We are not only wired to peruse happiness but we are also wired to want more and more happiness.
But how good are we at increasing our happiness?
Cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff attempts to answer this question in the following TED presentation.
Statistics On The Pursuit Of Happiness
In 2004 there were over 2000 book titles with advice that is supposed to bring happiness. There are over 120 million prescriptions for antidepressants. In 1995 illegal drugs were a 400 billion dollar business representing 8% of world trade – almost eclipsing global gas and oil trade.
If you took away the self-help books, the antidepressants, and the drugs the depression and anxiety would still be there. We are still seeing rises in depression and anxiety all over the world – there are more suicides than homicides in most countries. Interestingly, the majority of people will say they are happy despite the previous statistics.
The Science Of Happiness
We have both a positive and negative system in our make up. Our negative system is much more sensitive. It is there to protect us. For example, people hate losing more than they love winning. We also detect bitter things (potentially dangerous) far more sensitively than we can detect sweet things.
We are wired for dangers that are immediate. Our heart pumps, stress hormones are released and we feel fear or anxiety. This is an ancient survival system that protects us from harm.
Happiness and unhappiness are not just endpoints. They are two parallel systems. The trick is that we can still protect ourselves from danger and be happy at the same time.
Things That Make Us Happy
Biophilia – we have a happy response to the natural world. It’s very much a part of us. There are studies showing that there is something very restorative about nature – for example in hospitals people recover more quickly if they can see trees instead of brick walls.
Co-operation with others also lights up the reward centers of our brains. People who are suicidal are extremely self-focused and lonely. Studies have shown that suicidal poets use the first person singular words such as “I”, “me” and “mine” much more frequently than other words. This would suggest that aloneness and isolation more than hopelessness is a cause of unhappiness and suicide.
People are also happy when they are in “the flow”. Forgetting about themselves and being totally absorbed in some pursuit. It could involve sport, other people, discovering, learning or even when having sex. Being excited about life!
Can Money Buy Happiness?
There is some effect but the effect is small compared to other routes to happiness. The problem is when people pursue money they forget the simple pleasures and pursuits that really make us happy.
First, say to yourself what you would be. Then do what you have to do.”, Epictectus