Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,
where we discuss science
and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman,
and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology
at Stanford School of Medicine.
Today, we’re discussing happiness.
We’re going to discuss the science of happiness
because indeed there are excellent laboratories
that have worked for many decades
to try and understand what is this thing
that we call happiness
and what brings us happiness in the short and long-term.
In fact, we could probably point to happiness
as one of the most sought-after states
or commodities or emotions,
whatever you want to call it.
Happiness is what many people are seeking
in work, in relationships, and in general.
And yet most of us can’t really define
exactly what happiness is or means for us.
We can point to certain experiences,
we can try and describe our states of mind and body,
but most people recognize the feeling when we have it.
And we certainly recognize the feeling of not being happy,
whether or not that means simply not being happy
as the absence of happiness or all-out depression.
Now, one of the key problems
in trying to understand happiness
and indeed the science and psychology of happiness
is that it does indeed involve other similar things,
things like joy and gratitude and meaning.
And indeed, many scientists and psychologists
have argued for many, many decades
about what happiness really is.
Now, we can come up with so-called
operational definitions of happiness.
Operational definitions are basically agreed-upon terms
or agreed-upon definitions and conditions
that will define something such as happiness,
much in the same way that we can all
probably come up with an operational definition of milk.
But of course, milk can be cow’s milk,
it can be oat milk, it can be soy milk, et cetera, et cetera.
So too, something like happiness can be micro-divided
and sliced and diced into as many things as we decide.
Today, we are really going to focus on three main things.
First, we are going to define happiness as a brain state
and as a state of mind and body.
We’re going to take a look at what the science says
about all of that.
Second, we are going to talk about tools and practices
for placing ourselves into states of happiness.
And while for most of us, we think of happiness
as something that only arrives
through the acquisition of some goal
or some thing external to us,
and of course, that is true,
there is also something called synthetic happiness
or synthesized happiness,
which turns out to be at least as powerful
and perhaps even more powerful.
I’ll just say right off the bat
that I’m not going to tell you that all you have to do
is sit in a chair and imagine being happy
in order to feel happy.
Synthesized happiness actually involves
some very concrete steps that have been defined
by excellent labs in psychology.
So we’re going to talk about synthesized happiness
as it relates to what you can do
to obtain happy states more readily or more frequently.
And then third, we’re going to talk about
some of the misconceptions
or what I would call the contradictions
of happiness research.
And what I mean by that is most of you have probably heard
about the general conditions for obtaining happiness.
And they always seem to circle back
to some of the same basic features of get great sleep,
have great social connection, pursue meaning,
don’t focus to any overextent on things like pursuing money
because there are indeed these studies that show
that the amount of money that people makes
does not necessarily scale directly with happiness.
We’ll talk about those studies in some detail
a little bit later.
And while all of that literature is very powerful
and informative, there is what I see as a contradiction,
which is for instance, that for many of us,
including myself, especially in the years
when I was in graduate school and a postdoc,
there were times in which pursuing
and being involved in work and pursuing degrees
and finding meaning in my vocation
actually separated me from the opportunity
to have quite as many social connections
or quite as much sleep or quite as much exercise
or even quite as much sunshine for that matter.
So all of the things that we’re told that we need
in order to access happiness on a regular basis
oftentimes contradict with the pressures
and the requirements of not just daily life,
but in building a life that allows us
to have the kind of resources that we need
in order to have things like quality social connection
and the time and opportunity to get regular exercise
and great nutrition, et cetera, et cetera.
So again, while this isn’t necessarily a complaint
with any of the research out of the fields of psychology
on happiness, it is important that we acknowledge
these contradictions that exist
in the discussion around happiness,
in particular, the popular discussions
around the science of happiness.
So today what we are going to arrive at,
what you will finish this episode with,
is a set of tools and a framework for understanding
the pursuit of happiness in the short and long-term
as it relates to the research from psychology,
but also the neuroscience.
And my goal today is really to try and place that all
into a structured framework so that you can know
where you are in your journey or the landscape
around happiness and your pursuit of happiness.
And what I won’t tell you is that you need to abandon
all goals in terms of pursuing money, career, et cetera,
and simply focus on relationships.
But we will talk about what constitutes
an excellent social bond or even an excellent conversation.
There’s excellent research that points to the fact
that even rather shallow connections,
that is connections between people that you happen
to just see in the hallway on a regular basis,
not even requiring close bonds of any kind,
can be built into close bonds that can deliver
a tremendous amount of feeling and genuine social connection
provided certain conditions are met.
So today, again, is really about understanding
the science of happiness, understanding the mechanisms
underlying what we call happiness,
and providing you a framework by which you can pursue
and achieve happiness, not just as a long-term goal
and not just as a day-to-day goal
of little micro exercises of gratitude, et cetera,
but rather as a way to think about happiness
as a state that you have control over,
at least in terms of your ability to access
what I would call the algorithms that enable us
or open the opportunity to experience happiness.
Now, before we begin today’s episode,
I’d like to talk about a very specific tool
that applies, yes, to our pursuit of happiness,
but actually to our pursuit of everything,
including quality sleep and ongoing motivation, et cetera.
I’ve talked many, many times before on this podcast
and on other podcasts and on social media
about the critical value of getting regular bright light,
ideally sunlight in your eyes
within the first hour of waking,
or if the sun isn’t out when you wake up in the morning,
to turn on a lot of bright artificial lights
and then get sunlight in your eyes
for anywhere from five to 20 minutes,
depending on how cloudy it is in the early part of the day.
Absolutely outsized effects on mood and focus
during the day and quality of sleep at night.
Now, there’s another sort of central tenet
of getting great sleep and improving mood
and focus throughout the day,
and that’s to avoid bright artificial light exposure
to your eyes between the hours of about 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Now, leaving shift workers aside,
and we have an entire episode devoted to shift work,
most people are asleep at night and awake during the day,
and you would be wise to avoid exposure of your eyes
to bright artificial light
between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
If you’re going to use screens or artificial lights,
dim them down as far as you can.
Now, there are several studies that point to the fact
that one of the major issues
with getting bright light in your eyes
between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
is that it has a negative impact
on the so-called dopaminergic or dopamine circuits
of the brain and body, which can enhance depression,
that is, lead to ongoing lower mood and affect.
So that’s a reason to dim the lights
or avoid bright lights between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
However, I and many others need
to use artificial light and screens,
sometimes even between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight,
or even midnight to 3 a.m.,
depending on what’s going on in my life or your life,
that may include you as well.
Now, it turns out that there are powerful ways
to offset some, not all,
but some of the negative effects
of viewing artificial lights
between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
And one of the most powerful ways to do that
is to simply adjust the overall brightness
of your artificial lighting throughout the day
and in the evening.
So one of the issues nowadays that we’re really facing
is that people are simply not getting enough bright light
in their eyes from sunlight
or from other sources during the daytime,
and they’re getting far too much bright light in their eyes,
largely from artificial sources, of course,
in the evening and at night,
not just from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.,
but also in the evening hours from 6 to 10 p.m.
and so on and so forth.
So a very simple yet powerful solution
that’s supported by peer-reviewed research in humans
is to try and make your indoor working
and or home environment during the day
as bright as possible.
Now, if you can achieve that through direct sunlight,
If you can get outside a lot during the daytime, terrific,
but many people simply cannot.
But most people do have some windows in their environment.
I realize some don’t, but most people do.
And as a consequence,
most people are using rather dim artificial lighting
indoors during the day,
and then very bright artificial lighting indoors
in the evening and at night.
That’s a problem.
And if you think about it,
logically you want to do the exact reverse.
So it’s been shown that if you simply increase
the amount of bright artificial light
that you were exposed to during the day,
and remember, this is not an excuse
to not get your morning sunlight viewing,
but in addition to that,
to make your indoor artificial lights
very bright, bright, bright, bright, bright
throughout the day,
and then much dimmer from the hours of 6 p.m.
Or if you can’t do that,
then maybe as soon as you get home from about 8 p.m.
until bedtime, and then dim them way, way down
between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. or off entirely,
that’s going to be a far better pattern
for your sleep-wake cycles, focus, mood, et cetera,
than what most people do,
which is to have a few windows
in their indoor working environment during the day
and keep the indoor lights rather dim
at a time when they need more photons, more light energy.
And then in the evening when they get home,
because it’s dark outside,
they tend to turn the lights much brighter.
You actually want to do the reverse.
Now there’s an even simpler solution,
which is to get some bright sunlight in your eyes
right around the time of sunset.
It doesn’t have to be exactly at sunset.
It could be in the late afternoon and evening,
but it’s been shown now in studies on humans,
and I’ll provide a link to at least one of those studies,
that by getting some bright light in your eyes,
ideally from sunlight in the late afternoon and evening,
and of course the timing will vary
depending on time of year
and where you are located on the planet,
but facing the sun around sunset,
you don’t actually have to see the sun
cross down below the horizon,
but facing the sun around that time
for anywhere from five to 10 minutes,
or even less, even two to five minutes,
can adjust the sensitivity of neurons in your retina
that communicate light information to the brain
and make it such that in the evening
when you use artificial lights,
they aren’t going to have as much of a detrimental effect
on your dopamine system and for impairing your sleep.
Okay, so the idea is as much bright light,
ideally from sunlight, but also from artificial sources
from the time you wake up in the morning until the evening,
maybe around six or seven o’clock,
maybe in the summer months a little bit later,
and then really try and get as little bright light
in your eyes as you can in the evening and nighttime hours.
And ideally you would also get some sunlight exposure
right around the time of sunset or in the late afternoon.
Go outside, take your sunglasses off.
Don’t try and do this through a windshield
or through a window.
It will not work.
You have to get outside.
If you’re under an overhang,
at least try and get some direct sunlight
in your eyes at that time.
And that will adjust the sensitivity of your retina
such that bright artificial lights
or artificial lights of any kind
that you’re exposed to in the evening
and in the late hours of the night
won’t have as much of a detrimental effect.
That said, if you go to the bathroom
in the middle of the night,
try and keep the lights dim.
Many people have asked whether or not, for instance,
a nightlight or a flashlight
is going to have as much of a negative effect.
This is very straightforward.
If you think about it,
if you shine a light at something,
you can see into your environment.
If you’ve ever been camping
or you’ve walked with a flashlight,
you can see things around you
that you wouldn’t otherwise, of course.
But if you were to shine that light in your eyes,
it would be far brighter.
So yes, of course,
if you get up in the middle of the night
and you can use your phone flashlight
to illuminate the environment that you’re in
so that you can safely go to where you need to go
and then back to bed,
that’s going to be far better than turning on the lights
or of course, shining light in your eyes, right?
So the idea is bright, bright, bright
in the morning and throughout the day
and as dim and dark as possible at night.
And that afternoon light viewing
provides sort of what I call a Netflix inoculation
that will allow you to adjust your retinal sensitivity
and give you a little bit more flexibility
in terms of allowing some nighttime light exposure
without the detrimental effects.
Now, I realize today’s episode is about happiness.
It’s not about sunlight or dopamine.
And yet, as we’ll talk about more in just a moment,
if you’re not optimizing your sleep
and if you are using or being exposed to light rather
at the wrong times of the day-night cycle,
that is going to make it very hard
for the other sorts of practices
that relate to happiness to have their full impact.
So the backdrop,
or I would say the kind of landscape
of your chemicals and your hormones
is powerfully controlled
by not just the brightness of light,
but the timing of light.
And your exposure to light,
in particular, your exposure to light to your eyes
is something that you have a lot of control over.
You don’t have absolute control,
but you have a lot of control over.
And it’s been proven that even these small steps,
which are completely cost-free,
they require just a few minutes of time,
but no purchase of product or anything else,
can allow you to greatly adjust your neurochemistry
and your hormones in the direction of better mood,
better sleep, and happiness.
Before we begin,
I’d like to emphasize that this podcast
is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.
It is, however, part of my desire and effort
to bring zero cost to consumer information
about science and science-related tools
for the general public.
In keeping with that theme,
I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.
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Let’s talk about happiness,
this thing that everybody seems to want,
and yet not everybody can agree upon what exactly it is
or how to get it.
Now, I want to start by quoting a previous guest
on the Huberman Lab podcast,
and that is a colleague of mine
at Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Karl Deisseroth,
who’s both a bioengineer and a clinician.
That is, he’s a psychiatrist who spends a lot of his time
both running a laboratory and seeing patients,
human patients, of course.
And I once was at a meeting where I heard Karl say
something to the extent of,
we don’t know what other people feel.
In fact, most of the time,
we don’t even really know how we feel.
And while that statement was meant
to report several different things
about the way that the brain works and emotions, et cetera,
one of the things that he was emphasizing,
and I know he was emphasizing it
because he confirmed this for me,
was the fact that language,
things like the word happiness or joy or meaning
or pleasure or delight are actually not very precise
when it comes to describing our brain and body states.
So for instance, if I tell you I’m feeling pretty happy,
I know what that means for me, at least in this moment,
but you don’t really know whether or not
it means the same thing as what pretty happy means for you.
If I say I’m extremely happy and I have a big grin,
I have a grin on my face
that I can’t seem to wipe off my face,
well, then you might get a sense of how much happier I am
than pretty happy,
but it’s still hard to calibrate my level
of internal state or happiness.
And the same is true for you and for everybody else.
And it’s important for us to acknowledge this
because at this point in human history, 2022,
we don’t really have a measurement like body temperature
or heart rate or heart rate variability,
or even a way to measure neurochemicals
in the brain and body that give us anything better
than a crude correlate or an estimate at best
of what happiness is.
So that’s really important to understand
and to keep in mind throughout this episode.
It doesn’t mean that we cannot have a strong
data-driven conversation about happiness
and what brings us to a state of happiness,
but it’s very important to understand
that language is not an ideal
and may be even a deficient tool
in terms of describing our emotions
and our states of mind and body.
Now, equally important is to understand
that while we do have neurotransmitters,
that is the chemicals that are released
between neurons, nerve cells,
that allow neurons to communicate,
things like glutamate and GABA, for instance,
and we have what are called neuromodulators.
These are chemicals also released by neurons
that impact the electrical firing
and chemical release of other neurons,
things like serotonin and dopamine
and acetylcholine and epinephrine.
Neuromodulators and neurotransmitters
are always present in a cocktail in our brain and body.
That is, they are present in different ratios
and at different levels.
So we need to completely discard with the idea
that any one neurotransmitter or any one neuromodulator
is solely responsible for a state of happiness
or for a lack of state of happiness for that matter.
That said, it is true that for people
that tend to have lower baseline levels
of, for instance, dopamine,
their levels of happiness,
or we should say their self-reported levels of happiness
tend to be lower than for those
that have greatly elevated baseline levels of dopamine.
Now, this can be best appreciated at the extremes
where, for instance, in conditions like Parkinson’s disease
or other conditions where people’s levels of dopamine
in their brain is severely depleted,
mind you, we also see this in drug-addicted individuals
that are in a withdrawal state
because they’re trying to quit
or they don’t have access to the drug
that normally stimulates release of dopamine.
Think the cocaine addict who can’t get cocaine
or the methamphetamine addict that can’t
or is trying to avoid taking methamphetamine.
Or the Parkinson’s patient who has fewer dopamine neurons
because they degenerated.
Those individuals do tend to be more depressed.
They tend to have lower affect.
They are less happy.
At least that’s how they report themselves to be emotionally.
And that’s what we observe when we look at them behaviorally
in terms of the amount of smiling,
the amount of energy they seem to have.
At the opposite extreme,
and while still focusing on the kind of pathology
of neurotransmitter and neuromodulator systems,
an individual who is in a manic phase of bipolar
will tend to have very elevated levels of dopamine.
And those people will talk a mile a minute
and they won’t require sleep.
And at least to them, every idea is an exciting idea
and one that they want to pursue.
We did an entire episode about bipolar depression,
aka bipolar disorder.
So if you’d like to learn more about that,
please check out that episode,
that and all other episodes of the podcast.
Of course, you can find it hubermanlab.com in all formats.
But the point here is that very low levels
or very high levels of dopamine
are correlated with certain states of, for instance,
low happiness or the absence of happiness.
We could even call it depression in some cases,
or extreme happiness, or even euphoria,
sometimes even inappropriate euphoria,
as is the case with bipolar depression,
or as sometimes called bipolar mania or bipolar disorder.
Now, of course, there’s a range
in between depressed and manic.
And most people fortunately reside somewhere in that range.
And it is indeed a continuum.
And I think it’s safe to say that levels of dopamine
probably do correlate with levels of happiness,
but there is no one single chemical nor chemical signature
that is no specific recipe of two parts dopamine
to one part serotonin to one part acetylcholine
that we can say equates to happiness.
Indeed, there’s now tremendous controversy
as to whether or not, for instance,
having lower levels of serotonin
is actually the cause of depression
or merely correlates with depression,
or maybe doesn’t even correlate with depression at all.
This became especially controversial
because in the last year,
the so-called serotonin hypothesis of depression
has been called into question.
And indeed, it does seem to be the case
that for individuals that are depressed,
their levels of serotonin can sometimes be normal.
However, and this is an important however,
that does not mean that administering drugs
that increase levels of serotonin in depressed people
does not sometimes and indeed often
help ameliorate some of their symptoms.
And I should mention that many of the selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitors, so-called SSRIs,
such as Prozac and Zoloft, et cetera,
are still considered excellent treatments
for conditions like OCD and so on and so forth.
But what I’m trying to do is make two important points.
First of all, that language is not a great indicator
of internal state,
especially when trying to understand
other people’s internal state,
and that is especially true for things like happiness,
and that there is no one chemical signature of happiness.
There’s no one neuromodulator
or combinations of neuromodulators
that we can say is the cocktail for happiness.
But, and it’s a very important but,
when levels of dopamine and serotonin
tend to be chronically low for an individual,
below their typical baseline,
they will, yes, tend to be lower in affect
and have lower mood and less episodes of happiness
per day, per week, per month, per year, et cetera.
Conversely, when an individual has elevations
in dopamine and serotonin levels,
in particular dopamine levels,
and the other so-called catecholamines,
which include epinephrine and norepinephrine,
so the catecholamines are dopamine,
epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
They’re all very similar biochemically.
They all lead to states of elevated motivation,
energy, and so on.
When those chemicals are elevated above baseline,
people do tend to have elevated sense of mood and wellbeing,
and in particular, sense of possibility
about what they can do in the world
and what the world can offer them.
So we need to acknowledge those two features
of language and neurochemistry
as we wade into the discussion
about the psychology of happiness,
and in particular, about the controlled experiments
that have been done in excellent laboratories
focused on the psychology of happiness
and what brings happiness and what does not.
There’ve been some excellent studies on happiness,
and these come in two forms, generally.
One form of these studies
is individuals come into a laboratory,
they participate in an experiment
over the course of a day or months,
and then data are collected, analyzed,
and the papers are submitted and published and discussed.
The other form is so-called longitudinal study
where individuals come into the laboratory
and they are studied over a very long period of time
ranging from months to years and sometimes even decades.
And then the variables of age,
life circumstances, and other factors
can be incorporated into the data.
And typically there are multiple papers,
or there’s data published
throughout the longitudinal study,
or sometimes it’s just one paper
at the end of the longitudinal study.
Let’s talk about one of the more famous
and perhaps the longest running longitudinal study
This is a study that was initiated or conceived in 1938
at Harvard University,
the so-called Harvard Happiness Project.
Some of you have probably heard about this.
It involved Harvard College sophomores
and other individuals were incorporated
in this study as well.
It’s a study that initially had
more than a couple of hundred subjects,
but because some have either dropped out
and not been able to be contacted
and monitored over time or died,
or for whatever reason are no longer participating
in the study,
there are very few of these individuals left.
And yet there’s tremendous power to a study like this.
It’s such an impressive study.
And we’re all so grateful that laboratories at Harvard
decided to initiate and continue this study
because it is one of the few studies,
perhaps the study that has allowed us to understand
happiness in our species over a very long period of time.
Like any study, it’s not perfect.
It didn’t include a lot of matching by sex
or matching by vocation
or matching by income and background.
And back then there was also a lot less discussion
about trauma and histories around trauma,
as well as positive episodes in people’s lives.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of power in a study like this.
And there’s some very basic takeaways,
some of which you may have heard before,
but some of which may be surprising
those of you who haven’t.
So one of the key things about the study
is people in the study,
at least those who still have intact memory,
which many of them do,
are able to think back on
not just their previous year or week,
but 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago,
and compare what makes them happy at one age
versus another age.
A number of things have emerged from that conversation.
So I just want to discuss some of the highlight points,
then we’ll get into a little bit more
of the nitty gritty of the data.
First of all, it’s been discussed many, many times
that the total amount of income
that an individual makes or has,
and again, this could be income from work,
or it could be money that they inherited,
does not seem to directly relate
to their level of happiness.
Now, a lot of people take that point
and think, ah, money doesn’t matter.
Other people hear that point and think to themselves,
yeah, right, easy to say if you have a lot of money.
We’ll talk about the interpretation of those data
in just a few minutes,
but I do want to earmark that finding
because I agree that while money or total resources itself
does not predict happiness in any kind of direct way,
that is not the same thing as saying
having very few resources will make you happier, of course.
I don’t think anyone would imagine that.
But it also tends to overlook an important point,
which is something that I certainly have learned
to appreciate in my life,
and something that I especially appreciated
when I was a student and postdoc, which is the following.
People will say money can’t buy happiness,
and we’ll talk about the buy aspect of that in a moment.
And indeed, that’s true.
If you look at this longitudinal study
or you look at other studies that are done
on a more short-term basis,
once people get past a certain level of income
relative to their cost of living,
the amount of happiness does not scale with that income.
That is for every additional $1,000 or $10,000
that they earn,
they don’t report being that much happier on a daily basis.
Now, that said, I venture the argument
that while money truly cannot buy happiness,
it absolutely can buffer stress.
And in particular, it can buffer stress
in the form of the ability to purchase
or pay for goods and services,
and in particular, services.
You’re not going to tell me that having children
doesn’t involve some increase in the demands on your life,
less sleep and more demands.
And it certainly is the case
that if you can hire help to clean,
you can hire nannies if that’s your thing,
you can hire help to assist with babysitting
or even night nurses if you’re having trouble sleeping
that will literally allow you to sleep
while they take care of your child
in the middle of the night,
often give excellent care, one hopes excellent care,
that that won’t offset some of the stress
associated with lack of sleep.
So there are a million different examples
one could give of this,
but I certainly experienced this during graduate school.
In fact, I experienced both sides of the equation here.
I made very little money as a graduate student.
I had essentially no savings when I started graduate school
and I made very little money.
The amount doesn’t matter at this point,
but I could just barely afford rent and my food.
I actually opted to live in the laboratory
a lot of the time.
And by doing that, I had more money to spend
on other things that were important to me.
Now, I did not have a family at the time.
And so I was able to do that,
something that not everyone can do,
but I made very little money.
But at the same time, I was in laboratory all the time
and that’s where I wanted to be.
And so my level of stress was actually pretty low
because I was investing all my time and energy
into the very thing that I knew
would eventually help bring me more resources.
When I moved from being a graduate student
to a postdoc, for instance,
a postdoc is generally a three to five year period.
So like residency in medicine
where you’re no longer taking courses,
but you continue to do research.
In fact, entire new lines of research
and prior to getting a professorship.
My income went up slightly,
went up by about 30 to 40%,
but because of where I moved and because of the times,
my cost of living went way, way up
and I was extremely stressed.
So it wasn’t my absolute income,
it was my absolute income relative to my cost of living.
The other thing that one needs to consider
when considering income versus cost of living
is there’s also this notion of peer group.
And we’re going to talk more about social bonds
and connections later.
But one thing that I noticed
when I moved from being a graduate student to a postdoc
was I was a graduate student in a small town
where I had access, if I chose,
to participate in most, if not all of the social gatherings
because they were all very low cost.
People tended to aggregate
at the farmer’s market on Saturday.
Most people wouldn’t even purchase anything,
at least not the graduate students
wouldn’t purchase anything.
It was just a place to aggregate.
People would sometimes play pickup games of soccer
or just hang out and have a cup of coffee.
There was a volleyball game on Fridays.
Sometimes people would go out to eat that evening,
which of course costs money, et cetera,
but it was relatively low cost of living
and social connections and peer group interactions
were all generated around
the same fairly low cost activities.
When I transitioned to being a postdoc,
I made more money, but cost of living went up.
But in addition to that,
my peer group tended to want to engage
in the same kinds of activities
that people in that larger city were engaged in.
So peer group has a tremendously powerful influence
on whether or not we gauge the amount of money that we have
as bringing us happiness or not.
And that really speaks to the critical importance
of social interactions
and certain kinds of social interactions in particular.
Now, if any of that was unclear,
what I’m basically saying is,
it’s not just about being able to pay your rent.
It’s also about being able to access
the kinds of social interactions
that you deem are quote unquote correct for you
at that stage of life
and in the place where you happen to be living.
Because if you can meet all the demands of costs of rent
and paying your power bill and food, et cetera,
but you are socially isolated because your peer group
or those around you that you want to engage with
are engaging in activities
that you either don’t have time for, literally,
because you’re doing other things,
or that you don’t have the financial resources for,
then that can actually severely impact
this rating of what we call happiness.
Why am I parsing this so finely?
Well, I’m parsing it finally because I think that
most of us have heard the outcome of this study from Harvard
or the more short-term studies,
also many of which are from Harvard.
We’ll talk about the just phenomenal work
from Dan Gilbert’s laboratory and other laboratories
who have focused on issues like these.
And I certainly don’t want to take anything away
from those results.
They’re very powerful and important results
that really point over and over to the fact that
people’s happiness does not necessarily scale with income.
In fact, it tends not to past a certain level.
And yet I think we’d be remiss,
I think actually it would be inappropriate for me to say
that the amount of income that one makes is not important
because if the amount of money that you happen to have
or are making does not allow you to meet your basic needs
of shelter, healthcare, et cetera,
and or doesn’t allow you to access
the kind of social interactions that can renew and reset,
or I would say directly enhance
the kind of neurotransmitter systems and hormones
that lead us to feel that we are happy in our life
and we’re having quality social connections.
Well, then that’s very stressful.
And this brings me back to the statement I made earlier,
which is indeed money cannot buy happiness,
but it certainly can buffer stress.
And one of the ways that it buffers stress
is by allowing options of different kinds
of social interactions,
options of different types of recreation
that one can engage in to access
new forms of social interaction.
And so on and so on.
So we need to be a little bit careful
or at least nuanced about this statement
that money can’t buy happiness
and that the data support the fact
that wealth doesn’t determine happiness.
I think there is a truth to that,
but there’s another side to that
that I think is less often acknowledged
and that certainly I’ve experienced
and that I think many of you out there
have probably experienced as well.
One other major finding
of the Harvard Longitudinal Study on Happiness
as well as shorter term studies on happiness
is that much as you’ve heard perhaps
that no one on their deathbed says
they wish they had worked more.
Well, indeed the total amount of time
that one spends working
does not seem to determine one’s happiness.
And yet I also want to earmark that result
as one that we need to parse a bit more carefully
because work, last time I checked,
and certainly for me,
is the way typically that people earn an income.
And as we just talked about a moment ago,
income is often a way that people have access to
or provide access for their family
to things like recreation
that opens up the opportunity for more social connection.
So we have to be careful
with how we interpret these blanket statements
that have become very popular
that money doesn’t determine happiness
and that the amount that you work
isn’t going to determine happiness.
It certainly is the case
that if you earn more money from working more
and that money is devoted to things
that bring more opportunities for social connection
or for buffering stress in other areas of your life,
including healthcare, care for your children,
care for yourself, recreation,
other things that you enjoy,
well, then I think it’s a little bit naive
to assume that work itself
is somehow counter to happiness,
which of course it isn’t.
And it especially isn’t if we combine that feature of work
with another important feature of the human psyche,
which is this notion of meaning.
Now, in the not too distant future,
we will do an episode of this podcast on meaning
and what constitutes meaning in a given endeavor,
work or otherwise.
But much of the psychology of the last century
and still today focuses on this feature of meaning
as a critical one in terms of what makes us happy
and what doesn’t make us happy.
Certainly in the longterm.
And I can certainly say for myself
that learning and teaching and doing research
in my laboratory brings me tremendous feeling
of meaning and happiness.
Some people consider their work
simply a way to gain a paycheck.
And other people find that they would do the very work
they do regardless of whether or not they were paid.
In fact, many people will do volunteer work
and other forms of work for zero money.
So this idea that money isn’t important
or that work is not as important as we deem it to be,
that also needs to be considered
from a number of different perspectives.
And again, by no means am I trying to undermine
the data of these impressive studies,
both the longitudinal and short-term studies.
But I think we do have to be cautious
in our discussion of results like these
because the internet is replete with conversations
about the big factors that determine happiness.
It’s going to be social connection, not income.
It’s going to be the amount of time
that you are able to have open thinking and creativity,
which I think is an essential feature of happiness,
by the way.
Physical health, in particular,
one’s ability to stay mobile
and to be able to access the kind of daily activities
that one needs to accomplish unassisted
is a strong correlate of happiness and so on and so on.
And of course, there are the basic physiology factors,
the things that feed back
onto our overall feelings of wellbeing.
And I’ve talked about these before,
and we’ll just put these quickly into a bin.
You can think of this as a toolkit of things
that you and everyone really should be constantly trying
to access, if not optimize on a regular basis
because they raise the tide or what I would call
the buoyancy of your overall system,
meaning your brain and body.
And that would be getting sufficient deep sleep
at least 80% of the nights of your life.
And ideally the remaining 20%,
you’re not getting deep sleep or as much of it
because of positive events.
Quality nutrition, quality social interactions.
And we will define that a little bit better.
In fact, we will define that in a lot of detail later
in this episode and actually how to get better
at creating quality social interactions,
even very brief social interactions.
So we have sleep, we have nutrition,
we have social interactions, we have purposeful work,
whether or not it’s paid work or non-paid work.
And of course there are things like exercise
and maybe relationships to pets and things of that sort.
And there are a few others as well.
All of those are known to increase your overall state
of wellbeing that puts you in a position
to access more meaning and happiness, et cetera.
But for most people, I think it’s fair to say
that earning a living and earning a living by working
is the typical way in which we spend most of our time.
So I think we need to put a special bracket
around those activities.
And it’s something we will return to a little bit later
in terms of trying to understand how periods of life
in which there are big or extensive work demands
or extensive family demands on us are indeed compatible
with states of happiness or frequent states of happiness
and how better to access those
rather than simply say money isn’t important
or the amount of time at work really isn’t important.
That’s not what people are going to pay attention to.
In fact, I don’t know how I will feel in my deathbed.
How could I?
Human beings are pretty good about understanding
how they feel in the present.
If not describing it, they are pretty good at feeling it.
If they have any sense of internal state
that is interoception, you can have some idea
of how you feel in a moment.
We’re pretty good about describing our past feelings,
at least in broad contour.
But we are not very good at projecting
how we will feel in the future.
And in fact, that’s a theme that’s going to come up again
and again today.
Nonetheless, what we do know on the basis
of really solid data are that certain aspects
of our wellbeing tend to change across our lifespan.
Now, lifespan is something that we need to consider
from also a bit of nuance
because humans are indeed living longer and longer.
And if we look at the data on happiness across the lifespan
dated maybe 30 or 40 years back, or even 20 years ago,
it is consistently described in that literature
as a so-called U-shaped function
where people in their 20s report being very, very happy.
But as time goes on and they acquire more responsibility,
so typically getting married and having children
in their mid to late 20s and 30s and into their 40s,
having more work demands, et cetera,
happiness tends to be rated lower and lower,
at least in those previous studies.
And then happiness tended to increase
as people approach their 50s and 60s
and they tended to retire and their work demands
were shed from them and they were able to enjoy
the small things of life,
despite the fact that in general, I would say,
almost always people’s health is not as vigorous
when they’re 70 as it is when they’re 20.
There are exceptions to that, of course,
and of course you can adjust the rate
of cognitive and physical decline,
but in general, people in their 20s feel more physically
and mentally vigorous than they do
in their 60s and 70s in general.
That U-shaped function that I just described
still holds true today, but of course,
there’ve been some major shifts to the general life stages
and when people undergo those life stages.
For instance, many people are getting married much later.
Many people are opting to not have children.
In fact, if you look at the data
on whether or not people have children or not
and how that relates to happiness,
everyone will tell you that their kids
are their greatest source of joy,
at least most people will tell you that,
and are a tremendous source of happiness.
It’s obvious, kids are delightful
and raising kids while hard is a wonderful experience.
If you look at the ratings of happiness
among people that elected to not have children
versus those that had,
most people who have children
report their overall levels of happiness
as lower than that of people who opt not to have children.
Now, there are a lot of ways to interpret those findings
and by no means am I encouraging people to not have children.
That’s a issue that you have to resolve
for yourself, of course.
But we could imagine, for instance,
that people who opt not to have children
have more income to devote
to things more focused on themselves or their partner
or other aspects of their life.
We don’t know if that’s the underlying reason.
We could perhaps conclude
that people who opt not to have children
are getting more sleep on a regular basis
or have more time for exercise
or the other sorts of things
that elevate states of mood and wellbeing.
Again, we do not know what the underlying reasons are
for this finding,
but it does seem that despite most every parent
reporting that their kids are their greatest source of joy
and quote-unquote happiness in life,
that people who opt not to have children
are at least as happy or report being at least as happy
or even happier than those that opt to have children.
And of course, I want to be very clear
that I’m not trying to settle any arguments
about whether or not people should have children or not.
I happen to find children and animals delightful.
And I’m always happy when people opt to have children
provided they are taking good care of their children
or doing their very best
to take good care of their children.
So that’s my stance.
But of course, you’re all entitled
to your own stance on this.
There are also the general arguments
that people like to have
about whether or not the population of the earth
will be sustained or not sustained
based on current birth rates, et cetera.
Indeed, many areas of the world birth rates are going down,
is actually something that just as a perhaps point
of interest has been studied from the somewhat unusual
but logical perspective of whether or not child diapers
are selling at the same rate as they were some years ago
and whether or not adult diapers for the elderly
are being sold at the same rate or greater.
If you think about it is one indirect measure
of whether or not people are living longer
and or opting to have children.
Definitely a discussion for another time,
probably for another podcast entirely.
I’d like to take a quick break
and acknowledge one of our sponsors, Athletic Greens.
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I’ve been taking Athletic Greens since 2012.
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The reason I started taking Athletic Greens
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It’s populated by gut microbiota
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So this U-shaped function of people being happier earlier
in life and then reporting feeling far less happy
and then happiness returning to them,
that is the rising of the U again in their later years
is something that I do believe should be repeated
in modern times and repeated in a way that takes
into account that that U might be shifted to the right.
That is, I am certainly aware that people are tending
to get married later, many are opting to not have children.
So for instance, the question arises whether or not
that U-shaped curve should have a bump down at the bottom
of the U among those that opt not to have children
because the argument was made in the discussion
of those papers that the reason why happiness is lower
when people are in their 30s, 40s and 50s
is because they’re devoting more time
to raising their children and devoting more time to work.
I would hope people would enjoy their work
but not everybody really enjoys their work
and many people, even if they do enjoy their work
and they find meaning in it, still find it stressful
which certainly can run counter to happiness.
Nowadays, you could imagine that because a number of people
are opting perhaps to work less or to not have children
or both, where they find tremendous meaning from their work
that there would be a bump at the bottom of that U
among those that decided to simply not take on
these additional responsibilities.
That would be an interesting test, I think,
of whether or not the total load of responsibility
is really what’s correlating with reported happiness or not.
Now, one very consistent finding
that has absolutely stood the test of time,
it’s kind of an interesting one,
it’s a little bit of a pop psychology finding
but I think it points to something interesting
that we will return to again and again
is that people tend to report feeling
lower levels of happiness, believe it or not,
on their birthday and the argument for why this is,
is the following, that typically we go through our year
not comparing ourselves to our peers terribly much.
We might do that a little bit more
when we’re in elementary school, high school, et cetera,
when we’re sort of age match, maybe even college as well
but an evaluation of ourselves to our age match peers
is not typically something that we do on a daily basis.
Whereas on our birthday, we get a snapshot
of where we are in the arc of time or at least in our life
and many people report feeling rather low on their birthday
because they use that as a benchmark or a window
into the things that they have not accomplished,
the things that despite being age blank,
they still haven’t accomplished.
And so that’s interesting
because of what it really points to is two things.
One, the extent to which much of our feelings of happiness
are relative, in particular relative to our peers.
So there’s that social aspect again
and the fact that most of the time,
we are not very good at orienting ourselves
in the longer arc of time.
We’re pretty good at knowing where we are
in the arc of a day or the arc of a week
or the arc of a month or even a year
but that most of us are not very good at reflecting
on where we are in our life arc.
And of course, most of us don’t know
how long we will live anyway
but we do have some general sense.
I mean, very few people live past the age of 100.
Many people live to be 70 or 80
and again, lifespan is extending as far as we know
from year to year.
But in general, people report that on their birthdays
and I should say these are for birthdays aged 25 or later,
at least in the studies I was able to access, right?
I don’t think that a lot of three-year-olds sit around
comparing themselves to other three-year-olds
and how well they’re doing or 12-year-olds.
You can imagine some people might do that at 18, et cetera
but it’s really by the mid 20s
that people start evaluating themselves to their peers
in terms of life progression and so-called milestones.
It’s been argued that that’s one of the reasons
why people report lower affect,
lower levels of happiness on their birthday,
something that’s a little bit counterintuitive.
And of course, there are things
that are anti-correlated with happiness.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of these.
That’s longitudinal study,
the Harvard Happiness Project has reported for instance,
that people that are chronic smokers of nicotine
and chronic consumers of alcohol,
in particular alcoholics,
that is people who suffer from alcoholism
or what’s sometimes called alcohol use disorder,
that is strongly anti-correlated with happiness.
And I should also mention that the family members
and in particular the romantic partners of people
who are chronic smokers
and the partners of people who are chronic alcohol users
often will report lower levels of happiness,
especially if they themselves are not chronic smokers
or regular consumers of alcohol.
So we’ve done episodes on nicotine in particular
and that touched on smoking of course,
and we’ve done an episode on alcohol
and the effects of alcohol on health.
Again, you can find those at hubermanlab.com.
This study from the Harvard Happiness Project
really has strong data supporting the fact
that avoiding being a nicotine smoker, right?
There are positive health effects of nicotine
that are discussed in the episode on nicotine,
but smoking nicotine in particular
is counterproductive for people’s
at least self-reported happiness
and certainly overall health.
I think there’s zero question
that smoking increases cancers over different kinds
and that alcohol consumption
in particular alcohol consumption
beyond two drinks per week,
two drinks being the typical volume of a beer,
a glass of wine or a cocktail, et cetera,
is detrimental for various aspects of health.
And of course, there are other things
that you could imagine would relate to a lack of happiness.
For instance, a major trauma,
physical or emotional trauma.
That could include the loss of a major relationship,
a death of a close one,
being the victim of a violent crime
and things of that sort.
And yet it’s been argued, in fact, strongly argued
that when you look at people’s levels of happiness
after a trauma, that if you wait about a year or so,
sometimes even as short as three months after a trauma,
that people’s self-reported levels of happiness
are not significantly lower
than they were prior to the trauma.
Now, I very much want to highlight, underline and bold
and asterisk that statement
as one that we really need to explore carefully
because there are other data
that strongly point to the fact
that major life traumas can severely disrupt
one’s sense of happiness and wellbeing.
And I think as long as we’re going to have this discussion,
we should point to a useful definition of trauma.
And the definition that I’ll paraphrase
is one that was supplied by a former guest
on the Huberman Lab podcast, Dr. Paul Conte,
who’s a psychiatrist who’s written a book called Trauma.
I personally think it’s the best book on trauma
and tools for alleviating trauma.
It’s incredibly thorough, easy to read and well-informed.
And here again, I’m paraphrasing,
but Dr. Conte describes trauma
as something that fundamentally changes
the way that our brain and body function
in a way that makes other aspects
of living more challenging.
Again, an event either emotional or physical or both
that fundamentally changes the way that our brain
and our body, our nervous system and other organs function
in a way that prevents us from enjoying daily activities.
And that could even be ongoing distraction, right?
Traumas can create rumination
or they can create obsessive thought
or they can create dissociation,
any number of different things.
Again, check out that episode with Dr. Paul Conte
if you’d like to learn more about trauma
and how it manifests.
But the idea that’s been put forth
by a number of researchers in the field of happiness
that three months after a major trauma
and people aren’t reporting that they are feeling
any less happy than before the trauma,
that was surprising to me.
So I went into this literature a bit more deeply.
One of the basis of that general line of thinking
is what I consider now classic and very important
and frankly excellent talk that was given
by Professor Dan Gilbert on the science of happiness.
You can find this on YouTube.
I say a classic one because it was done some years ago.
It’s received millions of views.
And one of the points that he makes in that talk,
which is grounded in research carried out by his laboratory
and other laboratories is that he poses a question.
He says, you know, let’s do a quiz.
Would you rather be someone who wins the lottery?
And he shows a picture of somebody who just won,
I think it was several hundreds of millions of dollars
in the lottery or was recently made paraplegic,
lost use of their legs.
And then goes on to state that one year
after people have won the lottery,
this major, you know, monetary windfall
versus have become paraplegic
is that their self-reported levels of happiness
are the same, which I think is incredibly surprising.
Now I heard this and I immediately thought
of an experience that I’ve had where I teach a course
at Stanford School of Medicine on neural regeneration.
And it’s actually a course that I attended some years ago
when I was a postdoc at Stanford.
So well over a decade ago.
And we had, excuse me,
we had an individual come into the course.
This was an older gentleman.
So older meaning he was in his early seventies
and he had become paraplegic fairly late in life
from a cycling accident.
And he was and is an expert in what it is
to become a paraplegic, of course,
because he had that experience,
but also because he spends a lot of his time
doing volunteer work with people who have become paraplegic
and have become paraplegic at different ages.
And what he described to me was that the overall outcomes
for people that are rendered paraplegic
in terms of their mental health
and their physical wellbeing,
their sort of management of general life skills
scales with how early they had that injury
and how long they had the use of their limbs.
So it’s not straightforward.
When I heard this result described by Dr. Dan Gilbert
that winning the lottery and becoming paraplegic
basically don’t impact your levels of happiness
to any different degree.
When people look back a year later,
I was pretty surprised given my experience
of hearing this lecture at Stanford.
So I thought, wow, from what I understand,
indeed there are people who are rendered paraplegic
and manage that transition very easily.
It doesn’t seem to disrupt their feelings
of wellbeing, et cetera.
But for other people, it can be severely disrupting
to their sense of wellbeing and so on and so forth.
I went back and examined these data.
And in fact, a subsequent talk,
it’s actually a podcast that was given
by Dr. Dan Gilbert some years later.
So this would be just a few years ago.
I think 2019 is a specific date in which it was recorded,
but just a few years ago.
And indeed he corrects himself in that podcast.
What he says is that he misspoke in that earlier talk
that the difference in self-reported levels of happiness
for those that have been rendered paraplegic
versus those who’ve won the lottery
is not as great as one would expect.
I think most people would expect
that being rendered paraplegic
would make people far less happy.
That’s the expectation, I think, anyway.
And that people who would win the lottery,
at least for some period of time,
would be far happier than they were
prior to winning the lottery,
especially given the tremendous amount of money.
And again, the fact that money can’t buy happiness,
but that money does indeed enable the ability
to buffer stress provided people
were responsible with that money
and just didn’t blow it or spend it all right away,
that they could start to afford things
that they couldn’t afford,
not just in terms of luxury items,
but also the ability to hire help that would free up time,
that would allow them to do anything
from travel that they couldn’t access before to meditate,
if that was something that they didn’t have time
to do before and so on and so forth.
So the result, quote unquote,
that winners of the lottery and recent paraplegics
have the same levels of happiness is actually not true,
at least according to the author of the original study.
Now, what he did not point to
is the degree to which that is not true,
but he did point to the direction of the result
and the fact that people who are rendered paraplegic,
in fact, are reporting themselves
as less happy than they were prior to their injury.
And certainly that their levels of happiness
are lower than those that simply won the lottery,
hundreds of millions of dollars,
which I think is the more intuitive result.
And so I think it’s important to be aware
of that discrepancy because it’s something
that was lost in the communication
around those results the first time around.
And indeed, Dan Gilbert is an excellent scientist
and was quite good about trying to correct the narrative.
I, myself, as a podcaster
who puts information on the internet,
know that the challenges of correcting narratives,
especially of things that came out some time ago,
we always attempt to do this as best we can,
but not everyone that saw that first video
will necessarily hear the discussion
that happens subsequently.
So my hope is that Dr. Gilbert will interpret
me communicating this now,
not as an attempt to criticize him,
but rather as an attempt to praise his willingness
to try and correct the narrative to be more accurate.
So to be very clear about what this study did and didn’t show
and here, I’m going to combine these results
with other studies that I was able to find
that explored similar phenomenon.
So a major trauma, for instance,
not necessarily becoming paraplegic,
but traumas of a different sort, emotional traumas.
When you look at the whole of those data,
at least my read is that when people win the lottery
or acquire wealth through inheritance,
some form of wealth acquisition that is sudden
and that wasn’t preceded by a specific effort
to gain that wealth, right?
Buying a lottery ticket is a pretty quick thing.
Inheritance is something that you simply get
by virtue of who you are, not necessarily by effort.
Well, that led to increases in self-reported happiness
compared to prior to the inheritance of the lottery win,
but it wasn’t as substantial as you might imagine
if you’re approaching the notion of happiness
simply from, well, more money equals more happiness.
And while it is true that people
who are rendered paraplegic or who undergo
psychological traumas or physical traumas
of any various kind are, and frankly,
are remarkably resilient in many cases.
They can still manage to go about life and work
and engage in relationships, et cetera.
There is a visible decrease in overall levels
of happiness and wellbeing, in particular,
if the psychological and physical trauma
renders their nervous system different in a way
that impacts other major areas of life
and enjoyment for them.
And that’s certainly true one year out from the trauma.
So the point is that we do need to reframe this idea
that whether or not you win the lottery
or become paraplegic or suffer some major trauma,
your levels of happiness are going to be the same
three months or a year later.
I don’t think that’s accurate.
And in fact, Dr. Dan Gilbert emphasized
that that’s not accurate even in that initial study.
And I think it’s an important thing to frame
because that’s such a popular notion
or that that idea combined with the idea
that increased earnings don’t make us happy
combined with the idea that we are happy earlier in life,
but then as more demands arise in life,
we become less happy and then we become happy again.
And that idea as we already explored
is not necessarily true.
Frankly, I knew a lot of teenagers
and people in their early 20s are pretty unhappy
who then become happier later
as they acquire more resources.
Sometimes distance, let’s be honest,
sometimes distance from our family of origin
makes us more happy, sometimes less so.
It’s highly individual.
So I think those general themes
that we’ve heard over and over,
while they have merit and they certainly stand up
in some of the more powerful longitudinal
and short-term studies, there is nuance.
And in some cases, there are now additional data
that are causing us to revise those understandings.
Now there is an important point,
or I should say the important point
that we can really credit Dan Gilbert
and others in the field of psychology with,
and that we owe them a great debt of gratitude for,
is that we do have far more control
over our levels of happiness than we might think.
And many of the things that reside
at that level of control,
that is the things that we can do and think
and say and access don’t come from external things, right?
They don’t come necessarily
from the acquisition of material goods,
but rather there are things that we can do
that can allow us to so-called synthesize happiness.
And I think this is one of the great gifts
of modern psychology is that Dan Gilbert
and others, the Harvard Happiness Project,
work at Yale and elsewhere, right?
There are excellent labs working on happiness
all over the US and all over the world, frankly.
One of the great gifts that they’ve supplied us
in the form of data is that there really are things
that we can all do and think and access
to allow ourselves to so-called synthesize happiness.
Now this notion of synthesizing happiness
or synthetic happiness as it’s sometimes called,
can sometimes ruffle people’s feathers a bit
because people immediately flip to the idea that,
oh, you’re just going to tell me to be grateful
for what I have or to just navel gaze
or just to imagine that I’m happy.
But that’s really not what synthetic happiness
is about at all.
Synthetic happiness actually has to do
with some really important larger principles
about the way that our emotional system
and the way that the reward systems
of our brain really function.
And they point to important concepts
that we’re going to now discuss,
things like the hedonic set point, for instance,
or the dopamine system of anticipation of rewards
versus receiving rewards.
Just as a brief insight into that,
our anticipation of something positive oftentimes
leads to greater increases in the sorts of neurochemicals
that support a state of happiness and wellbeing
than the actual acquisition of the thing
that we’re trying to obtain.
And this goes back to a theme I’ve discussed
a few times before on this podcast,
in particular with my colleague
at Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Anna Lemke,
who wrote the fabulous book, Dopamine Nation.
If you’re interested in dopamine and addiction
in particular, that’s a wonderful, clear,
and extremely informative read.
And if you’re interested in dopamine more generally,
just not just in the states of addiction,
but in everyday life and in pursuit and motivation,
The Molecule of More is an excellent book related to that.
And as I mentioned earlier,
we have this episode on dopamine motivation and drive.
The notion of synthetic happiness
is not simply about imagining happiness
or thinking about happiness or anticipating happiness.
To some extent it is,
but it relates to a number of other important themes,
but it is grounded very thoroughly
in the neurobiology of dopamine rewards.
And I’ll talk about some of that neurobiology
in a few moments.
But I want to take a couple of minutes
and talk about what synthetic happiness is
and what some of the conditions are
for allowing us to access the state
of so-called synthetic happiness.
And I want to point out at the outset
that synthetic happiness,
while it might sound synthetic, AKA false,
it’s anything but.
It actually turns out to be among the more
and perhaps the more potent form of happiness
that we can all access.
And this is where themes related to our control
over our own internal state
really become not only valid, but very powerful.
So for instance, Dr. Dan Gilbert and others
have explored how opportunity and choice,
that is freedom, can and can’t lead to states of happiness.
And the results of those studies are very solid
and frankly, very surprising
until you understand the results.
And once you do,
I think you will immediately see areas of your own life
that you can start to access more happiness,
again, genuine happiness,
simply by framing certain choices in a particular way,
and maybe even by eliminating choices.
Now I’d like to focus on the research
aimed at understanding what increases
our levels of happiness.
And I’d like to frame this under the umbrella
of two major themes.
The first theme is so-called natural happiness.
Natural happiness is the sort of happiness
that most of us are familiar with.
So the kind of happiness that we expect to have
if we, for instance, complete a degree,
hopefully a degree in a topic meaningful
and interesting to us, but a degree nonetheless,
or we find a mate,
hopefully a mate that we enjoy spending time with,
or for instance, making a certain income
or finding work that we enjoy on a regular basis.
All of those are forms of happiness
that from a very early time in development,
we are taught exist.
For instance, even when we are very young,
we are told that our birthday is coming
and that we are going to get presents
and those presents are going to be focused on
knowledge of things that we already enjoy.
So if you’re a little kid and you like trucks
or you’re a little kid and you like dolls,
you can sort of expect that those gifts
will bring you some level of joy or happiness.
And while that’s a small child example,
that general notion of natural happiness
is of course, one that persists into adolescence,
into young adulthood and into adulthood.
And we quite understandably come to associate
this feeling of joy or happiness
with the receiving of things or the acquisition of things,
whether by effort, by gift, by inheritance
or some other form.
Okay, so that’s natural happiness.
And yet, as I mentioned a little bit earlier,
there’s also this notion of synthetic happiness.
And some of the more interesting and exciting research
in the fields of psychology and in fact, neuroscience
point to this idea of synthetic happiness
as at least as powerful a source of happiness
as natural happiness.
Again, at least as powerful and perhaps even more powerful.
And of course, one has to take a slightly different view
of what happiness is in order to accept this idea
that we can create happiness for ourselves.
But that doesn’t mean that the whole notion
of synthetic happiness is merely a passive one,
where all we do is sit back and imagine being happy
and then we are happy.
For better or for worse, our nervous systems
and our neurochemistry simply don’t work that way.
In fact, synthetic happiness has almost always
been understood as something that we have to put
some effort toward achieving.
But, and this is an important thing to point out,
synthetic happiness also requires that certain situational
or environmental conditions be met.
A good example of this is some of the work
by Jillian Mandich, or I should say, Dr. Jillian Mandich,
who’s done some interesting work on the conditions
for creating happiness within our mind
and in our overall state of being.
And she’s been involved in a number of different studies,
but one of the ones that I found particularly interesting
is one in which they explored different types of music
and other aspects of environmental settings.
So you bring subjects to the laboratory,
play them different types of music.
There are, in fact, certain aspects of music
that can create different states of mind,
sadness, happiness, anticipation.
In fact, there are certain patterns of music
that can reliably induce anticipation of the fear
and anxiety-based type.
So for instance, think the movie, Jaws.
If you recall, for those of you that have seen Jaws,
there’s this ongoing theme music
anytime the shark might be present in the water
or in a given scene that essentially goes,
Now, for the musicians out there,
this has basis in things like tritones
and things that are understood from the mathematics
and the musical side.
And from the neuroscience side,
are known to create a neural state of anticipation.
Yeah, a neural state of anticipation
and not necessarily a positive one.
And indeed, there are other patterns of music
that involve uptones.
Think some of the music that’s typically been used
in cartoons of various sorts.
There’s a long history of this.
Indeed, there’s a whole literature of psychological
and now even a smaller but still interesting literature
on the neuroscience of how certain patterns of music
can induce a state of joy
and joyful anticipation in particular.
A lot of those patterns of music are incorporated
into so-called happy cartoons and Disney movies
and things of that sort.
In any case, Dr. Mandich and others have explored
how music in particular,
but other features of the environment
can or cannot induce states of happiness.
And the basic takeaway from those studies
is that while having a certain environmental sound,
musical tone, or visual feature to a given space, a room,
is necessary for a state of happiness,
it is not alone sufficient.
What is required is that individuals
not only be placed into an environment
that contains music or visual items
or a combination of music and visual items
that can induce states of joy or happiness
or positive anticipation,
but that they also are given some sort of instruction
or instruction manual as to how to synthesize happiness
inside of that environment.
This is important because what this says
is that our ability to create states of happiness
is dependent on our environment,
but also requires effort from us.
That also makes sense as to why
when we are under conditions of deprivation,
so it could be social deprivation or financial deprivation,
or even for people that are very sensitive to weather,
you know, there are a certain number of individuals,
about 30% of people who report feeling very, very low
under conditions where the sky is overcast,
especially if it’s been overcast for a number of days,
the so-called seasonal affective depression.
Those individuals, by the way,
can often receive tremendous benefits
in terms of elevating their mood
if they make an effort to get sunlight
and if they can’t get sunlight, artificial light
of the sort that we talked about earlier.
But in any case, there are a number of people
that are profoundly negatively influenced
by the lack of positive visual and auditory cues
in their environment.
But for most people, we are in a,
what I would call a dynamic relationship
with our environment.
Our environment has an effect on our mood,
but the research indicates that we also need to make
some sort of effort toward being happy.
Now, effort toward being happy is a very vague term,
so let’s better define what that is.
In the case of Dr. Mandich’s work,
this took the form of doing so-called happiness inventories,
right, that can be focusing on things
that one is grateful for,
things that they particularly enjoy.
This is somewhat of a gratitude type practice,
but includes some other features as well
that are more focused on the things that bring you meaning
and actually engaging in the things that bring you meaning.
So if you’re trying to think about
how to improve your levels of happiness,
what this research essentially says is
that you would be smart to try
and adjust your home environment,
adjust your work environment so that it is cheerful to you.
Maybe that means a plant.
For me in my laboratory,
one of the things that was really critical
that I had as a postdoc and in my own laboratory
when I first started my lab was I love aquaria,
so I had multiple fish tanks.
In fact, people in my laboratory
were always rolling their eyes,
why do we have to have all these fish tanks
with all these, I like freshwater tanks,
not saltwater tanks for reasons
that aren’t interesting for this discussion,
but freshwater tanks with discus fish, for instance,
to me are just beautiful.
They make me happy.
I just enjoy them.
Music is a complicated thing in laboratories
because it’s a shared space,
so headphones are the general requirement,
but having either silence, if you love silence,
and I happen to like working in silence
or listening to certain forms of music,
I do also use the 40 Hertz binaural beats,
or I particularly like listening to Glenn Gould
while I work or listening to whale song,
believe it or not, while I work,
because it doesn’t have any structure that I can follow.
I don’t speak whale, and so I can’t follow,
but it sort of fills the space in a way that I find pleasant
and I’ve put substantial amounts of effort
into making my laboratory spaces and my office spaces,
my workspaces, nice places to be.
Now, I had no knowledge of this work from Dr. Mandich
and others at the time when I did that,
but what I found was that over the years,
I was challenged in maintaining a kind of elevated mood
while working in a laboratory,
not because I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the work.
I love doing experiments with my hands
and I loved being in lab,
but at least the labs that I was in
as a graduate student and postdoc, there were no windows,
so I wasn’t getting adequate sunshine.
The windows that we didn’t have didn’t open,
so I wasn’t getting a lot of fresh air
and so on and so forth.
So I’ve personally found it very valuable
to create an environment both at work and at home
that I find aesthetically pleasant,
at least in some way or another.
And I realize people have varying levels of control
over their aesthetic environment.
Certainly the auditory environment can be controlled
nowadays through the use of headphones
if you’re allowed to use those.
So for instance, using music or using background sound
that you find very pleasant
combined with a concerted effort on your part
to create states of happiness
by hopefully doing work that’s meaningful to you
or at least is leading to meaningful outcomes.
We’ll talk a little bit more about that.
But these happiness inventories also turn out
to be interesting and important sources
of creating so-called synthetic happiness.
And we will also talk about other ways
that one can create elevated levels of synthetic happiness.
And I realized the word synthetic
probably draws up connotations of false happiness
or contrived happiness.
I wish instead of calling it synthetic happiness,
they had called it a self-created
or self-directed happiness or something of that sort
because then it wouldn’t sound as false
because it’s simply not false.
It leads to the same, as far as we know,
identical neurochemical and psychological states
of happiness as natural happiness
and might even be more persistent than natural happiness.
It certainly is more under our control.
But the key point is that environment
and self-directed work at being happy are both important
and they interact with one another.
So if you’re somebody who has a hard time
synthesizing happiness through any of the methods
that we talk about today,
don’t consider yourself deficient.
It could very well be that the environment that you’re in,
social environment or physical environment
or auditory environment is simply not conducive
to synthesizing happiness.
And for that reason, I think the work of Jillian Mandich
and colleagues and others in the field
is tremendously important because it removes us
from this pressure to just synthesize happiness
from within despite our circumstances.
I think many of us have heard of the incredible stories
of people like Viktor Frankl or Nelson Mandela
who were stripped of their freedom
and yet managed to maintain some sense
of positive anticipation or at least some sense of identity
that allowed them to still access forms of happiness.
Those are highly unique situations, of course,
and they speak to the power of the human psyche
for synthesizing happiness
and certainly for synthesizing a sense
that there might be a future and to live into that future
in their cases, incredibly impressive ways.
But I think for most everybody,
the environment that we’re in
has a powerful impact on our mood
and some people more than others.
I know people that are perfectly happy with blank walls,
no pictures on the walls.
Other people benefit tremendously from having photos
or plants in their environment.
You really have to determine what’s needed for you
and do your best to try and place those things
into your environment,
or rather place yourself into an environment
that is conducive to you synthesizing your happiness.
In fact, the powerful interaction between our environment
and our own ability to generate certain kinds of emotions
is well-established, not just for happiness,
but for things like gratitude.
So for instance, there’s a classic study from Ames,
A-M-E-S, in 2004 that was focused on gratitude.
And we’ve had an episode on gratitude before.
The basic takeaway of that episode
is that it turns out receiving gratitude
is a more powerful stimulus for the release
of neurochemicals and activation of brain areas
associated with so-called pro-social behaviors
and feelings of wellbeing, including happiness.
But also observing stories in the form of movies or books
or other narratives of other people receiving help
is also a very powerful stimulus for gratitude.
Also, giving gratitude is very powerful,
but not as powerful as receiving gratitude,
at least that’s what the research says,
or observing powerful exchanges of gratitude
between other individuals.
What the study from Ames showed is that gratitude
as a state of mind and as an emotion
does not exist in a vacuum.
It’s not independent of our surroundings.
So for instance, just writing down all the things
you’re grateful for while it has some positive impact,
the impact of that or receiving gratitude
or observing gratitude is far more potent, right?
Bigger increases in happiness and feelings of wellbeing
and indeed neurochemicals and activation of brain areas
associated with happiness and wellbeing
when there’s a reciprocity,
when the person receiving understands something
about the person that’s giving to them
and understands that the person is giving genuinely,
So there’s an environmental interaction.
It’s not just about receiving,
it’s receiving from somebody
that you know genuinely wants to give.
And likewise for the giver in that equation,
the feelings of wellbeing are far greater
when the person receiving whatever it is,
money, food, assistance in some form or another,
it could be physical assistance, et cetera.
When the giver has knowledge that the person receiving it
genuinely needed the thing that they are receiving.
So the important finding within the research
again and again is that happiness doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
It’s partially our own responsibility
to synthesize happiness.
Now, I was told that many times in your life,
happiness is in your head.
Well, yes, indeed it’s in your head,
but it’s also dependent on interactions
with your environment,
physical environment and social environment and so on.
Likewise, gratitude is something
that we can create inside of us, right?
Through gratitude lists and appreciation,
or we can give both powerful sources
of evoking neurochemical changes
associated with gratitude and happiness and wellbeing,
but it too doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
There’s a much greater positive effect
when we have knowledge about
why the giver is giving us something
or that the person receiving something
is going to benefit tremendously from receiving it.
So I’m highlighting this because I think that
when we hear about synthetic happiness,
there’s a kind of automatic erasing of context
that tends to occur.
And in fact, if you were to peruse the various videos online
or papers that exist on PubMed
around happiness and synthetic happiness in particular,
you would come away with the impression
that synthetic happiness is just something
that we’re supposed to snap our fingers and access,
or perhaps do very specific things and access.
But while that is true, context really matters.
And I think that’s an important point,
much in the same way that the point needs to be made
that while money doesn’t buy happiness,
money can buffer stress and certainly offer opportunities
that can provide opportunities for more happiness.
So I think we are starting to arrive
at a general theme here,
which is that nothing related to our mood
exists in isolation.
And in fact, that leads me to a discussion
of one of the major scientific findings
in the realm of what sorts of mindsets and behaviors
can in fact lead to happiness.
And this is a paper that was published in 2008.
And even though that might seem like a while ago,
it forms the basis for a large amount of literature
It’s a very interesting literature.
This is work from Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues
and was published in the journal Science,
which again is one of the sort of three apex journals.
Nature, Science, Cell, I always say
is sort of the Super Bowl, NBA championships
and Stanley Cup of scientific publishing.
Very, very stringent in terms of the number of papers
they let in, very few that is.
And the title of this paper makes fairly obvious
what the paper is about.
The title of the paper is
Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness.
And I know a number of you probably hear that title
and think, oh boy, here we go.
He’s going to tell us that giving away all our money
is going to make us happier than receiving money.
And I promise you that is not what I’m going to tell you.
But nonetheless, this is a very interesting study.
And it’s one that I think that we really
ought to pay attention to.
Because what the study is based on is the fact that income,
provided one’s income meets a certain level of basic needs,
indeed has been shown to have only a weak effect
on overall happiness, okay?
So quoting from the paper in the first paragraph,
quote, income has a reliable,
but surprisingly weak effect on happiness within nations.
Within nations just mean they looked at this
in not just the United States,
but a number of other places as well,
particularly once basic needs are met.
Okay, so if that’s the case,
then what aspects of money and having money
are related to happiness?
Certainly there are people who have a lot of money
who are very happy.
Certainly there are people who have very little money
who are very happy.
And of course the reverse is also true.
There are plenty of people who don’t have very much money
who are unhappy.
And in fact, there are people who have a lot of money
who are very unhappy.
A point that whenever it’s made,
often those with less money to kind of roll their eyes,
because the assumption is more money
does increase happiness.
And in fact, it doesn’t.
And later we’ll get back to this idea
of whether or how one acquired their money
has any impact on whether or not
that money increases their happiness or not.
Okay, let’s kind of earmark that for later.
In the meantime, let’s talk a little bit more
about the findings in this paper.
This paper is interesting because what it did
is it explored something called pro-social spending.
Pro-social spending is a phenomenon
where people are taking a certain portion of their income
and they are giving it to others,
often for causes or for things that they think
are important to see happen in the world
or change in the world.
That could be a hungry individual
having access to food or medical care.
It could be for environmental causes.
It could be for animal wellness.
It could be for any number of different things.
It could even be giving somebody money
so that they can buy themselves a gift
or giving somebody money and not having any, excuse me,
understanding or expectation
of what they’re going to do with the money.
Again, one of the central themes around gratitude
is that while receiving is great,
giving is also great
in terms of increasing sense of wellbeing.
And one of the more important features to that
is when we give either in the form of words
or in the form of resources,
knowledge that the person receiving
benefits from that in some real way
greatly increases the chance
that there’s an increase in happiness for the giver
as well as the receiver.
Again, that’s a note about gratitude,
but not an insignificant one as it relates to this study.
So what this study found was that higher pro-social spending
was associated with significantly greater happiness.
This was a very statistically significant effect.
And they found that the effects of income
and pro-social spending
were independent and similar in magnitude, okay?
Independent and similar in magnitude.
I’ll explain what that means for those of you
that might be confused by that statement in just a moment.
Whereas, quote, personal spending
remained unrelated to happiness.
So what this study basically found was
if people are allotted a certain amount of money
to give away and one adjusts for overall income, right?
And this is important because you could imagine
that for some individual giving away $2,000
might represent a significant portion
of their yearly or monthly income.
And for another individual,
it might represent a tiny fraction of their income.
But when you adjust for income level,
what you find is that people who gave away money
in terms of their own increase in happiness.
In fact, quote, employees who devoted more of their bonuses
to pro-social spending, that is giving away more money,
experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus.
And the manner in which they spent that bonus
was a more important predictor of their happiness
than the size of the bonus itself.
This was an actual experiment they ran
with real income, real money.
I’m going to read that again just to make sure it hits home
because I found this to be really impactful.
Employees who devoted a greater fraction of their bonus
to pro-social spending,
that is giving away money to others,
experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus.
And the manner in which they spent that bonus
was a more important predictor of their happiness
than the size of the bonus itself.
So the actual bonus, the receiving of the money
led to greater increases in happiness if they gave it away.
And the act of giving it away itself
led to greater increases in happiness
than receiving the bonus.
So it’s a twofer, as you might say.
So the takeaway from this study and studies like it,
I think it’s pretty obvious that to the extent that we can,
and again, when I say to the extent that we can,
this means whatever percentage of our own income
that we can afford to give away,
or if we don’t have income, the percentage of our effort.
Right, I mean, this was about money,
but it’s also about effort.
We can help others, right?
You can serve in food kitchens.
You can do community gardening.
You can pick up trash.
You can do any number of things.
You can assist a neighbor with childcare,
or you can assist a neighbor who is physically less able
to retrieve their paper, et cetera, et cetera.
The point is that giving resources,
certainly in the form of money,
but also in the form of effort and time
is immensely beneficial for synthesizing our own happiness.
That is for the giver,
us to increase our levels of happiness.
But the degree of an increase in our own happiness
is proportional in some way
to the extent to which the person receiving
actually needed that help and registers that help.
Excellent research also points to the fact
that another potent way to synthesize happiness,
that is to create genuine states of happiness in ourselves,
is to leverage the so-called focus system,
or rather I should say,
to de-emphasize the tendency of our minds to wander.
There’s an excellent paper on this,
also published in the journal Science.
This is now a classic paper.
I talked a little bit about it in the episode on meditation,
but for those of you that did
or perhaps didn’t hear that episode,
I just want to briefly touch on a few aspects of the paper,
and in particular, a few aspects of the paper
that I didn’t talk about previously.
And the title of this paper, again, is very straightforward
in terms of telling you what it’s about.
And that is,
A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind
by Killingsworth and Gilbert.
This paper was published in Science in 2010,
and we will provide a link to the paper.
This is frankly a very interesting paper.
This paper involved several thousand subjects,
or I should say, 2,250 adult subjects.
And what they were able to do
was to contact these subjects
while they were going about living their daily lives
and ask them both what they were doing
and what they were feeling.
There were some additional questions that they asked them,
but they were able to establish
whether or not people were watching television
or doing housework or working on a home computer
or resting or listening to music, et cetera,
in their natural environment.
So this is outside the laboratory.
And they were able to assess
to what extent those people were happy
or unhappy or neutral,
or had some other emotional state
at the time when they were engaging
in any number of different activities.
And they assessed whether or not those individuals
were also focused on or focused away
from whatever activity they were engaging in.
And the takeaways from this study are many,
but for sake of today’s discussion,
what I think is especially interesting
is that regardless of whether or not
people were engaging in activities that they enjoyed or not,
the tendency for their mind to wander from an activity
predicted lower levels of happiness
than if they tended to be focused on the activity
they were engaged in.
Now, that itself should be surprising.
I mean, what that says is that
even if somebody was engaged in activity
like cleaning their house or doing homework
or reading something that they weren’t enjoying,
if they were focused on what they were doing,
they tended to report as happier
than if their mind was drifting elsewhere.
Now, this also points to the idea that perhaps
our minds drift to unpleasant thoughts
more than pleasant thoughts,
but they also address that in the study.
Point I’d like to make here is, quote,
although people’s minds were more likely
to wander to pleasant topics, okay,
than to unpleasant topics,
and there the difference is pretty significant.
People’s minds tended to wander to pleasant topics
about 43% of the time as opposed to unpleasant topics
about 27% of the time,
or to neutral topics in the remaining 31% of the samples.
People were no happier when thinking about pleasant topics
than about their current activity.
Think about that.
People were no happier than when thinking
about pleasant things than their current activity.
In fact, the mere focus on what they were doing
was more powerful than anything else,
even if they didn’t enjoy what they were doing.
So they go on here to say, quote,
although negative moods are known to cause mind-wandering,
analysis strongly suggested that mind-wandering
was generally the cause, the cause,
and not merely the consequence of unhappiness.
And so there are a lot of aspects of this study
that are worth going into,
but the major takeaway,
or the one that perhaps we should all be most concerned with
is that when we are not focused on what we are doing,
we tend to be far less happy
than when we are focused on what we were doing,
even if what we were doing
is something that we don’t deem very pleasant.
And certainly if we are engaged in something
that we consider very pleasant and we are very focused on,
well, then our levels of happiness are the highest.
That’s sort of obvious.
But what this really speaks to
is the tremendous power of building our ability
to focus on what we’re doing
and to stay present to what we are doing.
Now, this whole notion of staying present
is one that itself is a little bit complicated.
And in the episode on meditation,
I talked a little bit about whether or not
it’s beneficial to be present to our internal state,
or that is our interoceptive state,
our feelings of our heart rate
and how full or empty our gut feels,
or our state of being from our skin inward,
or whether or not we should focus on being present
to things in our immediate surroundings,
both are versions of being quote-unquote present,
as you can imagine.
But in the one case, we’re focused internally,
in the other, we’re focused externally.
And of course, most of the time,
it’s some combination of the two.
But what this study really says is that any practice
that can powerfully impact our ability
to remain present in the activity we are engaged in,
could even be a phone call,
could be texting for that matter,
could be social media for that matter, right?
We’re not placing judgment on the activity here.
In fact, what we’re really talking about
is the enormous happiness increasing value
of being present to what we’re doing
regardless of what we are doing.
And the practice that’s known to be beneficial
for increasing our ability to focus is among other things,
a short meditation practice.
In fact, work from Wendy Suzuki’s lab at NYU.
Again, Wendy has been a guest on this podcast.
Her laboratory has shown that even a very brief meditation
of about 13 minutes,
and this would be the quote-unquote classic type
of meditation of eyes closed,
focusing on one’s breathing,
even a very brief meditation of just 13 minutes or so,
So ideally every day,
but you have to imagine that even if you skip a day,
there are still benefits.
That sort of meditation can greatly enhance
one’s ability to focus.
In her studies, it was also shown
that sort of brief meditation
could also greatly enhance mood and sleep
and various aspects of cognitive performance.
And work from my laboratory
in collaboration with Dr. David Spiegel
at Stanford Department of Psychiatry
has shown that even briefer meditations
of even just five minutes per day
can have fairly outsized positive effects
on a number of different parameters as well.
Those very brief types of meditations,
because they really are focusing and more accurately,
I should say refocusing exercises,
when you do that sort of activity of closing your eyes
and forcing yourself to focus and refocus
on your breath and internal state,
that is directing your perception inward,
or if you choose,
you could deliberately focus your perception
on some external object or sound for that matter.
When one does that,
the circuits of the brain involved in focus
that is they rewire and increase their ability
for you to achieve focus.
Many of us have heard about meditation.
Many of us think about meditation
as a mindfulness exercise,
mindfulness in quotes,
because that itself needs definition.
But I prefer to view meditations
of the sort that I just described
as perceptual or focus-based training,
which is really what the data point to.
Notions around consciousness and states of mind
are very hard to define,
but it’s very clear that even a five minutes a day
or ideally up to a 13 minute a day meditation
can greatly increase our ability to focus.
And based on the findings in this paper,
a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,
also make it very clear that the ability to refocus
again and again and again
on what we’re doing throughout our day,
regardless of what we’re doing,
can have a very dramatic,
in fact, a statistically significant increase
on our levels of overall happiness.
So what else does the research tell us we can do
to increase our levels of genuine happiness?
Well, it’s very clear
based on the longitudinal study from Harvard,
as well as the Yale Happiness Project
and the work of numerous laboratories in the US
that quality social connection is extremely powerful
in terms of its ability to increase our levels of happiness.
What is quality social connection?
Quality social connection
falls into a number of different bins.
This can be romantic connection,
this can be friendship,
this can even be coworker
or just daily superficial interaction type connections.
That’s surprising to a lot of people
because I think a lot of people hear
quality social connection
and they think deep conversation.
But it’s very clear from the research
that oftentimes our conversations with people
that we are closest to are actually quite shallow.
If you think about it,
if you’ve been in a romantic relationship
or a friendship for a long period of time,
or maybe even a sibling relationship
or other family relationship,
much of what you talk about
is fairly superficial or fairly trivial.
In fact, it’s often a sharing of the trivial day-to-day
things between two people or through groups of people
that leads to the feeling
that people are really connected to one another,
in particular, if it’s involving shared experiences
of any kind, good or bad.
So there’s an extensive literature on social connection
and how to build social connection.
This certainly should be the topic
of a full episode of this podcast
in the not too distant future.
But because social connection can have
such a powerful impact on our states of happiness
and overall wellbeing,
I want to emphasize a few features of social connection
that I think most people might not appreciate.
Once again, when we hear quality social connection,
I think most of us tend to think about
deep, meaningful conversation,
or long walks on the beach,
or camping trips together, or travel together.
And while all of those certainly qualify
as wonderful opportunities for social connection,
opportunities for quality social connection
are certainly not limited to those kinds of interactions.
In fact, I can recall times in my graduate career,
so this would be times when I was living in the laboratory,
because that was a significant portion
of my graduate years.
And one of the more important social connections for me
was the staff that worked there
in the wee hours of the night
and that came in very early in the morning.
So one of the more regular social connections I had
is I would brush my teeth in the hallway bathroom,
and there was no one else really around at that time,
except for the janitors that tended to leave
early in the morning,
they’d worked a good portion of the night,
or that were arriving very early in the day.
And the fact that I would see them on a regular basis
and maybe exchange a few words about their work,
or their families, or the holidays,
actually for me became very meaningful,
in part because my social connections at the time
were really limited to only social connections
that I had in the context of work.
Now, some people might look at my schedule at that time
and look at my life at that time and say,
that was very unhealthy,
you were lacking in certain number of ways.
But frankly, looking back and at the time,
and I know this because I journaled at the time,
I was exceedingly happy, at least for that stage of my life.
At that stage of my life,
I wanted to be focused primarily on doing experiments
and immersing myself in my scientific training.
And for me, the even seemingly insignificant interactions
of talking to the janitor in the morning
or some of the other regular staff
was not insignificant.
In fact, for me, it was very significant.
And over the holidays, when their hours were reduced,
I actually missed them quite a lot.
And even as I talk about this,
I can recall the feelings of wellbeing
of just seeing familiar faces.
And that brings up an important point,
which is there’s a quite extensive literature
pointing to the fact that when we see faces,
especially faces in the morning and in the late afternoon,
there is a positive impact on the emotional circuitry,
or I should say the circuitry of the brain
that underlies emotional wellbeing.
And that shouldn’t come as surprising.
We as old world primates, much like other primates,
are very dependent on faces and facial expressions
in terms of registering our own place in life
and our emotional state.
Now, the origins of this are many.
In particular, we have a brain area.
It’s actually called the fusiform face gyrus.
This is an area of the brain that was largely discovered
by a woman by Nancy Kanwisher at MIT.
And the Kanwisher lab has done extensive work
showing that this brain area
that’s dedicated to the processing of faces,
and not just faces in real life,
but faces on computer screens and elsewhere,
are intimately tied to areas of the brain
that are associated with emotionality.
That’s actually work from another laboratory,
Doris Sal’s laboratory at Caltech, now at UC Berkeley,
has shown that this face processing area in the brain,
in both non-human primates and primates,
is directly linked to the areas of our brain
that associate with anxiety and fear,
but also areas of the brain
that are associated with wellbeing.
So it comes as no surprise that when we see faces,
in particular friendly faces,
even if we have just brief interactions with those faces,
and even if no words are exchanged,
that creates the sense of social bond,
and it creates a sense of predictability.
And I raise this again because I think a lot of people
think that social connection
always has to come in the form of close friendships,
which of course are wonderful,
or close romantic relationships,
which of course are wonderful,
or close family relationships,
which of course are wonderful.
But as we’ll soon discuss in our model of happiness
or how to achieve happiness
based on the scientific literature in a few minutes,
social connection can and should come in various forms.
And when I say various forms,
I mean forms of brief interaction,
more superficial interaction,
and forms of deeper interaction.
All of those are relevant to our states of happiness,
and there’s research to support
that daily interactions with somebody at a cafe
or just a brief hello or a smile,
provided that we are both present,
where we make the effort to be present
to those interactions,
however brief they are,
can have a positive effect on people’s overall wellbeing,
and not just in that moment, but consistently.
Evidenced by the fact, I think,
that when I look back on those years
of working long hours in the laboratory
and essentially restricting myself
either to exercising, sleeping, eating, or working,
again, that’s what I wanted at that stage of my life,
certainly not the way I live my life now,
but that’s what I wanted at that stage of my life,
that even those seemingly insignificant
social interactions were important to me
and had a potent impact on increasing my level of happiness,
and frankly, still do, and I feel that right now.
That said, I think all of us can appreciate
the immense value of social connection
that is of the more long-lasting,
and for lack of a better word, richer type,
whether or not that is with siblings or with parents
or with friends or with romantic partners.
For that reason, I want to emphasize a little bit
about what constitutes connection
and what constitutes social connection.
There are basically two forms of social connection
that have been studied, and I’ll review both,
as it relates to increasing our levels of happiness,
and the first one is presence and eye contact,
and the second is physical contact.
So in terms of presence and eye contact,
there’s been a lot of studies
about whether or not people exchange direct eye contact
during conversation or not,
dictating whether or not each individual
in that interaction feels as if they had a connection.
Now, again, keep in mind that while we think of connection
as relating to some deep or meaningful conversation,
and oftentimes that can be the case,
think, for instance,
an excellent therapist-patient relationship
or an excellent romantic relationship
or an excellent friendship
where you really feel heard and understood,
or at least to the extent
that people are willing to explore certain topics with you.
You’re willing to hear them and listen really carefully
for what they’re saying,
and they’re willing to hear and listen to what you’re saying
in an attempt to understand.
That certainly can enhance the sense of social connection
leading to what people would call social bonds
leading to increased happiness,
but eye contact is also known to be an important feature.
The thing about eye contact is that most people assume
that a lot of eye contact, and in fact, ongoing eye contact,
is critical to a sense of connection.
And in fact, that’s not the case.
There’s a recent paper that I find really interesting
that was published in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2021.
And the title of this paper is
Eye Contact Marks the Rise and Fall
of Shared Attention in Conversation.
I find this paper interesting for a number of reasons.
First of all, my laboratory works on
internal states and vision,
so it relates directly to the work that my laboratory does,
but also that it violates what I thought was a general rule
of social connection,
which is this idea that two people need to be focused
on one another, that is looking at one another directly
and fairly consistently throughout a conversation
in order for the feeling of connection to emerge.
But it turns out that’s not the case.
And in fact, just to give you the takeaway,
and then I’ll flesh it out a little bit with some data,
eye contact, or I should say mutual eye contact,
so two people registering the presence
of the other person looking at them.
You’re looking at me and I’m looking at you.
If you’re watching this on YouTube,
then perhaps we’re actually doing this at that moment.
And if you’re listening,
just know that I’m looking directly into the camera
as I’m saying this at this moment.
If we were to be looking directly at one another,
that, it turns out, signals the next step,
which is that it’s very likely
that we will each both look away.
And that turns out to be a way in which we set
and reset attention continually during conversation.
So again, I really like this study
because of the high fidelity, the high temporal precision,
that is the precision over time
at which they looked at eye contact
and engagement of attention between individuals.
And they did this by looking at things like pupil size
and of course where the eyes were looking
and so on and so forth.
The basic takeaway of this study was the following,
and here I’m quoting from the study,
quote, rather than maximizing shared attention,
good conversation may require shifts
in and out of shared states accompanied by eye contact.
So what this basically says is that
when two people are involved in a very,
let’s call it an intimate conversation,
but the word intimate should not be misconstrued
to mean something about intimacy or sexual intimacy
or physical intimacy,
just a conversation in which both people feel
present to the conversation
and focused on that conversation
and that conversation and its contents only.
The tendency is for people to take turns talking,
although sometimes depending on the individuals,
they might interrupt more or less.
Again, interrupting can be a sign of interest.
It doesn’t always have to be rude by the way,
but they’re sharing information,
hopefully about a common topic or set of topics.
They will at some moment look at one another,
that’s what the study shows,
and that after briefly gazing directly at one another,
attention peaks and then they will look away
and attention will get reduced.
And then the conversation consists of a series
of focusing back on one another with their eyes
and then focusing off, focusing on and focusing off.
And those mutual eye contact moments
actually predict the breaking of attention.
So it’s this ramping up of attention
and breaking of attention,
ramping of attention and breaking of attention.
I think these are important results
because they violate the stereotype or assumption
that deep social connection of the sort
leading to happiness always involves ongoing eye contact
or ongoing focus.
Just as with meditation, just as with any activity, frankly,
we undergo shifts in attention and focus,
that is focus ramps up and then it breaks
and then it re-engages.
It ramps up, it breaks, and then it re-engages.
And that it turns out is the basis
of in-depth connected conversation.
So for those of you that are interested
in creating social connection in any context,
and in particular for the sake of increasing happiness,
because it’s very clear that social connections,
even if they are fairly superficial social connections,
can increase our sense of happiness.
Seeing faces is important, ideally faces in person,
although I suppose these days over Zoom
or over other screen type medium would be a close second.
But the point is that if you want to increase happiness,
you need to have quality social connections.
And if you want to have quality social connections,
you need to be present and engage
in those social connections.
And that requires a viewing of each other’s faces, ideally,
which is not to say that a phone call
or text exchange can’t be meaningful,
but that faces are really the most powerful way
to engage in social contact.
And that eye contact, not consistent eye contact,
but eye contact of the sort that builds up
and breaks across the interaction
is going to be the best way that we are aware of
to feel that one had a real connection.
This should also remove any pressure
that you might feel to constantly look at somebody
or to be completely eyes open,
staring at them without blinking or diverting your attention
at any point during a conversation.
This also, frankly, is an opportunity
where if somebody says,
hey, you’re not paying attention because you look away,
that you may actually be engaging
in what is the more typical form of healthy connection.
I talked about this long ago on an episode about focus.
It turns out when we are listening very intently
to somebody and trying to remember the information
they’re telling us, we will often close our eyes.
And that’s not a form of lack of attention.
That’s actually a form of attending in
because we have so much of our brain devoted to vision.
40% of our brain is devoted to vision
in some way or another.
When we close our eyes,
we can actually devote more attentional resources
to remembering the specifics of what people are telling us.
But again, please don’t go through conversations
with your eyes closed the entire time.
I think that would certainly not be conducive
to building social connection.
So we know that faces are important for social connection
as it relates to synthetic happiness.
And we know that eye contact is really important
for building social connection.
Physical contact is also important for social connection
and not just romantic or sexual type connection.
In fact, there’s a form of physical connection
that is present in other primates.
In fact, it’s present as far as we know in all mammals
and is also very much a feature of the human nervous system.
And that’s something called allo-grooming.
I have to imagine that most people
probably haven’t heard of allo-grooming.
The reason I’m bringing up allo-grooming
is that it stems from a fairly extensive literature
about the pro-social, pro-happiness effects of pets
In fact, if you want to read up on this,
there is a paper out of Yale University
on this topic that was published in 2018.
The title of the paper is
The Influence of Interactions with Dogs on Affect,
aka emotion, anxiety, and arousal in children.
And it references some other studies
that were performed on humans.
And the basic takeaway is that the so-called AAAs,
animal assisted activities,
represent a really potent way to increase people,
including children’s feelings of wellbeing.
Now, what’s interesting about this to me
is that dogs themselves don’t really have to do much
except be present in the room
in order for these positive effects,
that is the reductions in anxiety,
increases in happiness, et cetera, to occur.
And in fact, they can be very, very brief.
As they describe in the paper,
brief unstructured interactions with an unfamiliar dog,
so you don’t even need to know this dog,
after exposure to a moderate stressor
showed higher positive affect relevant participants
who received a soothing object
or waited for the same amount of time.
So just even seeing a dog for a brief amount of time
has been shown to reduce stress and improve happiness,
or I should say, increase feelings of happiness overall
than a child receiving a soothing object,
which was, at least for me, a little bit counterintuitive.
I would have thought that children
receiving a soothing object
would have been the more powerful stimulus.
But in fact, it wasn’t, at least not in this study.
The real question I think we should be asking ourselves
is what is it about interactions with others
and with other animals that could potentially have
this pro-social happiness enhancing effect?
And the reason I raise this is also because
I think many people are interested in either owning
or having interactions with pets
as a way to improve their feelings of wellbeing.
And I say having interactions with,
because I myself am a good example of somebody
who wasn’t always able to have pets.
So when I was a graduate student and a postdoc,
I very much wanted a dog, very, very, very much wanted a dog.
In fact, there was a rule in my family at some point
that I wasn’t allowed to talk about dogs anymore
because I was talking about all the breeds of dogs,
going to dog breeders,
examining different breeds, going to the pound, et cetera.
The point was that I was obsessed with getting a dog,
but I knew I wasn’t in a good position to own a dog yet.
I didn’t have the finances,
I didn’t have the correct living situation and so on.
Eventually I did own a dog, of course,
but at the time I couldn’t.
So what I would do is every Sunday,
I would go to a place where they fostered dogs
and they needed dog walkers and I would walk their dog.
I would also walk my neighbor’s dogs.
I didn’t charge them for it.
In fact, I felt like I was being paid
by getting time with those dogs.
And in fact, I put an ad at that time on Craigslist
that I would walk people’s dogs for free.
And only a few people took that seriously.
But of the ones that did,
I had a great little cadre of dog owners
that would allow me to take their dogs out
and I was super happy.
It just made me very, very happy and I really enjoyed it.
And frankly, it was a great opportunity for me
to also get to know the various dog breeds
and the different dog temperaments
and to learn a little bit about my ability
to interact with dogs in a certain way.
I actually got to be a pretty good dog walker.
Unfortunately, later I got a bulldog
and it turns out no matter how good a dog walker you are,
bulldogs just simply don’t like to walk.
In fact, if you’ve ever walked up to a bulldog
and you’ve offered to scratch or pet that dog,
you’ll notice that bulldogs love that.
And I would argue, having been a bulldog owner,
that they like it because it’s an opportunity
for them to stop moving.
But that’s more about the bulldog
than what I’m about to tell you next,
which is this principle of so-called allo-grooming.
Allo-grooming is a pattern of behavior
that’s observed in essentially all mammals,
but very strongly in non-human primates and primates
where individuals within a species touch one another,
and this is non-sexual touch.
So this would be someone brushing somebody else’s hair
or combing their hair,
or even using a lint roller on them, for instance,
or someone grooming somebody else.
Now, typically one needs to have
an established relationship with this person.
So it could be a professional type relationship
where this is a barber cutting somebody’s hair
or a hairdresser styling somebody’s hair.
It could be somebody giving someone a manicure
or a pedicure.
It could be somebody doing skincare or massage
for somebody in a professional context,
or it could be two people who have agreed
that it is appropriate for the context
and for the relationship for one person
to be grooming somebody else.
This can even, believe it or not,
there’s literature on this,
this can even extend into the realm
of people sort of cleaning and picking off other people.
Now, when we see this in primates,
it seems like a very cute
and sort of almost understandable behavior.
We can see these pictures online.
If you look them up, you can just look up aloe grooming
and you’ll see a vast number of pictures of, for instance,
baboons picking little things out of each other’s hair,
or grooming and kind of perusing one another to find things,
presumably parasites or like little bits of plants
or something like that that they want to remove from them.
Aloe grooming is known to stimulate
a certain category of neurons called the C-tactile fibers.
These are a particular category of so-called sensory neurons
that innervate our skin.
So these are literally like little endings of neurons,
little wires that end up in the skin
that when they’re touched lightly,
tend to create a feeling of wellbeing
in the person that’s being touched.
Again, this is consensual touch
that’s very context appropriate,
but it’s known to increase levels of oxytocin,
a kind of hormone slash neurotransmitter,
it’s both really,
that is known to evoke feelings of bond
or of feeling bonded to somebody or something.
And for many people, we hear about oxytocin
and we think about the bond between parent and child,
in particular, mother and infant,
where it’s been most extensively studied,
or between two members of a romantic couple.
But if you look at the literature on aloe grooming,
what you find is that when humans groom one another,
the increases in oxytocin that are experienced
are at least on par with,
and in fact, more often, more dramatic
in response to aloe grooming
than in response to other forms of touch.
So the point here is that aloe grooming
is a pro-social behavior that tends to associate with
and promote feelings of wellbeing and happiness.
And this is not a trivial effect.
If you look at the brain imaging data
or other forms of data on this,
aloe grooming is a very powerful form
of bonding between individuals that’s completely nonverbal.
In fact, most often it doesn’t involve eye contact.
I suppose two people could be looking at one another,
grooming one another,
but typically this is done from the side or from behind.
Why did I bring up the paper on pets?
Well, it turns out that when humans stroke dogs
or brush their dogs or stroke cats
or brush their cats, et cetera,
that is a form of human-to-animal aloe grooming.
And it’s one in which both the pet and the human
receive huge increases in oxytocin
and other related neurochemicals that make us feel bonded.
I bring this up
because the Harvard Longitudinal Study on Happiness
and many, many others,
if not hundreds of other studies on happiness,
point to the importance of quality social connection,
You hear this over and over again.
People on their deathbeds don’t say
they wish they had worked more.
People on their deathbeds talk about
the richness of social connections
or the wish that they had invested more
in social connections.
I think a lot of people think of social connections
only in terms of travel with or conversation with others,
but much of what we perceive as deep social connections
also involves physical contact.
And that’s something that’s deeply rooted, excuse me,
in our evolutionary biology.
And it’s present both in us and in non-human primates.
And it’s clear that we can engage in
these kinds of pro-social, non-verbal,
non-eye contact type behaviors
through things like non-sexual tactile touch,
AKA allo grooming.
So we’ve been talking about a number of the different things
that one can do in order to increase levels of happiness.
And certainly before we conclude today,
I’m going to touch back into not just synthetic happiness
and the various things we can do,
such as pro-social spending, allo grooming,
social connection, et cetera,
but also things related to happiness that involve
focus on vocation and work and pursuit of goals.
Because as I mentioned at the beginning,
those are also critical to increasing
our state of happiness and certainly our state of security
and the feeling that we can provide for ourselves
and perhaps for others as well.
So we will talk about that,
but I think it’s also important to talk about
this notion of choice and choices
and whether or not having a lot of freedom to choose
or limited freedom in choosing what we do and what we get
and what we are able to pursue in life,
how that relates to both natural happiness
and synthetic happiness.
Dan Gilbert and others have explored this issue
of freedom of choice and how it relates to happiness.
And there, I must say the findings
are incredibly counterintuitive,
but very, very well supported by all of their data.
I’m going to summarize a large amount of those studies
at once by saying the following.
Dan’s laboratory and other laboratories
have done experiments where they give people
a series of options.
In one of the more classic examples,
they give people the opportunity to rate
a number of different paintings or pictures
in ascending or descending order of preference.
In other words, they’re deciding which ones they like most,
which ones they like least.
Then what’s interesting is the experimenter
will vary the extent to which
they have to stick to that choice.
So this could be sticking to the choice
by receiving that painting to take home
or in another experiment,
it was having to make a choice
between giving up one photograph that they,
the research subject took,
or another photograph that they took.
One of the photographs was going to go off to a publication,
another one they could keep for themselves.
And the conditions in that experiment
were either that you had to make the decision
and it was final,
that is you could keep one and rate your decision,
or you could keep one
and then you had the opportunity to swap out
that picture for the other one at some later time.
In other words,
these experiments really weren’t about rating pictures,
they were really about whether or not
constraining your choice,
meaning forcing somebody to make a choice
and stick to that choice led to greater levels
or lesser levels of happiness and satisfaction
with that choice.
And what they find consistently
is that when people have an ongoing set of choices,
it leads to reduced levels of happiness.
Now that might come as surprising to many of you,
but I want to be clear about what this means.
This is not to say that having a lot of choices
of what you like most leads to lesser happiness.
And that having fewer choices about things you do
or objects you acquire, et cetera,
leads to greater happiness.
What this set of experiments really points to
is that when we make a choice,
if we are forced to stick to that choice,
we tend to be far happier with that choice
than if we maintain the option to change our mind.
The results of these experiments are extremely informative,
I believe, in terms of understanding
our real life happiness,
that is happiness outside the laboratory.
But I think they are often misunderstood
as meaning that if we have a lot of choices,
we tend to be less happy than if we have fewer choices.
That is not the case.
Having freedom of choice is terrific
and actually correlates with elevated levels of happiness.
But once we make our choice,
it’s clearly the case that killing all other choices
or having all other options killed for us
increases our satisfaction with the choice that we’ve made.
Whereas leaving doors open, leaving options open,
greatly diminishes our sense of satisfaction.
This has been exported to any number of different domains.
So this has been exported to the domain
of making choices about what college to go to
or what partner to select in life.
In every one of those instances,
we see that our happiness with our choice
is very much related to that choice
being either the only one or one of very few other options.
And there are a number of different ways to interpret this
through the lens of neuroscience,
we might say that the prefrontal cortex,
the area of the brain that’s involved in decision-making
and evaluating different options
is an area of the brain that’s vital,
frankly, to our evolution as human beings
and to our daily life and to our whole life.
It is, of course, the thing that allows us
to evaluate different rule sets, to change rule sets,
to switch contexts and to create meaning, et cetera,
to interpret what’s good, what’s bad.
But it’s also a fairly costly process,
meaning it’s very metabolically demanding.
And there’s an entire literature
related to what’s called ego depletion.
This is certainly a topic for a future podcast,
but ego depletion essentially says
that if I have you attend very intensely to a given task,
for instance, asking you to count backwards
from 1,000 to zero in increments of 13,
and then have you switch about halfway through,
that’s hard for a lot of people.
If I have you do that,
then your ability to suppress impulsive behavior
and to do a hard cognitive or physical task
immediately after that is actually suppressed,
the so-called ego depletion.
It relates to a number of different things,
but it certainly relates to engagement
of the prefrontal cortex,
which is very metabolically demanding.
So evaluating choices and doing computation of numbers
or attending to things with your mind
and forcing yourself to focus intensely
is metabolically demanding,
and that’s a limited resource
that can be reset by things like sleep
and non-sleep deep rest or idle time
or letting your mind wander,
in that case, a positive mind wandering
to allow your brain to reset its ability of focus.
But the other thing that it does
is it impacts the reward circuitry of the brain,
the so-called dopamine reward circuitry
and other reward circuitries of the brain.
And here I’m painting with a broad brush,
but it essentially divides them such that, for instance,
if a given choice of a, let’s say a partner,
or maybe you’re buying ourselves an article of clothing,
not that I want to compare selection of a life partner
to selection of an article of clothing,
but just to give multiple examples,
might give us, and here it’s arbitrary units,
X units of dopamine increase.
Well, if we buy that article of clothing
or we select that life partner,
and then we emerge from the store or the wedding
and we are focused on what we purchased for ourselves,
or our life partner choice, and only that,
well, then there’s a certain amount
of neurochemical reward associated with that
and happiness and wellbeing.
But it’s also very clear that if we leave those choices,
the store or our wedding, for instance,
or our life with somebody for a moment,
even just mentally,
and start thinking about the other options
that we might entertain as possible,
if those are still open to us in reality or in our mind,
well, then our reward circuitry becomes fractured in a way,
not physically fractured,
but less attention is devoted to the reward circuitry
associated with our choice.
And as a consequence,
instead of it being X units of dopamine,
it’s X divided by however many other choices
we might have available to us in our mind or in reality.
Okay, so instead of, and again, these are arbitrary units,
but instead of a certain amount of reward,
it’s a certain amount of reward
divided by the number of other options
that we might be considering
as alternatives to what we chose.
And I think this is a very important aspect
of understanding how limiting our choices
after we’ve made them is a vital part
of what we call synthetic happiness.
In fact, we could even go so far as to say
that focusing on the choices we’ve made
and really investing in those choices,
as good ones or great ones,
and really trying to limit our thinking
to the choices that we’ve made once we’ve made them
is perhaps also important to our natural happiness
because it’s so inextricably entwined
with what we think of as a good life.
And what I mean by that is if we are constantly in a mode
of evaluative decision-making
even after we’ve made a decision,
we are not neurochemically nor psychologically
able to extract the feelings of happiness
associated with the choice that we made.
So we’ve talked about a number
of different dimensions of happiness,
both in synthetic and natural happiness,
and some of the more counterintuitive aspects of happiness.
For instance, that people tend to adjust
their levels of happiness, not regardless,
but often in spite of their life circumstances.
But as we emphasized earlier in the episode,
that is not to say, at least the research
does not directly support the idea
that a major trauma or loss won’t impact our happiness.
In fact, it tends to, and that’s why it’s important
that people access resources and work
devoted to overcoming trauma,
which certainly exist out there.
And of course, there are the longitudinal studies
and short-term studies showing that income level
and material things don’t necessarily scale
with happiness and vice versa.
And yet we also acknowledge early in the episode
that while indeed money can’t buy happiness,
it can buffer stress.
And while work doesn’t necessarily bring happiness per se,
work can bring a tremendous feeling of meaning and resources
which can then put you into contexts
in which things like pro-social contact and enhanced bonds
and caretaking of others and their view can be enhanced.
So it would be unfair, and in fact, inaccurate
to simply view happiness through the lens
of money doesn’t matter, it’s all about social connection
and so on and so forth.
Absolutely, social connection is important,
which is why we spent some minutes talking
about some of the ways to enhance social connection
both with other human beings and other animals
and them with us.
I think there’s a opportunity here
to take the research on happiness,
the research on the neuroscience of what happiness
and gratitude and pro-social connection tells us
and to combine it into a bit of a model
or a toolkit, if you will.
And I think indeed this will be a toolkit
in one of our future toolkit episodes,
likely merged with the toolkit on gratitude,
which we haven’t done yet.
And perhaps even we will do an entire episode
on social bonds and how to enhance or build social bonds
or at least what the science tells us about that.
If we take a step back
and we look at the concept of happiness,
we can make a couple of absolute statements.
That is statements that I think very few people,
if any, would contest.
First of all, there’s no single molecule
or chemical associated with happiness,
but that the chemical milieu of the brain and body
is important for setting the stage
or the opportunity for happiness.
Hence why there are treatments aimed
at alleviating depression or mania
that target certain neurochemical systems
and hormone systems.
Happiness, at least the way I’m framing it today,
has essentially two components.
One is meaning.
That is what sort of meaning
do certain types of interactions or behaviors,
could be work, could be social interactions, et cetera,
carry for us.
And nested in that is this concept of connection.
And we talked a bit about tools for enhancing connection.
Things like eye contact, but not constant eye contact.
Things like being very present to a conversation
or an activity that you’re engaging in.
Remember, we talked about the paper,
A Distracted Mind is an Unhappy Mind,
the paper published in Science.
And we talked about the study also published in Science
in which giving money,
but also knowing how that money
has positively impacted others
leads to this feeling of pro-social connection
and happiness in the giver and in the receiver.
And I should mention again
that it’s not just the giving of money,
but also the giving of effort and time and attention
that can have similar effects.
So we have meaning and connection
and a number of different ways to access those.
And then we have this access that I’m referring to
as performance and resources.
And I’m talking about performance and resources
as it relates to natural happiness,
not synthetic happiness, but natural happiness,
because we would be wrong, I believe,
if we were to say that income doesn’t matter.
I think it’s fair to say based on the research
that income matters and income
that can cover costs of living,
plus that includes some buffer.
And what do I mean by buffer?
I mean, buffer to the anxiety
that circumstances might change is important.
Now that’s going to vary from person to person,
meaning some people will be perfectly happy
making $1 more than their absolute cost of living
Other people will require a more substantial buffer
in order to protect them
against the negative psychological effects
of worrying about, for instance, inflation
or worrying that they might lose their job.
And this is why I think most people recommend having,
if possible, some buffer in their bank account
that could cover two or three or maybe even six
or maybe in 12 months of living expenses
were they to lose their job
or something catastrophic happened to them.
So if we’re going to talk about happiness,
I think it’s only fair, only accurate,
and frankly, only respectful
to talk about living requirements
and cost of living requirements
that includes this sort of buffer
and that that buffer to anxiety is going to vary
depending on how anxious somebody gets
about the possibility of catastrophic things
happening to them, like losing their job
or their rent going up or doubling.
And here I’m talking about hypotheticals,
but I think we all know people
and perhaps ourselves have experienced
those kinds of circumstances.
So when we talk about happiness,
we absolutely need to think about resources
and we also need to think about performance.
I think we would be completely inaccurate
if we simply said, oh, you know,
any work leading to any outcomes, you know,
any effort, regardless of whether or not
it gets you an A in school or an F in school
isn’t going to impact your happiness.
I don’t think anyone would agree with that.
And yet, if you look at the major takeaways,
at least as they are communicated,
typically in the public sphere around the longitudinal
and short-term studies of happiness,
the takeaway generally is more focused on social connection
and how money is not important.
I don’t think anyone that’s saying that
actually means that income that can cover your expenses
plus some buffer isn’t important,
but it’s often not stated.
So if we were to come up with a general model of happiness
that includes various tools
for how to increase our levels of happiness,
I think it’s only fair to include
both natural and synthetic forms of happiness
and to pursue both natural and synthetic happiness.
Just to remind you, natural happiness
is the kind of happiness that we associate
with obtaining something either by effort
or because it was given to us.
Although I definitely want to highlight the fact
that receiving things that don’t require much reward
in order to receive them over time
can be detrimental to our dopamine system.
That’s an important aside.
The other form of happiness is the form of happiness
that we call synthetic happiness,
which is for instance, focusing on social connection.
And we talked about ways to do that
as a means to enhance your happiness, right?
Again, the language, the name synthetic happiness
implies something kind of artificial,
but frankly, genuine social connection is genuine.
There’s nothing artificial about it or synthetic about it
is that you can synthesize it through action,
through deliberate action.
Likewise, being focused or encouraging yourself,
working on being focused on whatever activities
you happen to be engaged in, positive or negative,
is known to increase your levels of happiness.
Again, this is a form of synthetic happiness.
You’re not obtaining anything new or additional
as a consequence of this, it’s entirely internal, right?
There’s no external reward.
There isn’t more money that arrives with this
or a better grade.
Although I would make the argument
that if you are present to the work you’re doing
in any context, physical or mental work,
it’s very likely that you are going to perform better
at that work.
So we have natural happiness and synthetic happiness,
and both of them require our attention and effort.
And in fact, if we were to draw a link
between natural and synthetic happiness,
it really is this concept of presence,
of really being focused on what we’re doing
that’s most likely to lead to the outcomes that we want,
both externally in terms of receiving monetary rewards
or grades or praise or whatever it is
that you happen to be pursuing out there,
resources of some kind,
and presence and striving to be present
when in the pursuit of so-called synthetic happiness
in the form of social connection
or in the form of really focusing on the choice
that you’ve made and making the best of that choice,
especially since you made that choice
in a way that you deemed best at the time,
well, that also is known to increase
your overall levels of happiness.
So if an ability to focus and attend to things deeply
is really what’s most important
and really acts as the greatest lever
for both natural and synthetic happiness,
well, then tools like a five-minute daily meditation
or a 13-minute a day meditation,
as well as tools that allow us
to get excellent sleep every night,
which of course sets the basis for attention during the day.
If you’ve ever had a poor night’s sleep,
then you are very familiar with how hard it is
to focus the following day,
at least for long periods of time.
But building our capacity to focus
through a focusing exercise,
which again is often called meditation,
but is really simply just a focusing
and perceptual exercise,
that’s going to create an outsize effect
on all the aspects, all the behaviors
that we know feed into creating natural
and synthetic happiness.
And so it’s really fair to say
that our ability to attend and focus
really equates to happiness.
So as is often typical of this podcast,
today we’ve talked a lot about the various aspects
of the science of happiness,
including the different forms of happiness
and tools to access those different forms of happiness.
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