In Pursuit of the Origin of Happiness

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Imagine a moment of elation—a surprise visit by your best friend, a favored underdog’s win or maybe a dip in cool springs on a steamy summer’s day—reviewed in slow motion. What we would see, frame by frame, would be happiness divided, into chunks—people, sounds, things, actions. In our irresistible quest for happiness, what is its genesis?

Research, as it turns out, increasingly tells us happiness is specifically derived from experiences, not possessions (though some would argue that possessions comprise experiences). A recent study, published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information site takes this theory a step further, and posits that mere waiting for experiences is more gratifying than waiting for material possessions:

“…Four studies demonstrate that people derive more happiness from the anticipation of experiential purchases and that waiting for an experience tends to be more pleasurable and exciting than waiting to receive a material good.”

The study monitored how about 100 college students and over 2,200 randomly selected adults felt about material goods and experiences.

Researcher Amit Kumar, quoted in NPR, stated:

“I think one aspect of that has to do with the nature of imagination…If you’re waiting to buy an iPhone, you know exactly how many megapixels the camera on the new phone will have…People often get really creative while planning out a future vacation, he says, and just thinking about all the things they’ll be doing and all fun they’ll be having can boost their mood.”

Is it the anticipation prior to an experience, or everything that happens between the former and the latter and the actual event itself that releases endorphins? Must happiness be in concert with another human being, or can it exist in one’s solitude?

To the second question, our own anecdotal evidence reveals that we can certainly find pleasure being alone. We all know someone, perhaps one’s self, that relishes the idea of retreating to a private cove of isolation—likely temporary, but maybe longer—for a peace that soothes stressors that detract from our overall well-being. Healthy relationships, too, can contribute to happier, better selves.

Last week, in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, a study highlighted the benefits gained from meaningful relationships—specifically, how they help you “thrive.” A press release from Eureka Alert expounded on what this means:

“Researchers Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University and Nancy Collins of University of California at Santa Barbara emphasize the importance of relationships in supporting individuals not only in their ability to cope with stress or adversity, but also in their efforts to learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life.”

But not all meaningful relationships are good for you, they note:

“It is not just whether someone provides support, but it is how he or she does it that determines the outcome of that support…being sensitive involves responding to needs in such a way that the support-recipient feels understood, validated, and cared for.”

For all the benefits science confers on our understanding of happiness, nothing affirms its presence as how it feels. When we are happy, we know it. The things that we buy may induce it, experiences with loved ones may trigger it even more, but whatever its origin, our brains are wired to replicate the contentment. Hopefully, with that replication, comes a happiness that is not only pleasurable, but good for us.

To review a popular post on how a meaningful life is not always a happy one, check out this piece, published in January.

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On the Move, Over the Years

On the move, over the years, we are a nomadic people, that’s what we are. Austrian physicists created this graphic of migration patterns (from 1990-2010) based on UN census data:

 

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The graphic can also be found at npr.org.

Different Paths to Making Difficult Choices

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From the moment we exercise free will, our lives, in the most pragmatic sense, become a series of decisions. Good or bad, or neither, choices carve paths anticipated, or more commonly, unpredicted—that lead us to the right now, feet planted and poised to move again, toward some unknown destination. Some choices are simple; others not so. It is the difficult ones—the ones involving more risk—that often have us plagued with agony and paralysis.

A plethora of online commentary on the topic is no surprise: People are desperately seeking advice on making difficult decisions. TED, in particular, is stocked full of videos on the subject.

To start, there is Psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, who outlines a formula (passed down by 1700′s Dutch polymath Daniel Bernoulli) for why we make bad decisions (also the name of his talk). He labels the formula “Bernoulli’s gift,” which states:

“The expected value of any of our actions – that is, the goodness that we can count on getting – is the product of two simple things: the odds that this action will allow us to gain something, and the value of that gain to us.”

In other words:

Expected value = (Odds of Gain) X (Value of Gain)

“In a sense, what Bernoulli was saying is if we can estimate and multiply these two things, we will always know precisely how we should behave.”

Formulas, at first glance, can be ready-made solutions to quandaries. An “=” sign has always served as a salve for my conundrums: Trying to get a job? “Success = readiness and opportunity.” Pithy lines such as this are so chic, so lean, and yet weigh one down with the expectation that you absolutely can achieve what’s on the other side of the “=” sign. These formulas tend over-simplify our life’s ills, reducing them to numbers that don’t nearly capture values unquantifiable.

Enter Ruth Chang, another presenter on TED, who acknowledges this complexity of our human decision-making in “How to Make Hard Choices”:

“Even taking two alternatives side by side with full information, a choice can still be hard. Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they’re hard because there is no best option.

As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t. We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do.”

Her talk ends on a very positive note:

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.”

And choice doesn’t always have to be about us, but about others. For those interested in reviewing this concept not through an individualistically-minded lens, but a collective one, see Renata Salecl’s “Our Unhealthy Obsession with Choice”. In it, she says:

“I also embrace the idea that we should go beyond thinking about individual choices, that it’s very important to rethink social choices, since this ideology of individual choice has pacified us. It really prevented us to think about social change. We spend so much time choosing things for ourselves and barely reflect on communal choices we can make.”

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The Universal Melodies of Baby Talk and the Power of Sound

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Solving the enigma of baby talk, or why we speak to wee ones in a language quite different from the one we exchange with grown-ups, defies logic. Despite what may seem as a humiliating assault on the English language, people all over the world do it—that is, communicate to newborns in high-pitched squeals, oohs and ahhs.

Recently, a fascinating piece aired on Radio Lab explored this topic, as a prelude to a larger theme of the power of sound.

Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interviewed Anne Fernal, director of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford University. Years ago, Dr. Fernal observed mothers at a hospital in Germany speaking different languages (Turkish, Greek, Sicilian, etc.) to babies, which collectively created what she describes as a “deep universal music.” Despite the language differences, the women expressed the same intonations in sound when speaking to the children. She traveled all over the world, and corroborated her findings that there are universal melodies of baby talk:

“I found four universal melodies (expressed to convey the commands or actions) to praise, to stop, to call attention to and to comfort…”

“To praise” elicits a melody of a high, then low note, while “to stop” is abrupt, sharp and in musical terms, staccato.

Host Krulwich narrates:

“This is music that is understood by infants who are just new in the world—but we all know what it means…we all know these songs.”

Dr. Fernal continues:

“We often think of speech as being about something, but to me these songs aren’t about something, but feel more like touch, at a distance.”

The Radio Lab episode, titled “Sound as Touch” guides us through a scientific journey of what this all means—sound stimulates brain activity, which triggers emotions, which help us make sense of the initial sound, etc. Overall, it illuminates the power of sound in our lives—its ability to do more than just communicate, but to generate emotions, a sense of familiarity, or to alert us to threats, even danger.

Here’s the full audio:

Dr. Fernal, in her work, demonstrates four universal melodies we communicate to newborns, but teases our imaginations of what else. Are there others that we express to each other—a code of songs, or sounds— that are universal in nature, but not yet deciphered? Radio Lab‘s “Sound as Touch” doesn’t venture there, but instead considers sound’s psychological impact, and our amazing ability to process what we hear, internalize its message and react.

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A Love Letter to the Dying Art of Handwriting

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Oh loopy “L” in a handwritten letter’s “love” sign-off, how I adore thee, with your distinct swishy mark, from the sender whom I love, and whose imprint will never be repeated, ever again, exactly the same as you. A modern day <3 stand-in just won’t do.

As texting and typing become the preferred medium of communication, what will happen to the romance stoked by handwritten letters? As we evolve to excise this mark of authenticity from our communicated lives, will we also forever lose our ability to feel the emotions evoked by it? Will a sweet tweet or sentimental post prove comparable to the handwritten post-it love note on the bathroom mirror, or will we end up drowning in the monotony of generic fonts, a homogenous sea of serifs and san-serifs?

Times are changing, and what our generation is losing from the fading practice of handwriting is real. Today’s educational Common Core Standards only require teaching legible writing for the first few years of schooling. After that, as Maria Konnikova informed in her recent New York Times essay, “…the emphasis quickly shifts to proficiency on the keyboard.”

Reasons to retain handwriting, in terms of the benefits bestowed on youth, are compelling. According to Stanislaus Dehaene, a psychologist at the College de France in Paris:

 “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.”

Ms. Konnikova continues:

“…the benefits of writing by hand extend beyond childhood. For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative to longhand, but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process new information. Not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.”

“Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding…”

Science delivers a strong enough argument to mandate we keep handwriting in our classrooms, and thus, in our lives. But, even more than that are the values that can’t quite be quantified, but felt. The one thing that sets handwriting, cursive or not, apart from other mediums is its inherent authenticity. There is no one, ever, who could write exactly, any given message, the way a particular writer did. There is something about this unique fingerprint that makes us feel that we are special, that we are a keeper of a secret only shared with us. Perhaps then, handwriting is art—something to admire, to stare at, to make sense of, the way we don’t make sense of other non-handwritten forms.

Penmanship promulgates our authentic identities and colorful personas in an age increasingly defined by uniform, dull and perhaps emotionless typed letters.

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The Lessons Learned from Ants

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Today we face problems unlike those in the past—technological security threats, environment-related illness (e.g. cancer) and food shortages—to name a few, in a world whose population is bursting at the seams; and yet, though our plights may be contemporary, the path to better understanding them may reside in our backyard, in insects millions of years old.

Ants, the arthropods that astound us with their strength and work efficiency, behave in such a way that sheds light on how systems, specifically simple systems, work. Just as various models teach us how to understand behavior and the way things operate—imagine neural networks of the brain, for example, as a metaphor for understanding how people make decisions—so too does ant behavior.

Deborah Gordon, an ant scientist, recently gave a 14-minute TED talk that illuminated the value of ants. She’s on a mission to collect “ant collective search algorithms,” or in other words, maps of ants at work, in an effort to better understand how other systems, like computers or the spread of cancer, function. Here are some highlights:

 “Now, the Internet uses an algorithm to regulate the flow of data that’s very similar to the one that the harvester ants are using to regulate the flow of foragers…So data doesn’t leave the source computer unless it gets a signal that there’s enough bandwidth for it to travel on. In the early days of the Internet, when operating costs were really high and it was really important not to lose any data, then the system was set up for interactions to activate the flow of data. It’s interesting that the ants are using an algorithm that’s so similar to the one that we recently invented, but this is only one of a handful of ant algorithms that we know about, and ants have had 130 million years to evolve a lot of good ones, and I think it’s very likely that some of the other 12,000 species are going to have interesting algorithms for data networks that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The inner workings of an ant colony may not be that of a computer processing system (or a fast-paced business, or collaborative project), but certainly lessons can be learned from the numerous patterns of behaviors that have evolved since the dawn of time. The sea, a dominant force of nature, teaches us to respect and, at times, surrender to things out of our control. Ants too, in all their seeming chaos, have developed organization that could help inform, or at a minimum, inspire how we manage our own lives.

Ms. Gordon knows this, and her imagination runs wild with ideas of how ants can help us. About treating cancer, she says:

“There are many different kinds of cancer. Each one originates in a particular part of the body, and then some kinds of cancer will spread or metastasize to particular other tissues where they must be getting resources that they need. So if you think from the perspective of early metastatic cancer cells as they’re out searching around for the resources that they need, if those resources are clustered, they’re likely to use interactions for recruitment, and if we can figure out how cancer cells are recruiting, then maybe we could set traps to catch them before they become established.”

Here’s the video in its entirety:

To sum it up, Ms. Gordon ends with this:

“So ants are using interactions in different ways in a huge variety of environments, and we could learn from this about other systems that operate without central control. Using only simple interactions, ant colonies have been performing amazing feats for more than 130 million years. We have a lot to learn from them.”

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