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How to Be Happy: An Interview with Kevin Corcoran

Neuroscientist Kevin Corcoran shares a scientific perspective on what it means to be happy.

Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College
November 20, 2012

Everyone has their own perspective on what it means to be happy, but this isn’t a modern phenomenon. The question of how to live a happy life has occupied the work of some of history’s greatest thinkers, from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant. In today’s world, we’re in a position to evaluate the question from new angles, including neuroscience and psychology. For that, we turn to neuroscientist Kevin Corcoran, whose recent work has included an argument for a materialist alternative to the soul. The Center for Christian Thought sat down with Kevin to talk about human flourishing and being happy.

Evan Rosa (ER): Much of your work has related to the science of being happy. What are you thinking of when you use the word ‘happiness’? How does being happy relate to having a good life?

Kevin Corcoran (KC): It’s a great question because the two are different. Frequently, they’re confused or conflated.  I was recently reviewing a book called “Pursuing the Good Life.” But interestingly, the book is called Pursuing the Good Life, but there is nothing about the good life anywhere in the book.

The good life is never defined. It seems that the author, in my opinion, confuses positive emotions and happiness with the good life. It’s a really good question. I think maybe the way to get at this, that happiness and the good life are different, is to just consider this: happiness, at least it seems to me anyway, is, and I think the way most of us think about it, it is subjective.

You’re the expert on your own happiness. You can’t be mistaken about your being happy. It’s like having a headache or being in pain. I can’t correct you. If you tell me that you have a headache, I can’t say, “Oh, sorry. Evan, actually you know what, you’re mistaken about that. You don’t have a headache. You’re feeling great.” Happiness is a subjective phenomenon. The good life or human flourishing, we get the idea from the Greeks and their concept of “eudaimonia.” Eudaimonia, or human flourishing, or the good life is objective. You could be mistaken about this. Whether you’re flourishing or not, at least the way they were thinking about it, can only be properly attributed to you by a morally fit person who has been able to consider your whole life.

Whether you’re flourishing or not has to do with whether you are living the kind of life a creature with a nature like yours is meant to live. The Greeks were thinking of a rational, moral nature. That’s the kind of nature you have.

But that’s an objective thing, and happiness is a subjective thing, a thoroughly subjective thing. Happiness, it seems to me, is a description of either a psychological state somebody is in, or a specific king of psychological trait or disposition that somebody possesses.

But to say that someone is happy is really not assessing any moral value or judgment. You’re just describing their psychological state. It’s like saying, “Evan’s really gregarious,” or, “Evan is depressed,” or whatever.

But eudaimonia is a value judgment: whether someone is living a good life or not. It has everything to do with whether one is realizing one’s nature. That’s an objective thing. Our nature is not up to us.

ER: Would it be safe to say then that eudaimonia, as the Greeks understood it, is a publicly available thing, whereas happiness is only privately available?

KC: Certainly, you’re the private authority about it. Whether you’re happy or not certainly has third person observable markers, or observable behaviors associated with it. But it’s largely private. You can’t be mistaken about it. You are the expert on your own happiness.

But you may not be the expert on your own flourishing. You could be mistaken. You could think that you’re flourishing as a human being and not, but you can’t be mistaken about your feeling really happy right now.

ER: We’ve made a distinction between happiness and flourishing. What does happiness have to do with flourishing? Could you have a good life if you weren’t happy? 

KC: Someone could be happy without living the good life. Could someone live the good life without being happy? It would seem so, although I think we’d probably have to be careful. it seems to me that happiness has at least three different components, and it would seem to me, at any rate, that living the good life can’t be completely void of every facet, probably, of happiness, of all three components.

But it seems like one could live the kind of life a creature like them is meant to live. Now, I’m a Christian, so I think the kind of life creatures like us are meant to live is a life of other-regarding love, and to be embedded in deep, meaningful relationships of reciprocated love and joy and service.

It seems to me if you were living that kind of life, some aspects of happiness are pretty environmentally sensitive or circumstantial. It seems to me you could live the good life and not have some features of happiness, but, it doesn’t seem to me that you could live the good life or the kind of life a creature like you is meant to live and have absolutely none of the features, or none of the characteristics associated with happiness.

If you’re flourishing as a human being, happy people have deep, meaningful relationships. It seems to me if you’re living the kind of life a creature like you was meant to live, you will have deep meaningful relationships because it’s part of your nature.

Evan: Let’s move on to begin addressing the claim that happiness has something to do with our bodies, and insofar it has something to do with bodies, it also has something to do with brains.

It turns out that happiness has everything to do with our bodies, especially our brains. Maybe this might be a good place to introduce what at least I think are the three components to happiness. There’s a pleasure component to happiness, there is a satisfaction component to happiness, and there is an emotional component to happiness.

I can say more about those in a second but the point here would be that all three of these components are inextricably bound up with what goes on inside our brains. Some people have an intuition that happiness is kind of: “if my circumstances were different I’d be happy, but if you were in the circumstances I’m in, you wouldn’t be happy either.”

It turns out that happiness probably does have something to do with circumstances, but you can actually adjust your happiness set point, you can engage in practices that embody practices that will make changes in your brain, that will produce more happiness in your life.

ER: What are some of those practices?

KC: The pleasure component to happiness is exactly what you would expect. This would be pleasurable experiences, after you’ve had a pleasurable experience you feel pretty good.

The pleasure component of happiness is that aspect of happiness having everything to do with, you might say, intoxicating sorts of sensual experiences, blissful, ecstatic experiences. You go to a concert that you love, you feel great. You watch USC, maybe, beat Notre Dame this weekend, you feel awesome if you’re a USC fan. Relational experiences that you have that feeling that’s being flattered with bliss, is the pleasure component to happiness.

ER: And these pleasures are embodied pleasures, right? Ones that we physically feel? 

KC:  Yes, absolutely. We know, for example, that when you’re feeling that, if we could hook you up to an fMRI machine or we could measure your brain, we could peer inside, what we would see in all of those cases is in certain regions of your brain, the hormone dopamine is just flooding your brain.

That’s when you feel ecstatic like that, there is a flood of dopamine spread out in your brain. Maybe more concentrated in certain areas of your brain. You can control this, you can obviously voluntarily control that feeling. You can put yourself in situations where you do have pleasurable experiences and you feel happy.

 If it’s not the least interesting component of happiness, it’s without question the least long lasting component of happiness.

It’s very fleeting; you have that feeling for a certain amount of time and then it’s gone. A more stable but not yet the most stable component to happiness is satisfaction.

Happiness means you’re living the kind of life a creature like you was meant to live

ER: What is satisfaction?

KC: Satisfaction is when you survey your life as a whole (your life as a whole at least as an adult might have to do with your relationships, your job, your finances, your leisure time, your hobbies). If you judge that in most of the areas that make your life meaningful, things are going well, you will report on satisfaction surveys that you’re satisfied with your life as a whole. You might invest different value in those different areas.

It gets a little complicated because you might put a premium on relationships or on your marriage, and if things aren’t well in your marriage, you might report, even though most of the other areas are great, you’re getting strokes at work, you’re getting rewards, you’re getting promotions, etc,–you might still report on that survey that you’re not satisfied with your life overall.

It does get complicated, but that’s the basic idea that you’re satisfied with most of the areas of your life that you deemed important and meaningful. The most stable component of happiness, and this is the emotional component, and I think this is the most important component.

Quite honestly, some of us have it and some of us don’t. Again, it’s more like a character trait or what I would say as an enduring disposition. .

ER: Can you say something about what a disposition is?

KC: The pleasure component of happiness is very episodic. You can have it for smaller lengths of time or longer lengths of time. A disposition has more to do with what I would think of as your fundamental orientation to the world. It’s not quite a personality trait, it’s more of a person you are, and how you’re aimed at life, and it’s deeply, deeply ingrained.

I talked about dispositional happiness, and it’s this deeply embedded or deeply ingrained component. I like to say it tilts or leans those people who have it in positive emotional directions. It’s their emotional default setting. It is their primary or fundamental way of being in the world.

Some people are negative. That’s just their default setting. They see the glass as half empty and then you have people who see the glass as half full. Here’s what it looks like. People who are dispositionally happy are characterized, I think, by an openness to the world. They’re wakeful, and alive, and they take the world in.

They affirm it. They’re receptive. They savor life. They’re hopeful or optimistic. They’re exuberant. They’re resilient. It’s not that they never experienced bad things. It’s not that they never have negative experiences, they do. The difference between them and the rest of us is they bounce back pretty quickly.

Not unhealthily quickly; you can bounce back too quickly. There’s a rule in positive psychology called, the five to one rule. That is, in healthy relationships there are five positive experiences for every negative experience or interaction.” The idea is that, one negative exchange with your partner can throw you completely off course. It takes a lot longer to rebound from a negative experience than it does from a positive experience. You go back to the way you were…positive experiences don’t last long. They don’t have this lasting power. Negative experiences unfortunately, sometimes for most of us takes us a long time to get over them. That’s why they say, five positive experiences for every negative experience.

The idea is that, these people who are dispositionally happy, when they encounter a negative experience, and they do, they’re not permanently thrown off. They don’t get into a tailspin. Despite the disappointments that happened to them, they’re not permanently altered in a negative way.

Those I think are the three basic components of happiness; pleasure, satisfaction, and this emotional disposition.

ER: Let’s transition a bit then to making the connection between pleasure, and satisfaction, and emotion, and the human brain. Where is that connection? What does neuroscience have to do with pleasure, and satisfaction, and the emotional elements of being happy or having a good life?

KC: In my view, this is the most interesting stuff. I came into this by way of philosophy of mind. I teach a course here called, Minds, Brains and Persons. It’s basically, a philosophy of mind course. It was in teaching this course, and learning more and more about the brain, and how the brain functions, that I got pulled in to its relation into happiness.

ER: Is this an extension of neuroethics to you then? Or is this an applied science?

KC: Yeah, I think it is an applied science. We are learning more and more about how the brain works, and we’re learning more and more how our conscious lives are co related with the goings on between our ears. We’re making lots of progress. This is just one special application of that knowledge and it can be helpful. It can be enormously helpful to people.

I think the best way to think about this and to see the connection is to consider what’s called, phantom limb phenomenon. There are people who are missing limbs, an arm, or a leg, or whatever, but a lot of these folks will still report having feelings in their missing limb.

They might have a terrible pain. They might feel their right fist is clenched, like it’s cramped, and they can’t get the cramp to go away. Of course, they have no hand. They have no cramp in their hand. There is no clenched fist. This is common among amputees and such. There’s this interesting case of this guy who had a motorcycle accident, I think it was. As a result, he lost his right arm. When he shaved the left side of his face (because of course the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body), he felt a tickle or something going in his right hand, or lower arm, or whatever. He’s thinking, “Now, what the heck is going on there?” Here’s what we know. We have a pretty good idea of how this is happening, because we know how the brain works.

Inside our brains, there’s a cortical strip. Along this strip is basically a map of our body. Now obviously if you open it up and look at that cortical strip, you don’t have a little picture of a body.

What’s interesting is that on this map, the part that is the face is right next to the right arm.

What we think is going on is that, that part of the brain that used to get stimulation from the right arm, it’s not getting any stimulation, but it’s hungry for stimulation. What we think is that the nerve endings in that brain are overreaching, because they want to get some stimulation.

That’s why when the guy shaves his left side of his face, his right arm itches. In a brain scan, you can actually see the growth of the area that has now lighting up, so that when he shaves the left side of his face, he feels it in his missing right hand.

What this shows us is that, we used to think that our brains were basically wired and set after some part in early childhood development.This is totally not the case. Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves. The way that the wiring goes is, if you use it, it’s use it or lose it. An example like the phantom limb shows us that our brains can be re wired. Parts of our brains that used to be dedicated to a certain activity or behavior can take over a new task.

ER: That’s why it is referred to you by the term, neuroplasticity. Is that right?

KC: Exactly, that our brains are plastic. Now, if you read a lot of popular books about this, I don’t think it’s always very responsible. Our brains are plastic, but within limits. It’s not anything goes and you can completely rewire your brain. If you’re me, you can become an Einstein or something. It’s not going to happen.

Now, let’s connect it up to happiness and how our brains and happiness are related. I’ve already talked about dopamine that floods your brain when you’re having a pleasant experience. There is this part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, and it’s sensitive to pleasure.

There’s a lot of activity in that area of the brain. There’s a lot of activity in the prefrontal cortex actually, in part of the prefrontal cortex. Here’s the thing: dispositionally happy people, as I said, they’re hopeful. They’re pretty optimistic people. Optimism is connected, we know, with high activity in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex.

There’s connections between the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning, and executive functions, and making plans, and so on. People who have a negative outlook on life, they’re not optimistic, they’re not hopeful, there’s low activity in the nucleus accumbens, and low activity in the relevant part of the prefrontal cortex.

Dispositionally happy people, I said that they have this tendency or this disposition to savor life. They’re able to prolong the positive experience. They’re able to savor more than the rest of us. They can sustain pleasure or positive feelings. Here’s the thing, we can do things, we can engage in mental activities that have the exact same effect neurally as if we were engaging in actually in body activities.

The brain’s in body, so when you’re meditating, it’s not like it’s not an embodied experience. It’s a thoroughly embodied experience. But what I mean is that you can bring about in your brain by just meditating, or reflecting, or thinking about running as you could by actually running.

ER: When you’re remembering something, say a time when you ran, the same part of your brain is operative as when you actually are running. Is that correct?

KC: Exactly. We’ve got lab experiments that show this. Remarkable ones, ones that make you scratch your head like just like, “That’s unbelievable that that’s happening.” Here’s how this is relevant. If you’re like a Dour Danny, you’re probably not going to be able to rewire your brain to the place where you are just happy as a lark.

But you can move closer to that positive end of the affective view, closer to the dispositionally happy person. For example, we’ve got studies that show it. Dispositionally happy people, in addition to all the characteristics that I’ve already talked about, they’re grateful. They feel a deep sense of gratitude.

It’s unbelievable. When you are thankful, there’s activity in your nucleus accumbens and other areas and your prefrontal cortex. The thing is that you can do things to strengthen the connection between those two areas by do mental exercises and other sorts of exercises that literally build up and strengthen the connections between parts of the brain.

ER: Is that a form of conditioning?

KC: Absolutely, yeah. This should sound to us Christians really familiar, because it should sound like discipleship. You apprentice yourself to someone, or at least this is how we used to do it. You apprentice yourself to a saint or someone who manifests the particular virtues of a Christian and Christlikeness that you want, and you practice.

You engage in those embodied practices and liturgies that you are going to become a certain kind of person. Of course, you’re also going to be rewiring your brain whether people are thinking about it or not. If you practice gratitude, maybe you’re not dispositionally a very grateful person. Some people, they’re just not, but you can practice it.

It might not feel natural for a while, just like the first time you go into the gym. If you haven’t been into the gym for five years, it’s not going to a pleasant experience those first three weeks, or four weeks, or five weeks. You’re not going to like it very much, and it’s not going to feel so good. Well, same thing here.

But if you actually practice gratitude, you make it a spiritual discipline and you keep track, “This week, I am going to express thankfulness to people five times this week. That’s what I’m going to do. I am going to consciously savor positive experiences five times this week.”

By doing this, you’re building up the connections in those relevant parts of the brain and you will move farther. Your set point, your happiness set point, is going to move. Now, you’re not going to off the charts, probably, in the positive direction, but you are going to move it. The relationship between the body and the brain and happiness, it’s just a lot tighter than you might intuitively think.

That’s just one example. Another example would be people who are dispositionally happy. They’re able to delay gratification. They can want things but they can think, “You know what, maybe not a great idea right now. I should do this, and I should do, and I should do this. The reward can wait.” That’s a lot of prefrontal cortex activity involved in that. You can actually practice.

Suppose that you have a shopping problem, you buy too much stuff. Well, you can say, “You know what, I’m going to go to the mall and I’m going to walk around. I’m not going to buy one thing. I’m going to do that three times this week.” When you are doing that, you are literally changing the wiring of your brain.

ER: This is an interesting application here. You’ve already mentioned the virtues, but it’s interesting how this application of neuroscience to happiness seems to explain a lot of what we know about habit formation and moral formation that, for instance, Aristotle and the whole virtue ethical tradition says about what it is to be a virtuous person. It’s a fascinating understanding of habit formation from the perspective of what’s going in our brains.

KC: Absolutely. Of course, Aristotle and those guys were thinking of virtues as dispositions. Dispositional happiness is  like a non moral virtue because it really is a disposition. It can be cultivated, but it just is a fact that some of us are hardwired in this way.

ER: Just what is it to have a good life then? With these lessons from neuroscience about practices that we can engage in to become more happy, how should we think about having a good life?

KC: As I mentioned earlier, I’m a Christian, so I agree that the good life is living the kind of life creatures like us are meant to live. It’s just that I think that the kind of life creatures like us are meant to live isn’t exactly what Aristotle and Plato thought. It has to do with the fact that we’re relational beings.

We’re created for community, we’re created to live outside our own skin. We’re created to invest ourselves in the well being of other people and in other living things that aren’t human and in the world. That’s what we’re created for, and of course, to be rightly related to God. That’s the good life.

If you want to know what a good life looks like, I guess you look at the life of Christ. That’s what a good human life is to look like. Everything that I said about happiness, dispositional happiness can be applied here. There are concrete practices, we in the Christian tradition or at least some traditions of Christianity call them liturgies. They are liturgical practices. Liturgical practices don’t have to happen in a church, there are probably secular liturgies. In fact…

if you think about them in terms of concrete practices that are character forming, we engage in these sorts of practices all the time. We’re going to engage, and most of us have been engaging in one of these secular practices for a long time.

We’ll do it tomorrow and there’s another one, sadly, that we’ll participate in in the days leading up to Christmas.There are secular liturgies that we don’t even think about them. Here’s the thing, they shape us, they make us into certain kinds of people.

They shape our desires and our love and so on. We need to be counter commodity culture and engage in distinctively Christian practices, and especially, I think, practices of other-regarding love and service. Most of us, sadly, live within our own skin way too much. Also, interestingly, the research shows us that people who are self absorbed are pretty unhappy people. 

I think the good life looks like the life of Christ. Now, I suppose you could have an alternative view of what human nature is that’s not Christian, and say really interesting things about it. Aristotle did and other people have. Earlier, I mentioned t the book “Pursuing the Good Life,” which says absolutely nothing about the good life. I’m actually teaching a seminar this semester on called, “The Embodiment of Happiness.”

One of the books we’re reading is a new book and it’s called “The Happiness of Pursuit:What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.” There’s nothing in there about the good life. The good life just means happiness. But if I could say something really quick about how you could live a happy life without living a good life, and how in all of these pop psychology books about the good life, there’s something missing.

You could have someone who has lots of positive experiences, lots of pleasurable experiences, who has lots of relationships that they would describe as deep and meaningful. Who, on satisfaction surveys, would report that they’re happy with their life overall. You could have someone like that who, nevertheless, is a child pornographer, child trafficker, runs a prostitution ring, but reports being happy as can be.

Now when that person’s parents, when they were small, when that person was small, and their parents wanted them to be happy when they grew up. Now, that person says, “I’m happy. I look at my life. I’m happy with the way everything is going. I’ve got lots of good great relationships, da, da, da,” probably, their parents are going to think, “That’s not what I meant.” That something has gone wrong here. It’s a stolen happiness that they have.

Now, I think that that shows us that the good life, I think that’s probably what the parents meant. What our parents meant and what we mean for our children when we want them to grow up and be happy is we want them to grow up and live the kind of life we believe a creature like them is meant to live. Not just that they would grow up and have lots of pleasant experiences or be satisfied, genuinely happy.

We mean that they live a certain kind of life, that they embody a certain kind of life. I think that all of the pop psychology books that talk about pursuing the good life and all of that, what they articulate is a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about with respect to happiness.

You can have that and you can be a moral scoundrel. It seems pretty clear that most of us would want to say, “Uh, all right, this isn’t really what I mean by the good life. There’s got to be something more to the good life than happiness.”