How Our Brains Mess With Our Happiness
If we consider all the great works of art and scientific achievements through history, we might think the human brain is pretty awesome. It certainly is. It has helped guide hordes of slightly evolved apes to their current position of global dominance.
When we are trucking around, we generally accept that whatever flows through our gray matter into awareness is true and helpful. We may feel nuances that something is awry on occasions (did we really need that 6th cookie?). But in fact, there are some very pervasive problems with the way our brains function. These problems compromise our ability to lead a happy life. Brain!!! How could you? Caring Curmudgeon grabs handfuls of thinning hair and stares at screen with exasperation.
In the week three lectures Professor Santos breaks it down very simply. Here are four ways our brain interferes with our quest for happiness:
“Miswanting” – we want stuff that is not going to make us happy. Material things, the perfect body, marriage, loads of money. That kind of stuff.
Our brain grabs onto reference points that aren’t helpful. Say we watch a soap opera full of beautiful people living in mansions and spending weekends in the Hamptons. We may think (rationally) that we have a grip on reality, and the soap opera is just make-believe. However, a hidden part of our brains is busy jiggling our love handles and telling us it might be time to redecorate our shabby abodes. Our gauges for “beauty” and “wealth” are being benchmarked to the soap opera world and setting us up to judge ourselves accordingly.
As Santos warns, social media – rife with “best life” posts and images – has made the problem of reference points all the more acute.
The “awesome” quickly becomes “ho hum”. If we are coveting that new job or promotion or new car – when we get it, it can indeed feel awesome. However, we quickly get used to the new conditions and it soon feels like the same-old, same-old. The fancy term for this is Hedonic adaptation.
Our brain overestimates the long-term happiness impacts of both positive and negative events. We think the high from new car smell will last forever, and we will fall into a pit of perpetual gloom and despair if we lose our job.
The “positive” side of this perception dovetails well with the above issues. On the “negative” side, we may inflict unnecessary pain on ourselves in the short-term (thinking the bad feelings will last forever) or fail to take risks that could improve our lives because we overestimate the potential consequences.
Some of the fancy maneuvers to tackle these issues are discussed in week four and beyond, so don’t despair. In the meantime, Professor Santos challenges the students to undertake two sets of “rewirements”.
The first is fostering social connection. This is a topic that is highly relevant to our current coronavirus pandemic. The reduction in social connections (social distancing, lockdowns), as well as the shift in type of connections (wearing masks, Zoom calls) has made many folks feel less happy. And so it should, even the introverted among us are still social creatures.
The challenge is to find and take opportunities to connect, such as a brief chat with a stranger on the street, or calling up someone you care about. The opportunities are a little different in the pandemic, but it doesn’t take much to create a feeling of “seeing and being seen”, and therefore less isolated.
During the week I had some conversations with friends (albeit brief, outdoors, masked and at a distance) and also corresponded with family. I am also very fortunate to work from home with my loving wife, and can only imagine what this pandemic has been life for those living solo.
The other “rewirement” was to engage in random acts of kindness. At face value you would think our selfish genes would make it feel best to keep everything for ourselves. However, the average non-sociopath gets a pretty big kick out of doing stuff for others. Again, this can be small – like buying someone a cup of coffee, holding the door open for a stranger, or writing a thank you card to Grandma.
In our neighbourhood there are a number of community cats, and if you have read some of my other pieces you know that my household is crazy for critters. We were wondering how a feral black cat we called “Panther” had made it to a healthy adulthood. Then we noticed the nooks and alcoves that Panther would dart into. Peeking around the corners, we quickly determined that a number of kind souls in the neighbourhood were feeding Panther. One woman even left her garage door cracked with a blanket on the floor near the food dish, just in case he needed a place to get out of the weather.
One night, at each of these feeding spots we left a thank you card and some of our children’s books, including “Nobody’s Cats” – about you guessed it, a little black community cat. In our book the kitty is not named Panther, in fact it does not have a name at all. But at least we didn’t listen to a colleague who said we should name our storybook cat “Precious”. Gag… and apologies to any of you who have a cat named Precious.
Tune in next week for a discussion of week four, in which Professor Santos helps us with a data-driven takedown of the four brain defects, and we look at sleep and exercise as happiness boosters.