Wired for Happiness

This week’s article is a guest post by Megan Nichols. Megan Nichols enjoys exploring how the mind works and other scientific subjects on her blog, Schooled By Science.

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Half Full or Half Empty? Can People Be Wired to View Certain Perspectives?

It’s a classic question: Do you see the glass as half empty or half full? It’s supposed to indicate if you’re a pessimist or optimist, or if you see the world from a positive or negative point of view. But it turns out that your answer doesn’t have to be set in stone.

Researchers discovered that neuroplasticity, the ability for the brain to form new ways of thinking, lasts throughout our entire lives. We used to think that our brains were only malleable during childhood and that as adults, our thinking was pretty much set. Luckily, that’s not entirely accurate.

Nature vs. Nurture

There’s a sensitive balancing act at work in our brains. We have a constant interplay between our genetics and our environment. Our genetics gives us a kind of blueprint of possibilities so that we can fluctuate between levels. For example, Person A might have a happiness range of 0-100, while Person B might range from 40-70. Our environment, which includes our ways of thinking, helps determine where on our range we usually sit.

Person A with a 0-100 range can go through periods when they are very sad or very happy, depending on factors like how they think, what happens in their lives, and their physical health. Meanwhile, Person B, with a 40-70 range, can never be as depressed as Person A, but they can never be as happy, either.

The Evolutionary Perspective

If generally happy people tend to live longer, then why would our brains do anything to counter that? To figure that out, you must consider an evolutionary perspective. Our brains weren’t designed to live in 2016. The world is full of technology, but our brains are stuck in the Stone Age. There are 7 billion people on the planet, but evolution’s main goal is to reproduce. From evolution’s perspective, happiness is only a reward, like offering a kid a piece of candy for doing well.

The feeling of happiness doesn’t last. If we ate a piece of fruit once, and we remained happy about that indefinitely, we wouldn’t have any motivation to eat more fruit. If we had sex once, and remained happy and fulfilled by that experience, we wouldn’t maximize our chances of reproducing because we wouldn’t be driven to seek the experience again. We eat, have sex, or make a new friend, and we’re happy — but it only lasts for a short while, and then we return to our original state of satisfaction. This is commonly referred to as the Hedonic treadmill.

Are We Wired?

Yes and no. You are partially wired to limit your potential happiness, but you can determine what end of your scale you lean toward. The problem, however, is that your brain will fight you.

From an evolutionary perspective, happiness is only a reward. Your brain doesn’t want you to remain happy. As a result, happiness requires work. Your brain is on a constant lookout for negativity for a few reasons, mainly to keep you safe. Angry people, snakes, and fast moving objects represent potential threats, so your brain latches onto them. It warns you about them before you have a chance to fight it.

You must make a concentrated effort to be happier, which is difficult. It’s hard the same way exercise is hard. When you think about a happy person, you usually think of someone who is doing something — swimming, meeting friends, or perhaps traveling. A sad person isn’t doing that. They’re sitting around, feeling lonely, and crying.

In other words, you have to do stuff to be happy, but you don’t need to do anything to be depressed, so being depressed is easier. It can also be addicting, especially if you feel like people give you more attention, love, or support when you’re sad.

Make It Easy

Eventually, you might become tired of being sad. There are plenty of things you can do to start leaning toward the higher end of your happiness spectrum. Exercise and meditation are two popular options, but other things that will provide more immediate results.

Happiness is contagious. Surrounding yourself with happy people inevitably makes you happy. Why? They’re happy, and you’re probably out doing something. They’re likely smiling, and you’re inclined to smile back, thanks to evolution.

If you’re still wondering about how hard wired you are, think about the glass — is it half empty or half full? It depends on how you think about it. Some people have stronger genes that are less reactive to external changes, while others are more flexible. It all depends on you. No matter how small your range is, you can change where you fall on it. Your glass might not always be half full, but you can make it half full, half the time.

 

By Megan Nichols
Photo Credit: Jin_sama via Compfight cc

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2 Responses to Wired for Happiness

  1. Kenny E. Williams March 19, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    Megan,

    Thank you for your post. The nature-nurture continuum has always intrigued me, and much more needs to be researched.

    You write: “Our brains weren’t designed to live in 2016. The world is full of technology, but our brains are stuck in the Stone Age.”

    When you refer to “brains”, are you referring to what has been termed by some as the limbic system or reptilian brain?

    If our current skill-set in making decisions continues to be dominated by the reptilian/ limbic system, have you read any studies, commentary, research, etc. that portend to note when our cognitive (pre-frontal cortex) brains will vastly override the limbic system from stifling us.

    The literature seems to stilt in the direction that our “brains'” abilities to improve are always in the half-empty side of the discourse.

    Thanks,
    Kenny E. Williams

  2. Robert from Bird to Eagle March 29, 2016 at 6:51 am #

    “From an evolutionary perspective, happiness is only a reward. Your brain doesn’t want you to remain happy. As a result, happiness requires work. Your brain is on a constant lookout for negativity for a few reasons, mainly to keep you safe.”

    Especially liked this part of your post. Alot of people seem to think life is about being happy, but they seem to forget that your brains main objective is to keep you alive. Even if it will make you completely miserable.

    If you’re not alive anymore, you can’t be happy anymore. Simple as that,

    For myself I found out that taking action, and challenging myself, makes me really happy. Working towards something, and having the feeling I’m progressing and thus not standing still in my development.

    Robert.

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