The Biology of Happiness

(Before I move on to talk about the book, I wanted to add a short unrelated personal note: I have been under a lot of stress over the last few weeks on account of stuff I really didn’t have many realistic ways to deal with (I tried various approaches and I think I was somewhat creative in my attempts, but they were mostly unsuccessful). The main stressor is now gone for the moment, so maybe I’ll blog more in the weeks to come than I have over the last few weeks. However as I’ve decided to participate in a Mensa event this weekend you should not expect me to update this blog between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, as I assume I’ll not be spending much time near a computer during that time.)

“of all political ideals, that of making the people happy is perhaps the most dangerous one. It leads invariably to the attempt to impose our scale of ‘higher’ values upon others, in order to make them realize what seems to us of greatest importance for their happiness; in order, as it were, to save their souls. It leads to Utopianism and Romanticism. We all feel certain that everybody would be happy in the beautiful, the perfect community of our dreams. […] the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.”

Let’s just say the author of this book has not read Popper.

Here’s what I wrote on goodreads:

I’m not rating this as it does not make sense to rate it. Some parts of the last few chapters deserve 0 stars. A few of the first chapters deserve three stars.

The first half of the book has a few problems but is generally of a reasonably high quality. I learned some new stuff there. The last chapters of the book are quite poor.

In general I’d probably if hard-pressed give it two stars as a sort of average rating of the material. But 2 stars would imply that I think the book is ‘okay’. And some parts of it really is not okay. However I also cannot justify giving the book one star.”

I’d wish it were this easy, but unfortunately it isn’t so I’m finding myself reading this stuff. It did not take much time to read the book and that the first half to two-thirds of it was reasonably interesting. I don’t regret reading the rest – it’s relevant for how to assess the remainder of the coverage, if nothing else, and the book is so short I never got to dwell on the bad stuff much. Popper’s quote is incidentally relevant because the author seems to think people reading the book care about what he thinks about politics and stuff like that. I don’t, and I tend to assume that I’m not the only one; most people reading Springer publications don’t do so because they’re looking for political coverage of the topics of the day. Anyway I see no need to talk about those aspects here. I also don’t want to talk much about some of the specific advice he gives, which I consider to be … (I don’t really have a good word for it). He’s a proponent of embracing religion because it may make you happier, and he’s also a fan of various forms of ‘positive thinking’-type psychological interventions. Dobson et al. covered that kind of stuff and there was also a bit on that kind of stuff in Leary & Hoyle, and I think Grinde is overestimating how large effects can be derived from such cognitive interventions – in an impact-evaluation framework the evidence for much of the advice he gives is simply either poor or non-existent, and adding a reference to one study or something like that to justify an approach is not going to convince me when review chapters on related topics have failed to do the same. The fact that he seems to systematically (deliberately?) overestimate the prevalence of various mental problems throughout the last part of the book, presumably because he assumes that doing this will make the political suggestions he’s heading towards more palatable, certainly does not help; it makes him look untrustworthy. Which is unfortunate because other parts of the coverage are actually okay.

Enough about the bad stuff. I’d rather talk a little about some of the interesting stuff in the book.

Here’s part of the abstract from the the beginning of the book:

“This book presents a model for what happiness is about—based on an evolutionary perspective. Briefly, the primary purpose of nervous systems is to direct an animal either towards opportunities or away from danger in order to help it survive and procreate. Three brain modules are engaged in this task: one for avoidance and two for attraction (seeking and consuming). While behaviour originally was based on reflexes, the brain gradually evolved into a more adaptive and flexible system based on positive and negative affects (good and bad feelings). The human capacity for happiness is presumably due to this whim of evolution—i.e. the advantages of having more flexibility in behavioural response. A variety of submodules have appeared, caring for a long list of pursuits, but recent studies suggest that they converge on shared neural circuits designed to generate positive and negative feelings. The brain functions involved in creating feelings, or affect, may collectively be referred to as mood modules. Happiness can be construed as the net output of these modules. Neural circuits tend to ‘expand’ (gain in strength and influence) upon frequent activation. This suggests the following strategy for improving mental health and enhancing happiness: To avoid excessive stimulation of negative modules, to use cognitive interference to enhance the ‘turn off’ function of these modules, and to exercise modules involved in positive feelings.”

He uses the term happiness in the book in a way such that both hedonic and eudaimonic elements are included. There are quite a few ways to break down what happiness ‘really is all about’ and philosophers and others have written about these things for thousands of years, but Grinde argues that “Whatever divisions are made, it all seems to come down to activation of nerve circuits designed for the purpose of creating positive affect”. It should also be noted that: “Our knowledge in neurobiology is not yet at the level where we can accurately delegate happiness to particular brain structures.” There are some structures we know to be involved and we know that neurotransmitters involved in these processes in humans and other mammals also serve similar functions in more primitive organisms/neural systems, but of course if you’re taking ‘a broad view’ of happiness the way the author does, demanding that we have the full picture is perhaps a bit much. On a related note:

“There has been considerable work aimed at defining the neuroanatomy of mood modules […] The more ancient, presumably subconscious, neural circuitry involved is situated in the subcortical part of the brain—particularly in the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus. The cognitive extension appears to involve circuitry in the orbitofrontal, lateral prefrontal, insular and anterior cingulate parts of the cortex. The subcortical nerve circuits are probably essential for initiating positive and negative feelings, while the cortex enables both the particulars of how they are perceived, and a capacity to modulate their impact. […] the two reward modules (seeking and liking) and the punishment module presumably evolved from simple neurological structures catering to approach and avoidance reflexes in primitive animals.”

The neurobiology stuff relevant to this discussion is covered in much more detail in Clark & Treisman, although that one of course also only really scratches the surface and very different aspects are emphasized there. As for the reflexes mentioned above, they are very useful in some contexts and can from one point of view (the author’s) be considered a forerunner to more complex emotions. Reflexes don’t however always work that well, in particular they don’t necessarily handle change and complexity very well; if different reactions are optimal in different contexts an organism may benefit from upgrading from reflexes only/mainly to more complex information feedback systems. You don’t need emotions for that, but emotions may be a part of such a complex feedback system. Instead of going from the ‘simple to the complex’, one might also ask why e.g. plants never developed a nervous system? This may add a bit to the understanding of why these things are the way they are – Grinde argues that:

“The reason why plants never obtained anything similar to a nervous system is presumably because they (or at least the more complex versions) are sedentary. They do not need to move around to find food”. Animals tend to do, and even if they’re sedentary “their survival requires what we refer to as behaviour […] which may be defined as movements required for survival and procreation. […] The nerve system, and the concomitant use of muscles, was the evolutionary response to this requirement. In complex animals like vertebrates, the nervous system infiltrates all parts of the body. It connects with sense organs, to extract information from the environment, and effector organs (muscles), to orchestrate behaviour. The sense organs offer the organism information that is used to decide on an action, and the muscles set the action in motion. Between these two lies a processing capacity, which in advanced animals is referred to as a brain.”

I think it’s interesting in this context that a lot of what most humans probably consider to be ‘different stuff’ is really dealt with by the same brain structures:

“the three mood modules appear to cater to all sorts of pleasures and pains […] the ups and downs associated with the emotional response to sociopsychological events rely on much the same neural circuitry that underlies the typical pain and pleasures caused by physical stimuli. For example, experiencing envy of another person’s success activates pain-related circuitry, whereas experiencing delight at someone else’s misfortune (what is referred to as schadenfreude), activates reward-related neural circuits […] Similarly, feeling excluded or being treated unfairly activates pain-related neural regions […] On the other hand, positive social feelings, such as getting a good reputation, fairness and being cooperative, offers rewards similar to those one gets from desirable food […] And the same reward-related brain regions are activated when having sex or enjoying music […] Apparently, the ancient reward and punishment circuits of the brain have simply been co-opted for whatever novel needs that arouse in the evolutionary lineage leading toward humans.”

Some parts of the brain are more sensitive to stimuli than others, although we tend to hover around a set point of happiness. The set point is one we may be able to slowly change over time, and for most people it seems to be ‘positive’ in the sense that we tend to be relatively content when negative feelings are not activated – ‘a default state of contentment’, as Grinde terms it. I thought it was interesting that humans seem to be more sensitive to big negative emotional stimuli than to other stimuli (most positive stimuli tend to have relatively short-lived effects), “presumably because a single threat can have a far more drastic effect on genetic fitness (e.g., leading to death), than can a single fortunate event.” As in the case of many other complex traits, there aren’t any major-impact ‘happiness genes’; although genes matter the differences they cause are most likely due to the combined effects of a large number of small-impact genes and their interactions with the environment. This should hardly be surprising.

Thinking about the evolutionary context underlying our emotional responses to various stimuli the way Grinde does in this book of course also leads to questions about whether the enviroment in which humans live today is well-suited for the task of making us happy and related questions such as how we might best go about trying to optimize our environment in order to live a happy life. When looked at from a certain point of view modern humans live lives which are a bit like the lives of zoo animals; the environment we inhabit is very different from the one in which our ancestors evolved, and zoo animals that are not well taken care of tend to be unhappy and engage in various problematic behaviours. I’m not sure I want to go into that discussion in too much detail, but it’s certainly the case that whereas some aspects of modern life have the potential to increase our happiness, e.g. by dealing with stimuli that tends to be make us unhappy (hunger, pain, disease), other aspects probably have the opposite effect (e.g. weaker social bonds). This should not be new to the readers of this blog either as I think I’ve talked about this stuff before; I’ve certainly read stuff which has made me think along similar lines in the past.

There’s some stuff covered in the book which I have not talked about, but I figure I’ll stop here. I really would not recommend the book, but parts of it was actually reasonably interesting.


April 10, 2014 - Posted by | Books, Botany, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, Neurology, Personal

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