Faraday and Dewar were three academics
debating "Happiness, the science behind your smile".
Purists might imagine the founding geniuses of the Royal Institution
turning in their graves. What does science have to tell us about such
a frivolous subject? And how do you define happiness, let alone study
it? But happiness has finally burst out of the academic closet.
Several weighty volumes on the subject have been published this year.
And on the same night as the RI event, the economist Lord Layard and
the psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud were debating the Politics of
Happiness at the London School of Economics just a mile away.
Perversely, happiness has a negative image in our culture. Influenced
by a sceptical European philosophical outlook, we think of happiness
as a trivial pursuit for the Oprah generation, a Shangri-La
perpetuated by self-help gurus. Isn't it selfish to try to increase
our happiness, while much of the world faces suffering and premature
Great writers from Freud -- "the intention that man should be happy is
not included in the plan of Creation" -- to Philip Larkin -- "man
hands on misery to man" -- have painted happiness as an elusive
butterfly. But ordinary people believe they are happier than average
(an obvious impossibility) and that they'll be even happier in 10
years' time. If true, it would be good news because research shows
that happier people are healthier, more successful, harder-working,
caring and more socially engaged. Misery makes people self-obsessed
These are the conclusions of a burgeoning happiness industry that has
published 3,000 papers, set up a Journal of Happiness Studies and
created a World Database of Happiness in the last few years.
Can scientists tell us what happiness is?
Economists accept that if people describe themselves as happy, then
they are happy. However, psychologists differentiate between levels of
happiness. The most immediate type involves a feeling; pleasure or
joy. But sometimes happiness is a judgment that life is satisfying,
and does not imply an emotional state.
Public surveys measure what makes us happy. Marriage does, pets do,
but children don't seem to (despite what we think). Youth and old age
are the happiest times. Money does not add much to happiness; in
Britain, incomes have trebled since 1950, but happiness has not
increased at all. The happiness of lottery winners returns to former
levels within a year. People disabled in an accident are likely to
become almost as happy again. For happiness levels are probably
genetic: identical twins are usually equally bubbly or grumpy.
One thing makes a striking difference. When two American psychologists
studied hundreds of students and focused on the top 10% "very happy"
people, they found they spent the least time alone and the most time
socialising. Psychologists know that increasing the number of social
contacts a miserable person has is the best way of cheering them up.
When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote "hell is other people", the arch-pessimist
of existentialist angst was wrong.
America has pursued the chimera of happiness vigorously, not least
through the insatiable consumption of self-help literature such as
Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: 9 Tips for Daily Happiness! So it is no
surprise that it's an American who is making happiness a subject of
scientific study. At first glance, Martin Seligman's bestselling book
Authentic Happiness, with its sunshine-yellow title on a sky-blue
cover, blends with other manuals on the pop-psychology shelves. But
America's latest guru of feeling good is not a stage hypnotist, an
evangelical preacher or even a business visionary. Seligman is an
eminent professor of psychology with a string of degrees. One of the
chief architects of the prevailing model of depression, his work has
helped to found modern "cognitive" therapies.
The man who's trying to do for happiness what Newton did for gravity
has found it a scarce commodity in life. Seligman describes himself as
a "walking nimbus cloud" who spent 50 years "enduring mostly wet
weather in my soul". Feeling out of place as a chubby 13-year-old
Jewish kid at a wealthy college, he hit on the role of therapist as a
route to the hearts of unattainable girls. "What a brilliant stroke!
I'll bet no other guy ever listened to them ruminate about their
insecurities, nightmares and bleakest fantasies."
As a psychology graduate working in animal- behaviour labs, Seligman
discovered "learned helplessness" and became a big name. Dogs who
experience electric shocks that they cannot avoid by their actions
simply give up trying. They will passively endure later shocks that
they could easily escape. Seligman went on to apply this to humans,
with "learned helplessness" as a model for depression. People who feel
battered by unsolvable problems learn to be helpless; they become
passive, slower to learn, anxious and sad. This idea revolutionised
behavioural psychology and therapy by suggesting the need to challenge
depressed people's beliefs and thought patterns, not just their
Now Seligman is famous again, this time for creating the field of
positive psychology. In 1997 the professor was seeking a theme for his
presidency of the American Psychological Association. The idea came
while gardening with his daughter Nikki. She was throwing weeds around
and he was shouting. She reminded him that she used to be a whiner but
had stopped on her fifth birthday. "And if I can stop whining, you can
stop being a grouch."
Seligman describes this as an "epiphany". He vowed to change his own
outlook, but more importantly recognised a strength -- social
intelligence -- in his daughter that could be nurtured to help her
withstand the vicissitudes of life. Looking back on "learned
helplessness", he reflected that one in three subjects -- rats, dogs
or people -- never became "helpless", no matter how many shocks or
problems beset them.
"What is it about some people that imparts buffering strength, making
them invulnerable to helplessness?" Seligman asked himself -- and now
he's made it his mission to find out.
Since its origins in a Leipzig laboratory 130 years ago, psychology
has had little to say about goodness and contentment. Mostly
psychologists have concerned themselves with weakness and misery.
There are libraries full of theories about why we get sad, worried,
and angry. It hasn't been respectable science to study what happens
when lives go well. Positive experiences, such as joy, kindness,
altruism and heroism, have mainly been ignored. For every 100
psychology papers dealing with anxiety or depression, only one
concerns a positive trait.
A few pioneers in experimental psychology bucked the trend. Professor
Alice Isen of Cornell University and colleagues have demonstrated how
positive emotions make people think faster and more creatively.
Showing how easy it is to give people an intellectual boost, Isen
divided doctors making a tricky diagnosis into three groups: one
received candy, one read humanistic statements about medicine, one was
a control group. The doctors who had candy displayed the most creative
thinking and worked more efficiently.
Inspired by Isen and others, Seligman got stuck in. He wanted to
revolutionise psychology, but his weapon would be tough science.
Clinical psychology was the science of how to get from minus five to
zero. This would be the science of getting from zero to plus five.
Seligman wanted experiments, he wanted statistics, he wanted proof.
He raised millions of dollars of research money and funded 50 research
groups involving 150 scientists across the world. Four positive
psychology centres opened, decorated in cheerful colours and furnished
with sofas and baby-sitters. There were get-togethers on Mexican
beaches where psychologists would snorkel and eat fajitas, then form
"pods" to discuss subjects such as wonder and awe. A thousand
therapists were coached in the new science.
Their holy grail is the classification of strengths and virtues. After
a solemn consultation of great works such as the samurai code, the
Bhagavad-Gita and the writings of Confucius, Aristotle and Aquinas,
Seligman's happiness scouts discovered six core virtues recognised in
all cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and
transcendence. They have subdivided these into 24 strengths, including
humour and honesty.
But critics are demanding answers to big questions. What is the point
of defining levels of happiness and classifying the virtues? Aren't
these concepts vague and impossible to pin down? Can you justify
spending funds to research positive states when there are problems
such as famine, flood and epidemic depression to be solved?
Seligman knows his work can be belittled alongside trite notions such
as "the power of positive thinking". His plan to stop the new science
floating "on the waves of self- improvement fashions" is to make sure
it is anchored to positive philosophy above, and to positive biology
below. And this takes us back to our evolutionary past.
Homo sapiens evolved during the Pleistocene era (1.8 m to 10,000 years
ago), a time of hardship and turmoil. It was the Ice Age, and our
ancestors endured long freezes as glaciers formed, then ferocious
floods as the ice masses melted. We shared the planet with terrifying
creatures such as mammoths, elephant-sized ground sloths and
But by the end of the Pleistocene, all these animals were extinct.
Humans, on the other hand, had evolved large brains and used their
intelligence to make fire and sophisticated tools, to develop talk and
Survival in a time of adversity forged our brains into a persistent
mould. Professor Seligman says: "Because our brain evolved during a
time of ice, flood and famine, we have a catastrophic brain. The way
the brain works is looking for what's wrong. The problem is, that
worked in the Pleistocene era. It favoured you, but it doesn't work in
the modern world."
Although most people rate themselves as happy, there is a wealth of
evidence to show that negative thinking is deeply ingrained in the
human psyche. Experiments show that we remember failures more vividly
than successes. We dwell on what went badly, not what went well. When
life runs smoothly, we're on autopilot -- we're only in a state of
true consciousness when we notice the stone in our shoe.
Of the six universal emotions, four -- anger, fear, disgust and
sadness -- are negative and only one, joy, is positive. (The sixth,
surprise, is neutral.) According to the psychologist Daniel Nettle,
author of Happiness, and one of the Royal Institution lecturers, the
negative emotions each tell us "something bad has happened" and
suggest a different course of action. Fear tells us danger is near, so
run away. Anger prompts us to deter aggressors. Sadness warns us to be
cautious and save energy, while disgust urges us to avoid
Joy, according to Nettle, simply tells us, "something good has
happened, don't change anything". The evolutionary role of pleasure
was to encourage activity that was good for survival, such as eating
and having sex. But unlike negative emotions, which are often
persistent, joy tends to be short-lived. We soon get sick of cream
cakes or blasé about our pay rise.
What is it about the structure of the brain that underlies our bias
towards negative thinking? And is there a biology of joy? At Iowa
University, neuroscientists studied what happens when people are shown
pleasant and unpleasant pictures. When subjects see landscapes or
dolphins playing, part of the frontal lobe of the brain becomes
active. But when they are shown unpleasant images -- a bird covered in
oil, or a dead soldier with part of his face missing -- the response
comes from more primitive parts of the brain.
The ability to feel negative emotions derives from an ancient
danger-recognition system formed early in the brain's evolution. The
pre-frontal cortex, which registers happiness, is the part used for
higher thinking, an area that evolved later in human history.
Professor Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has scanned
brains in different emotional states. When he wired up a Buddhist monk
entering a state of bliss through meditation, he found electrical
activity shooting up the frontal lobe of the monk's brain on the left
side. Observing toddlers at play, he picked some who were exuberant
and uninhibited, behaviour linked to higher levels of positive
emotion, and others who were quiet and shy. Tested later, the
inhibited toddlers showed greater activity on the brain's right side;
activation of the lively toddlers' brains was on the left. Happiness
and sadness are lopsided.
Modern humans, stuck with an ancient brain, are like rats on a wheel.
We can't stop running, because we're always looking over our shoulders
and comparing our achievements with our neighbours'. At 20, we think
we'd be happy with a house and a car. But if we get them, we start
dreaming of a second home in Italy and a turbo-charged
This is called the "hedonic treadmill" by happiness scholars. It
causes us to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking
them for granted. The more possessions and accomplishments we have,
the more we need to boost our level of happiness. It makes sense that
the brain of a species that has dominated others would evolve to
strive to be best.
Our difficulty, according to Daniel Nettle, is that the brain systems
for liking and wanting are separate. Wanting involves two ancient
regions -- the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens -- that communicate
using the chemical dopamine to form the brain's reward system. They
are involved in anticipating the pleasure of eating and in addiction
to drugs. A rat will press a bar repeatedly, ignoring sexually
available partners, to receive electrical stimulation of the "wanting"
parts of the brain. But having received brain stimulation, the rat
eats more but shows no sign of enjoying the food it craved. In humans,
a drug like nicotine produces much craving but little pleasure.
At the Royal Institution, Nettle explained how brain chemistry foils
our pursuit of happiness in the modern world: "The things that you
desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of
desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire
of less quickly -- having good friends, the beauty of the natural
world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology
of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out."
Liking involves different brain chemicals from wanting. Real pleasure
is associated with opioids. They are released in the rat brain by
sweet tastes. When they are blocked in humans, food tastes less
delicious. They also dampen down pain so that pleasure is
Happiness is neither desire nor pleasure alone. It involves a third
chemical pathway. Serotonin constantly shifts the balance between
negative and positive emotions. It can reduce worry, fear, panic and
sleeplessness and increase sociability, co-operation, and happy
feelings. Drugs based
on serotonin, such as ecstasy, produce a relaxed sense of wellbeing
rather than the dopamine pattern of euphoria and craving.
In essence, what the biology lesson tells us is that negative emotions
are fundamental to the human condition, and it's no wonder they are
difficult to eradicate. At the same time, by a trick of nature, our
brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting
Psychologists such as Seligman are convinced you can train yourself to
be happier. His teams are developing new positive interventions
(treatments) to counteract the brain's nagging insistence on seeking
out bad news. The treatments work by boosting positive emotion about
the past, by teaching people to savour the present, and by increasing
the amount of engagement and meaning in their lives.
Since the days of Freud, the emphasis in consulting rooms has been on
talk about negative effects of the past and how they damage people in
the present. Seligman names this approach "victimology" and says
research shows it to be worthless: "It is difficult to find even small
effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no
evidence at all of large effects."
The tragic legacy of Freud is that many are "unduly embittered about
their past, and unduly passive about their future", says Seligman. His
colleague Aaron Beck developed cognitive therapy after becoming
disillusioned with his Freudian training in the 1950s. Beck found that
as depressed patients talked "cathartically" about past wounds and
losses, some people began to unravel. Occasionally this led to suicide
attempts, some of which were fatal. There was very little evidence
that psychoanalysis worked.
Cognitive therapy places less emphasis on the past. It works by
challenging a person's thinking about the present and setting goals
for the future. Another newcomer, brief solution-focused therapy,
discourages talk about "problems" and helps clients identify strengths
and resources to make positive changes in their lives.
The focus of most psychotherapy is on decreasing negative emotion. The
aim of Seligman's therapy is to increase positive emotion (positive
and negative emotions are not polar opposites and can co-exist: women
have more of both than men). From the time of Buddha to the
self-improvement industry of today, more than 100 "interventions" have
been tried in the attempt to build happiness. Forty of these are being
tested in randomised placebo-controlled trials by Seligman and his
In one internet study, two interventions increased happiness and
decreased depressive symptoms for at least six months. One exercise
involves writing down three things that went well and why, every day
for a week. The other is about identifying your signature strengths
and using one of them in a new and different way every day for a week.
A third technique involves writing a long letter to someone you're
grateful to but have never properly thanked, and visiting them to read
it out in person.
Seligman and his graduate students weep tears of joy when they do this
exercise, but most Brits would probably rather be miserable than do
it. So it's a relief to hear that it doesn't work particularly well.
It has strong, but only brief, effects.
Seligman speculates that doing more exercises for longer would bring
greater benefits. Hundreds of thousands of people have registered with
his website www.reflectivehappiness.com -- where, for $10 a month,
they are given a happiness programme including instruction in a
package of positive exercises.
Sylvia Perkins, a 73-year-old retired librarian from south Michigan
tried the "Savour a Beautiful Day" task. Her husband died of lung
cancer four years ago, and after a recent mild stroke she moved into
an assisted living community. "The move has been very difficult for me
and I've been trying to fight off the feeling that I've just come here
to die. When I heard about this exercise, I decided to give it a try,
because it seemed like a hopeful thing to do."
She spent her "beautiful" day going through photos and mementoes and
making scrapbooks for each of her children. She also wrote them
letters about her most precious memories of them and stuck them in the
albums. "This exercise helped me feel reconnected to my children. I
have felt more hopeful about my situation. I realise that my health
prognosis is really quite good and I am confident that I will have
many more years to share with my family."
Positive psychology has a schmaltzy American feel that might not
translate well into a British setting. Dr Nick Baylis of Cambridge
University is working with colleagues to "tweak" positive psychology
for "British ears". He calls his research the "study of wellbeing"
rather than the science of happiness. As a forensic psychologist, he
worked with young offenders at Feltham and decided that studying what
went wrong in damaged lives was not productive. "I had looked at
broken lives. Now I wanted to look at lives that go well."
He founded the charity Trailblazers to give young offenders positive
role models. In his Young Lives research project, he interviewed
hundreds of accomplished people from Kate Adie to Jamie Oliver about
their strategies for making the most of life. Their advice and ideas
can be found in www.YoungLivesUK.com and in the book Wonderful
When Baylis went to Cambridge as Britain's first lecturer in positive
psychology, he was treated as a "neo-Nazi", he says. The study of
happiness was a "taboo subject". He sent an e-mail to colleagues who
might have an interest in wellbeing, and received a reply from only
one, Professor Felicia Huppert. She studies the secrets of a happy,
productive old age, and theirs is now a fruitful collaboration. The
British approach to wellbeing also emphasises good physical health and
diet, proper sleep, relaxation and exercise, and spending time in the
Given its famously bad health and diet, Glasgow is a city in need of
positive medicine. It's become a live laboratory for the new science.
Last month, Professor Seligman paid his second visit to Glasgow's
Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, to spread the happiness gospel to
Scottish teachers, coaches and businessmen as part of the Vanguard
programme, backed by the Scottish Executive. The sceptical Scots seem
to welcome Seligman's empirical approach.
Dr Carol Craig, who runs the centre, is passionate about curing
Scotland's epidemic of pessimism and low self-esteem. She points to
many indicators of malaise: the Scottish suicide rate is double the
English one, and antidepressant prescribing is 40% higher. A new UN
report says that Scotland is the most violent country in the developed
world. Scottish children are among the least confident anywhere,
according to the World Health Organization.
Craig believes that the dark, forbidding nature of Calvinist religion
is responsible for the dour Scottish psyche. "We're a culture that
encourages feelings of lack of self-worth. We're a culture that goes
out of its way to make sure people don't feel good about themselves,"
From a young age, Scots are taught humility, modesty and conformity.
Scottish humour often pokes fun at those who "get above their
station". Craig speculates that the high rate of emigration from
Scotland has denuded the country of optimists and left too many
pessimists behind. Could any of this be linked to the fact that men in
one part of Glasgow, Shettleston, have a life expectancy of 64?
(Scottish men, on average, live to 73.) And that west Scotland is the
unhealthiest region in Europe, with high rates of heart disease,
cancer and strokes? Has anyone found a causal link between happiness
Nuns may hold the answer. Nuns make a great natural experiment,
because they lead the same routine lives with similar diets and
activities. None have married or had children. Yet there is huge
variation in their health and longevity. In 1932, 180 novices in
Milwaukee wrote short sketches of their lives. One wrote: "God started
my life off well by bestowing upon me grace of inestimable value. The
past year has been a very happy one." She lived to 98 in wonderful
Another wrote a joyless and neutral sketch, ending: "With God's grace,
I intend to do my best for our Order." She died after a stroke at the
age of 59. Researchers who quantified positive feeling in all 180
sketches discovered that nearly all (90%) of the happiest quarter were
still alive at 85. But of the least cheerful quarter, only a third
survived to that age.
Another piece of the jigsaw fitted this year when a team from
University College London tested the happiness levels of 216
middle-aged civil servants in a study of risk factors for coronary
heart disease. People who had the most happy moments per day had the
lowest rates of cortisol, a hormone that can be harmful if produced
excessively, and of the chemical plasma fibrinogen, a predictor of
heart disease. The happiest men (but not women) also had the lowest
Angela Clow, professor of psychophysiology at Westminster University,
is a world authority on the biochemistry of stress. "There is clear
evidence that stress makes you susceptible to illness, but I wanted to
turn this around and discover how happiness makes you healthier.
There's not a lot of happiness research in the UK, because if you do
it, people think you're trivial," says Clow.
In one experiment, she and colleagues blindfolded participants and
wafted smells of chocolate, water and rotten meat under their noses.
Then they measured levels of secretory IgA, an antibody that protects
the body against invading cells, in their saliva. Chocolate sent the
antibody levels soaring up; rotten meat brought them down. Clow found
that pleasant music also boosted the immune system, as did stimulating
the left side of the brain with magnetism.
Comparing patients in a day-surgery waiting room with music and art on
the walls against one with no music and plain white walls, Clow found
that the art and music patients had lower heart-rates, blood pressure
and cortisol, and needed less sedation before their surgery.
"But why should happiness have such an effect on the immune system?"
asks Clow. She speculates that there is an evolutionary mechanism. Our
happiest ancestors were bold creatures who socialised and ventured out
to explore. This brought them into contact with infection, so they
needed higher levels of antibodies in a stronger immune system.
But repeated stress weakens us. The stress response temporarily
increases the level of cortisol, a vital hormone that regulates the
whole immune system. This is a healthy response, designed to produce
fight or flight only in cases of real danger. Unfortunately, the daily
hassles of modern life induce repeated stress in some of us,
subjecting our bodies to frequent pulses of cortisol. This unbalances
the immune system and makes us ill.
Laughter and humour are also being studied for their effects on
health. Research methods include using a tickle machine, and probing
with electrodes to find the funny parts of the brain. Laughter, like
stress, increases blood pressure and heart rate and changes breathing.
But unlike stress, it reduces levels of chemicals circulating in the
body. In one study, people's cortisol and adrenaline were reduced
after watching a favourite comedy video for 60 minutes.
It's difficult to resist the logic of the happiness doctors. Stay in
your Eeyore-ish bubble of existentialist angst and have a life that's
short, sickly, friendless and self-obsessed. Or find a way to get
happy, and long life, good health, job satisfaction and social success
will be yours. You'd better start writing that gratitude letter now.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
Men often complain about their wives' volatility. Now research
confirms that women really are both happier and sadder. Positive and
negative emotions are not polar opposites -- you can have both in your
life. Women experience more of all emotions except anger. First it was
found that women experience twice as much depression as men. Next,
researchers found that women report more positive emotion than men,
more frequently and more intensely. It all points to men and women
having a different emotional make-up. Cognitive psychologists say that
men and women have different skills related to sending and receiving
emotion. Women are expressive; men conceal or control their emotions.
Women convey emotion through facial expression and communication; men
express emotion through aggressive or distracting behaviour. Does the
difference lie in biology, social roles or just women's willingness to
report emotion? That's up for debate.
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