Saturday, October 15, 2005

Don't Worry. Be Happy.

"Happiness is not having what you want. It's wanting what you have."

That's the old saw. And now it's proven. Sort of.

Esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman has spearheaded an effort to study the science of happiness. The bad news is that we're not wired to be happy. The good news is that we can do something about it.

Dorothy Wade writes: "By trick of nature, our brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting happiness."

The ability to feel negative emotions derives from an ancient danger-recognition system formed early in the brain's evolution. The pre-frontalcortex, which registers happiness, is the part used for higher thinking, an area that evolved later in human history . . .

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 four-wheel-drive.

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."


What to do about it? Don't cry over spilt milk.

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 . . . The focus of most psychotherapy is on decreasing negative emotion. The aim of Seligman's therapy is to increase positive emotion.

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