Can science make us happy?

Future Tense for Jun. 25, 2007

By Steve Welker

What makes you happy?

Science would like to know.

Seriously, if someone could figure out a way to put happiness in a pill or patch — a painful injection seems contrary to my idea of happiness — they could sell it and become richer than Bill Gates. Look at how many people already buy drugs both legal and illegal in a futile pursuit of happiness? A happiness drug might be generate more money that alcohol and tobacco combined.

But so far, in its pursuit of happiness, science has come up sadder, but wiser.

To begin with, it’s hard to define happiness. If scientists don’t know what happiness is, they will have a hard time recognizing something that causes it. Some research studies have focused on neurotransmitter chemicals such as dopamine, but flooding the brain with dopamine causes feelings of pleasure, which is not the same thing as happiness. A heroin addict may feel pleasure after shooting up, but at the same time be sad about his addiction and its costs.

Happiness seems to be strongly situational — that is, related to one's circumstances — and it has at least two psychological aspects: positive emotions and positive activities.

Martin Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness.” says positive emotions include past feelings of satisfaction, contentment, pride and serenity; present experiences such as enjoying the taste or smell of food, listening to music, being absorbed in reading and enjoying the company of people you like; and future-directed senses of optimism, hope, trust, faith and confidence.

He sorts positive emotions into bodily pleasures, such as tastes and smells; higher pleasures, such as the mental associations while listening to music; and gratifications, such as feelings of accomplishment.

So now that we’ve got some common lingo, let’s consider some real-life happiness.

My oldest son came down off the mountain Saturday. He’s teaching Scouts at Raven Knob this summer. Even when I don’t see him for days on end, my pride in his accomplishments gives me happiness.

When he came home for the weekend, I couldn’t help feeling happy. He was tanned, leaner and so brimming with energy that the sight instantly made me smile. Plus, he was happy, and his emotion was contagious.

Before he went back to Raven Knob, I finished reading a book I really enjoyed. I got a pleasurable sense of gratification from completing it, though I also felt a tinge of regret that there’s not more of it. Just at that moment, my son walked in, looked at the book and said, “You’re reading ‘Electric Universe’? I’ve got it downstairs.”

This gave me another shot of happiness — a combination of my pleasure from reading the book, gratification from finding someone who shares my tastes and interests, anticipation about the pleasure he will get from reading it and the enjoyment we’ll both get from talking about the subject in the future. Oh, I also felt some pleasurable relief that I won’t have to buy the book (mine came from the library), because I can reread his copy.

They don’t make pill capsules big enough to hold the happiness I felt at that moment.

Several science-fiction writers have speculated about the possibility of hard-wiring humans’ heads to a computer or other electronic stimulator that would trip the triggers of happiness in their brains. One problem is that the same situation affects people’s sense of happiness in different ways.

Friday before last, my 18-year-old “middle” son and I joined the North 400 tour in Mount Airy. Fourteen businesses on North Main banded together to market and promote themselves. They premiered their effort with a walking tour led by Mayor Jack Loftis.

I had a great time. I felt happy being there, and the feeling of happiness carried over through my whole day. Heck, the memory makes me happy while I’m writing this. I re-established connections with old friends and made new acquaintances, shared the merchants’ pride in what they’re trying to do, looked forward optimistically to what this may mean for the city and also indulged in some sweet treats (Roselli’s raspberry and chocolate confection released every ounce of dopamine in my brain and I’ve never tasted a better balance of sweetness and coconut than in their German chocolate cake’s icing).

My son had a distinctly cooler reaction, and it troubled him. For one thing, he wondered why he wasn’t as happy as me or, for that matter, happy at all. Talking about it later, we concluded the difference was in our expectations. He expected the tour to be a big deal; I was more than satisfied — happy, in fact — to see a small, but sincere effort to improve the world.

There is a scientific magazine devoted to studies of “positive psychology” — titled, appropriately, Journal of Happiness Studies. Its June 2006 issue includes a research study about the differences in happiness between young people and old.

The University of Michigan researchers found both groups believe young people are happier than older ones, when other research has shown the opposite. Both older and younger adults also tend to equate old age with unhappiness, although the older ones often say that’s not true about themselves personally. And finally, many older adults think they were happier “back then,” when younger, but if questioned more closely it becomes apparent that older citizens are happier now.

How to explain this?

“People often believe that happiness is a matter of circumstance, that if something good happens, they will experience long-lasting happiness, or if something bad happens, they will experience long-term misery,” says the study’s lead author, Peter Ubel. “But instead, people’s happiness results more from their underlying emotional resources — resources that appear to grow with age. People get better at managing life’s ups and downs, and the result is that as they age, they become happier — even though their objective circumstances, such as their health, decline.”

Coincidentally, I’m having a birthday in few days — one more milestone on the way to getting old. (“Old” in my personal dictionary is a moving target, usually defined as 20 years above than my current age.) Will it be a “happy” birthday?

If you could see the smile on my face, you know what I’m expecting ... in the future.

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