Neuroscience and Happiness
What’s the sign of a life well lived? If you were to judge by LinkedIn resumes alone, you might be impressed by prestigious job titles and accolades. But in person, the importance of these formal achievements quickly fades away. Regardless of career success, there can be something very dispiriting, almost lifeless, about someone who moves without strife through the ranks of their law firm. Nobody’s deepest yearning is to be a decently-salaried professional whose only goal is to get a table at a trendy restaurant.
Whether we’re striving for a new job, more meaningful relationships, or personal enlightenment, we need to actively want something more in order to live well. In fact, neuroscience shows that the act of seeking itself, rather than the goals we realize, is key to satisfaction.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. All mammals have this seeking system, says Panskepp, wherein dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure, is also involved in coordinating planning activities. This means animals are rewarded for exploring their surroundings and seeking new information for survival. It can also explain why, if rats are given access to a lever that causes them to receive an electric shock, they will repeatedly electrocute themselves.
Panskepp notes in his book, Affective Neuroscience, that the rats do not seem to find electrocution pleasurable. “Self-stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed, when they worked for this kind of stimulation,” he writes. Instead of being driven by any reward, he argues, the rats were motivated by the need to seek itself.
The human desire to seek can help make sense of studies showing that achieving major goals, or even winning the lottery, doesn’t cause long-term changes in happiness. But our drive to look ahead needn’t cause a permanent state of dissatisfaction, as seeking is itself a fulfilling activity. Evan Thompson, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, says that the entire field of philosophy can be seen as an expression of this seeking impulse. Rather than coming up with a philosophical answer and then resting, content with the solution, Thompson says many philosophers would say the quest is an end in itself.
The same is true, he points out, for the arts and sciences.
“If you’re an artist there are always new modes of expression, new things to create and communicate. The world isn’t fixed, it’s always changing, so that means you have to create anew in light of the changes,” he says. “I don’t think any good scientist thinks one day science will come to an end. Science is about questioning, new ways of looking at things, new devices. That’s entirely open-ended.”
The innate human desire to seek means that we can never truly feel that every desire and wish has been met. There will never be an end to the to-do list, future goals and plans, the things we want to achieve and see. But the fact that we don’t have everything we want is exactly what makes life so fulfilling.
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