Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Neurological Blueprint for Happiness

What's happiness for?

For over a decade now, one of the central themes of positive psychology has been the nature of happiness. At first blush it can seem trivial to focus on frivolous emotions. What is the value of happiness?

It may be that good feelings are a worthwhile end goal in themselves. But there are also practical and pragmatic reasons to boost happiness. Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” model of positive emotion suggests that when we are happier we are better problem solvers. We do better thinking when we’re happy. Which leads to better decisions. And better outcomes increase our future happiness. Which leads to better problem solving. And so on.

But what is happiness, really? You can’t show me a cubic yard of it, and I can’t point to it on an MRI of the brain. Sure, it’s a feeling, but what – exactly – does it feel like?

What does dopamine feel like?

Various neurotransmitters are involved in the brain-based phenomena behind “feelings.” Dopamine is one of these. Increasingly, we are coming to understand that dopamine is the neurotransmitter not only of reward but also of motivation. And the phenomenology – the felt experience - of motivation is person - specific. Your feelings of engagement, "flow," and passion are unique to your history, your body, and your neurology.

Typically, if we ask what someone why they persisted with a difficult task, they will identify an end-goal. They wanted the extra money, for example, so they worked an extra shift. Or they wanted to see their partner's expression of delight after they had spent a Saturday morning waxing her car. But behind that in the goal is, in fact, the actual reason that any of us do anything: a feeling, or state.

Nobody wants a hunk of red metal

Nobody wants a red sports car, really. If someone is passionate, driven, or "crazy" about having a particular car, it's because he or she wants what they think they'll feel when they get that car, when they are driving it, or when a specific person or type of person sees them in that car. Some type of feeling state is the actual goal.

No one wants to spend a week on a mound of sand dotted by palm trees. They want what they think they will feel on a Caribbean vacation.

And nobody wants to wrap a measuring tape around his or her waist and come up with a particular number. Rather, we want what we think we will feel in our bodies when we are svelte, healthy, lean, or athletic.

Three of us had a great experience at the Grand Canyon

Imagine that three of us are chatting in the elevator, and one of us brings up the topic of a fantastic experience he had at the Grand Canyon.

It turns out the all three of us have visited the Canyon and, for that reason, we feel that we can say "I know exactly what you mean, I know exactly the experience you had at the Grand Canyon." In fact, we have absolutely no idea what any other person experienced at the Grand Canyon. We don't know what was so great about that, for that person. What made it a reward or motivating or "good."

For one of us, the really great part of the Grand Canyon was the IMAX film at the visitors center several miles south of the canyon itself.

For the second person, the best part of a trip to the Grand Canyon was reconnecting with a romantic partner after a protracted dry dull period in the relationship. In fact, the couple spent so much of the vacation "reconnecting" at the national park lodge that they actually forgot to take a look at the canyon itself.

For the third person in our conversation, the really special feature of her trip to the Grand Canyon was approaching the edge of the canyon and taking in the view for the first time. This experience happened at just the right time for her because some philosophical or spiritual questions had begun to emerge. And something about looking at the vastness of that space seemed to answer some of those essential questions .

For all of us, there was pleasure in our trips to the Grand Canyon. And you could imagine that a similar future trip would be "motivating" for each of us. But the nature of that motivation would be as different as each of our histories, bodies, and neurology.

What’s the one thing you need to do now?

The thing you know you should do but have been putting off. It's that thing you would do if only you had the resources -- the time and money and support. Or it's the commitment our obligation he would take on if you could just find the courage.

When you think about this one important thing, what's the end-goal? How will you feel when you’ve done that?

Beyond rat pellets

When we talk about motivation here, were talking about the common theme of reward or reinforcement. And the types of reinforcers that adults, teenagers, and even children are able to appreciate can be subtle and nuanced.

We are not, then, speaking only of pellets of rat food, or "good job" stickers, or bland verbal praise. We're speaking specifically to that which makes life juicy for you, and for me.

For some of us, there is real reward in being number one, the top of the class. For others, there is real satisfaction in surveying the social landscape and seeing a level playing field, feeling that everyone is equal here.

Motivation can "feel like" comfort, predictability, and sameness for some people. While for others, the feeling-in-the-body of motivation is one of adventure, "wind in my hair," living on the edge.

Behavior modification is hard work

None of this is easy. Whether it is our own behavior, or the behavior of students and clients and loved ones, that we seek to change, this is hard and courageous work.

Our hero in this regard is Odysseus. Knowing in advance what he wanted for himself, and knowing what would be his temptations, he lashed himself to the mast of a ship, so that he would not be tempted by the call of the sirens. It is as though Odysseus were protecting himself from Odysseus.

Likewise, knowing that I'm sluggish and uninspired in the morning, I might place my gym bag near the front door, to protect me from myself. And knowing that what you really want for yourself is a lean and healthy body, you might choose to keep your pantry free of junk food. To protect yourself from yourself.

Lend me your brain

Finally, if you parent or teach or coach young people, you will frequently be in a position to protect them from themselves. The best of that protection is in advance, like Odysseus.

We are, temporarily, the guardians of young people who are not yet cognitively and emotionally capable of making these types of choices. Essentially, we "lend them our brains" until they emerge into neurological, cognitive, and social maturity and begin to take on the Odyssean task themselves.

photo: New Mexico

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I really like how well you described this. :)