Aside from basic survival, the pursuit of happiness is arguably one of the most fundamental concerns of every human being on the planet (not to mention a driving force behind the $10 billion-a-year self-help industry). But according to Cornell cognitive psychologist Shimon Edelman, we’ve been going about it backwards.
Edelman, author of The Happiness Of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About The Good Life, tells The Huffington Post that the way we tend to chase happiness is much like the way we drive our cars.
Citing a metaphor from Marvin Minsky, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, Edelman explains that, much as we don't pay attention to the nitty gritty mechanics of how a car engine works -- preferring instead to focus on the more nebulous idea of keeping our cars "running well" -- we also don't think about the specifics of our brain function. We want to be happy, but we don't even really know how happiness functionally works.
Advice on how to be happy is everywhere -- but rarely do these words of wisdom help us to actually become happier. According to Deepak Chopra, the wealth of research and literature on happiness that's come with the explosion of positive psychology hasn't gotten us very far in understanding our own emotional lives.
“We know very little about what it takes to be happy, and a lot of what we know is wrong,” Chopra wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle blog post. “This seems to be the conclusion of some voices in the movement known as positive psychology."
According to Edelman, understanding the workings of our own minds can help us to comprehend not only the nature of happiness but, perhaps eventually, how to optimize the brain for well-being. Recent developments in cognitive science have shed light on how positive emotional states (including pleasure, happiness, and euphoria) occur in the brain -- and why we're hardwired for happiness.
“In the past 10 years, neuroscience has witnessed a revolution. We used to treat the brain as a black box into which very limited glimpses were available, but we are starting to comprehend the basic principles within which the whole thing operates," says Edelman, explaining that these simple principles are accessible to anyone who's interested in getting to know his or her own mind.
Such an understanding could yield great benefits: By Minsky's analogy, we can understand how to better drive our cars by better understanding their engines. And by comparison "getting to know the way the brain works in an intuitive, statistical manner," as Edelman puts, can help us to optimize our brains for happiness.
In short, the brain's computation is all about foresight and prediction -- using our memories and recollections to plan for the future. We know that the world is predictable to a certain extent based on past experiences and patterns, and so we create statistical representations of everything we experience.
"Knowledge of past experience can help an organism deal with the future," says Edelman. "That's the basic imperative... Emotions are basically computational shortcuts that funnel the outcome of the monitoring that organisms do over themselves."
This process is the brain's biological imperative: It not only keeps us alive, but according to Edelman, it's also what makes us happy. Pursuing happiness is the motivation that drives our actions and habits, and it is in that pursuit -- rather than any end goal that we think will increase our well-being -- that we find joy and satisfaction.
"Happiness ... is kind of the goad that makes us go," says Edelman. "Without motivation, nothing in the world would happen. All the animals in the world would just lie down and expire. So the short answer is that this is what happiness is: The goad that makes us go."
But that goal is constantly eluding us. Part of the reason we're always seeking happiness is that it's so fleeting in nature. As Edelman explains, "[Happiness] seemed difficult to grasp and hold onto... One has this compelling need to go on."
This "need to go on" -- to continue the pursuit -- is one of the brain's evolutionary advantages. "A species that rests on its laurels wouldn't be doing that for very long," he says.
But not all happiness is gone at a moment's notice: eudaimonic happiness, which has to do with the way we evaluate our own lives and the feeling that we have lived well, is inherently longer-lasting than any state of pleasure, joy or euphoria ("hedonic happiness"). The distinction of these two domains of happiness goes back to Aristotle, who said that eudaimonic happiness happiness (also translated as "human flourishing," or "living well,") could be had by living in a way that follows a larger purpose beyond oneself. Happiness, for Aristotle, wasn't the result of a life-long pursuit -- it was the activity of pursuing.
"Eudaimonic happiness happiness is something you build up over a lifetime," Edelman says. "In a sense, it's a great consolation for older people -- it's nice to know that on that component, people can get more and more happy as they age if they led good lives."
This eudaimonic happiness pursuit of the good life can also keep us in good physical health, according to recent research. A University of California study found that the two different types of happiness were associated with different gene expression. People with high levels of eudaimonic happiness happiness had low inflammatory gene expression and high antiviral gene expression, while those with high levels of pleasure-seeking happiness exhibited higher inflammatory gene expression.
"What happiness does in the short term, it also does in the long term," says Edelman. "This [eudaimonic happiness] is what can be built and cherished and enhanced and preserved."