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Happiness on the Brain: The Neuroscience of Happiness, Part 1

Kevin Corcoran


What can the Ancient Greeks teach us about happiness?

Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College
October 21, 2015

The last fifteen to twenty years have witnessed a lot of talk about “neuroplasticity”—the idea that we can “rewire” our brains. The very idea has spawned a new kind of industry, the “neuro-industry.” From neuroeconomics, neurocriticism, and neurotheology, to neuromagic and neuromarketing, “neuro” sells books and seminars. But the way that findings in contemporary neuroscience are routinely applied to issues for which they were never meant to serve leads some to refer to the whole “neuro-this-that-and-the-other-thing” as nothing more than “neurobollocks.” What about the neuroscience of happiness?

Neuroplasticity and Human Happiness

Despite the obvious misuses or overuses of neuroscience, it remains true that we can in fact rewire our brains. Moreover, there are ways the neuroplasticity of our brains can serve to increase our level of happiness. To see how this is so, first we need to develop a clear understanding of what happiness is. That’s what I’ll do in this first post. Then, in a second post, we’ll look at more specific ways that neuroscience can help us.

Our Collective Unhappiness (Are We Getting Tired of the Pursuit?)

A quick search on Amazon recently turned up over 24,000 books on happiness. 24,000!!!! There’s no doubt about it—all of us want to be happy. We anxiously seek out the seven or seventeen habits, strategies, secrets, or steps to happiness. And yet, according to data provided by the CDC, since 1988 the use of antidepressants has risen 400% in the United States (CDC: “NCHS Data Brief, No. 76,” October 2011). Apparently, our insatiable consumption of books, seminars, and twelve-minute TED talks on happiness isn’t making us very happy. It seems the more we desire happiness, pursue it, and consume products we hope will help us to achieve it, the less happy and more depressed we become.

[Read psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty’s thoughts on “Depression, Dark Nights, and the Virtue of Hope”]

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Happiness and Eudaimonia (Human Flourishing)

The ancient Greeks talked a lot about eudaimonia or human flourishing. Their view was teleological (or, end-directed) in the sense that they claimed that human flourishing involves the full realization or fulfillment of our peculiarly human nature and capacities. The basic idea behind such views is that we flourish when we live the kind of life creatures like us are meant to live, and that kind of life is determined by our nature. Thus, it is not “up to us” what constitutes human flourishing since it is not “up to us” what our nature is.

Ancient Greek Eudaimonia vs. American Psychological Happiness: Differences

The word “eudaimonia” is usually translated “happiness” in English. But there are important differences between our English concept of “happiness” and the Greek concept of eudaimonia.

First and foremost, happiness, at least as we English speakers use the term, is a thoroughly subjective phenomenon whereas eudaimonia is objective. Like headaches and other occurrent mental states (i.e., mental states you’re consciously aware of), you’re the leading expert on whether or not you’re happy.

If you claim that your head is hurting, I can’t reasonably say, “No. Actually, you’re mistaken about that.” Similarly, if I ask you how you’re feeling and you say “I’m feeling especially happy right now,” and you’re being honest, I can’t reasonably correct you by saying “No. I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Actually, you’re feeling quite miserable.”

Now as the Greeks would have it, whether or not you are eudaimon is not only something about which you could be mistaken, it’s also something that only a morally fit person who’s been able to consider your entire life can attribute to you. To say that someone is eudaimon is to make a moral or value judgment about the entirety of their life. It is to say that they have lived the kind of life a creature with a nature like theirs (i.e., a rational, moral nature) is meant to live.

Happiness, on the other hand, is nothing more, but also nothing less, than a description either of a psychological state someone is in or, in its most abiding form, a specific sort of psychological trait or disposition someone possesses. No different in this regard from describing someone as depressed or hungry or gregarious. It is completely void of any kind of assessment of value or moral judgment. This suggests another important difference between happiness and eudaimonia.

Happiness, at least in two of its everyday uses, can be possessed and enjoyed for different lengths of time. One might be happy for a few minutes, a few hours or a few days, months or years and then, sadly, not. Eudaimon can really only be attributed to someone after they have lived. In order to tell if I truly have it, you’ve got to consider my entire life, and, after my life, you’ve got to consider what might be called my “legacy.” Only then can my life be appropriately judged in terms of its eudaimon.

Keeping the above distinctions in mind, we can say that eudaimonia involves a human being realizing her peculiarly human nature and doing so well or excellently over a complete life. If you morally cruise though your twenties and thirties but then dissipate yourself in an orgiastic, drunken frenzy after the birth of your first child, you don’t have and never did have eudaimonia. But you may have experienced short-lived episodes of intense happiness.

The Components of Happiness: Pleasure, Satisfaction, and Emotion

There are three essential components to happiness, as I see it: a pleasure component, a satisfaction component, and an emotional component.

1. Happiness Includes Pleasure

Nearly everyone, for example, would report feeling happy after engaging in certain sorts of embodied experience, the sort that he or she finds pleasurable. A surplus of pleasurable experiences, and the relative absence of unpleasant or painful experiences, as judged by the subject, accounts for one aspect of happiness.

2. Happiness Includes Satisfaction

Of course, there’s a difference enshrined in everyday usage between feeling happy and being happy. Feeling happy—intoxicated with joy, ecstatic, or blissful—seems to be most closely associated with pleasant experiences of one kind or another, whereas being happy is a less ephemeral psychological state than feeling happy. People who judge their lives as a whole as “going well” are likely to report being happy with their lives overall. This is what is meant by the satisfaction component of happiness.

3. Happiness Includes Emotion

Finally, there is the emotional component to happiness. This I believe resides at the very heart of human happiness. By emotional I mean to distinguish this component both from the life satisfaction feature of being happy with one’s life as a whole and from the occurrent mental state of feeling happy, which is itself a psychological state.

Although it too is a psychological feature, the emotional component of happiness, is much more stable, more like a character trait or enduring disposition than an episodic psychological state. What I am calling the emotional component of happiness is so deeply ingrained in those who enjoy it, that it tilts or leans them in positive emotional directions. It’s their emotional default setting, you might say.

Dispositional happiness is a primary way of being in the world, a fundamental orientation or posture to the world and to life. It is characterized by openness, wakefulness, affirmation and receptivity to the world. Dispositionally happy people embrace and savor life, they welcome new experiences, are imaginative, exuberant, resilient, optimistic, or hopeful—and unlikely to have their positive emotional setting permanently altered by life’s unavoidable setbacks and disappointments.

With these thoughts on happiness in mind, there are certain lessons we can learn from neuroscience, that provide practical steps for becoming happier people. I’ll suggest a few of these ways in my next post.

More on Happiness, Eudaimonia, and the Good Life

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