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The Surprising Science Of Happiness by Nancy Etcoff at TED2004

A TED Talk A Day, Day 66: Nancy Etcoff provides an overview of what science has shown us about happiness, and the various systems of the brain that are associated with it.

  1. We all to be happier. This might be trying to learn how through books, or through drugs, both legal and illegal.
  2.  Yet depression and anxiety are becoming more common; and even as incomes and standards of living increase, happiness hasn’t moved very much.
  3. Freud said that the pursuit of happiness is doomed, and that it was not “included in the plan for creation”.
  4. Negativity bias: We have both positive and negative “systems” in our psychology, and the negative system is extremely sensitive. For example: we detect bitter flavours at smaller proportions than we do sweet flavours; we hate losing more than we like winning.
  5. Emotions are not just feelings: They multiple systems of the body and can change what we remember, what kind of decisions we make and how we perceive things.
  6. The new science of happiness: happiness and unhappiness are not endpoints of a single continuum.
  7. Happiness is not simply an absence of misery. There are actually two parallel systems: we can both look for opportunity as well as protect itself from danger.
  8. We are born pleasure-seekers: babies have been shown to prefer sweet to bitter; they prefer smooth surfaces; they prefer to look at beautiful faces and listen to consonant rather than dissonant melodies.
  9. Reward and pleasure pathways in the brain are different. The reward pathway involves dopamine and has more to do with incentive/wanting (though it was previously thought to be associated with pleasure). The pleasure system involves oxytocin and is more widespread through out the brain when compared to the dopamine system.
  10. Biophilia: we all have a profound response to the natural world. Among patients recovering from surgery, those who faced a brick wall took longer to recover than those who could look out the window and see nature. We are also naturally social and cooperative creatures.
  11. Previously psychology focused a lot on the self (self-esteem, etc.), instead of the self-other and how we realte to the world. We later found that people are happiest when in flow and absorbed with other people and activities.
  12. Forget about yourself: we are happiest when we don’t just focus on ourselves. Computerised text analysis of suicidal poets found an greater use of first person words like “I”, “my”, “mine”. This suggests a focus on loneliness rather than hopelessness.
  13. The sexual side of our brains, which drives our desire to reproduce, is composed of 3 parts:
    1. lust — wanting to have sex, affected by  the sex hormones;
    2. romantic attraction — wanting to be with a person, related to dopamine; and
    3. attachment —  to do with a long-term bond, related to oxytocin and the opiates.
  14. So the above mean it’s possible to be in a long-term relationship, but feel attracted to someone else, and feel sexually attracted to a third person.
  15. Social status: In the animal world, social status simply involves dominance, and displays of power and submission. For humans we work in terms of prestige, where we freely confer someone status because they can do certain things.
  16. Money has a positive effect on happiness, but this is relatively small. One issue is materialism, where the pursuit of money/things causes us to forget the more basic pleasures. In some sense our dopamine system gets derailed.

Suggested action steps: Focus on others, focus on doing, rather than thinking about myself/the self.

Fight for, not against

Recently I’ve been wondering if I’ve been trying to fight myself too much.

I get into trying to do the right thing, into “overcome myself” and my own “resistance”, and trying to “push my own comfort zone”. Sometimes it’s sounds like I’m trying to be anything but myself.

I’m all for pushing comfort zones and it’s often an amazing way to grow.

But there are times when thinking of ourselves as the enemy feels decidedly counter-productive. It’s an unnecessary use of mental energy because our minds will fight back, simply because there is someone pushing us.

Wanting to change for the better isn’t the same thing as fighting against who we are now, even though sometimes it feels like it is.

What if instead of fighting against ourselves, we fight for what we value and fight alongside who we are now, like comrades-in-arms?

We can then be our own champion and partner in crime as we try new (and sometimes challenging) things.

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