Science-Based Tools for Increasing Happiness Huberman Lab Podcast #98
3:54PM Dec 10, 2022
Welcome to the Huberman lab podcast, where we discuss science and science based tools for everyday life.
I'm Andrew Huberman, and I'm a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. Today we are discussing happiness, we're going to discuss the science of happiness, because indeed, there are excellent laboratories that have worked for many decades to try and understand what is this thing that we call happiness, and what brings us happiness in the short and long term. In fact, we could probably point to happiness, as one of the most sought after states, or commodities, or emotions, whatever you want to call it. Happiness is what many people are seeking, in work, in relationships, and in general, and yet, most of us can't really define exactly what happiness is, or means for us, we can point to certain experiences, we can try and describe our states of mind and body. But most people recognize the feeling when we have it. And we certainly recognize the feeling of not being happy. Whether or not that means simply not being happy as the absence of happiness, or all out depression. Now one of the key problems in trying to understand happiness, and indeed, the Science in Psychology of happiness, is that it does indeed involve other similar things, things like joy, and gratitude, and meaning. And indeed, many scientists and psychologists have argued for many, many decades about what happiness really is, we can come up with so called operational definitions of happiness, operational definitions, are basically agreed upon terms were agreed upon definitions and conditions, that will define something such as happiness, much in the same way that we can all probably come up with an operational definition of milk. But of course, milk can be cow's milk, it can be oat milk, it can be soy, milk, et cetera, et cetera. So to something like happiness can be micro divided and sliced and diced into as many things as we decide. Today, we're really going to focus on three main things. First, we're going to define happiness as a brain state. And as a state of mind and body, we're going to take a look at what the science says about all of that. Second, we're going to talk about tools and practices for placing ourselves into states of happiness. And while for most of us, we think of happiness as something that only arrives through the acquisition of some goal, or some thing external to us. And of course, that is true. There is also something called synthetic happiness, or synthesized happiness, which turns out to be at least as powerful and perhaps even more powerful. And I'll just say right off the bat that I'm not going to tell you that all you have to do is sit in a chair, and imagine being happy in order to feel happy. Synthesize happiness actually involves some very concrete steps that have been defined by excellent labs in psychology. So we're going to talk about synthesize happiness, as it relates to what you can do to obtain happy states more readily or more frequently. And then third, we're going to talk about some of the misconceptions, or what I would call the contradictions of happiness research. And what I mean by that is, most of you have probably heard about the general conditions for obtaining happiness. And they always seem to circle back to some of the same basic features of great sleep, have great social connection, pursue meaning, don't focus, to any overextend on things like pursuing money, because there are indeed, these studies that show that the amount of money that people make does not necessarily scale directly with happiness. We'll talk about those studies in some detail a little bit later. And while all of that literature is very powerful, and informative, there is what I see as a contradiction, which is, for instance, that for many of us, including myself, especially in the years when I was in graduate school and a postdoc, there were times in which pursuing and being involved in work and pursuing degrees and finding meaning in my vocation, actually separated me from the opportunity to have quite as many social connections, or quite as much sleep or quite as much exercise or even quite as much sunshine, for that matter. So all of the things that we're told, that we need in order to access happiness on a regular basis, oftentimes contradict with the pressures and the requirements of not just daily life, but in building a life that allows us to have the kind of resources that we need in order to have things like quality, social connection, and the time and opportunity to get regular exercise and great nutrition, etc, etc. So again, while this isn't necessarily a complaint with any of the research out of the fields of psychology on happiness, it is important that we acknowledge these contradictions that exist in the discussion around happiness, in particular, the popular discussions around the science of happiness. So today what we are going to arrive at what you will finish this episode with is a set of tools and a framework for understanding the pursuit of happiness in the short and long term. As it relates to the research from psychology, but also the neuroscience. And my goal today is really to try and place that all into a structured framework, so that you can know where you are in your journey or the landscape around happiness in your pursuit of happiness. And what I won't tell you is that you need to abandon all goals in terms of pursuing money, career, et cetera, and simply focus on relationships. But we will talk about what constitutes an excellent social bond or even an excellent conversation. There's excellent research that points to the fact that even rather shallow connections, that is connections between people that you happen to see in the hallway, on a regular basis, not even requiring close bonds of any kind, can be built into close bonds that can deliver a tremendous amount of feeling and genuine social connection, provided certain conditions are met. So today, again, is really about understanding the science of happiness, understanding the mechanisms underlying what we call happiness, and providing you a framework by which you can pursue and achieve happiness, not just as a long term goal, and not just as a day to day goal of little micro exercises of gratitude, etc. But rather, as a way to think about happiness as a state that you have control over, at least in terms of your ability to access what I would call the algorithms that enable us or open the opportunity to experience happiness. Now before we begin today's episode, I'd like to talk about a very specific tool that applies yes to our pursuit of happiness, but actually to our pursuit of everything, including quality sleep, and ongoing motivation, etc. I've talked many, many times before on this podcast and on other podcasts and on social media, about the critical value of getting regular, bright light ideally, sunlight in your eyes within the first hour of waking or if the sun isn't out when you wake up in the morning to turn on a lot of bright artificial lights and then get sunlight in your eyes for anywhere from five to 20 minutes depending on how cloudy it is, in the early part of the day, absolutely outsized effects on mood and focus during the day and quality of sleep at night. Now there's another central tenet of getting great sleep, and improving mood and focus throughout the day. And that's to avoid bright artificial light exposure to your eyes between the hours of about 10pm to 4am. Now leaving shiftworkers aside, and we have an entire episode devoted to shiftwork, most people are asleep at night and awake during the day. And you would be wise to avoid exposure of your eyes to bright artificial light between the hours of 10pm and 4am. If you're going to use screens or artificial lights, dim them down as far as you can. Now, there are several studies that point to the fact that one of the major issues with getting bright light in your eyes between the hours of 10pm and 4am is that it has a negative impact on the so called dopaminergic, or dopamine circuits of the brain and body which can enhance depression that is lead to ongoing lower mood and an effect. So that's a reason to dim the lights or avoid bright lights between 10pm and 4am. However, I and many others need to use artificial light and screens, sometimes even between the hours of 10pm and midnight or even midnight to 3am. depending on what's going on in my life or your life, that may include you as well. Now, it turns out that there are powerful ways to offset some not all but some of the negative effects of using artificial lights between the hours of 10pm and 4am. And one of the most powerful ways to do that is to simply adjust the overall brightness of your artificial lighting throughout the day and in the evening. So one of the issues nowadays that we're really facing is that people are simply not getting enough bright light in their eyes from sunlight or from other sources during the daytime. And they're getting far too much bright light in their eyes, largely from artificial sources, of course, in the evening and at night, not just from 10pm to 4am, but also in the evening hours from six to 10pm, and so on and so forth. So a very simple, yet powerful solution that supported by peer reviewed research in humans is to try and make your indoor working and or home environment during the day as bright as possible. Now, if you can achieve that through direct sunlight, terrific if you can get outside a lot during the daytime, terrific, but many people simply cannot. But most people do have some windows in their environment. I realize some don't but most people do. And as a consequence, most people are using rather dim artificial lighting indoors during the day. And then very bright artificial lighting indoors in the evening and at night. That's a problem. And if you think about it logically, you want to do the exact reverse. So it's been shown that if you simply increase the amount of bright artificial light that you're exposed to during the day, and remember this is not an excuse to not get your morning sunlight viewing but in addition to that, to make your indoor artificial lights very bright, bright, bright, bright, bright throughout the day, and then much dimmer from the hours of 6pm until bedtime, or if you can't do that then maybe the As soon as you get home from about 8pm, until bedtime, and then dim them way, way down between 10pm and 4pm are off entirely. That's going to be a far better pattern for your sleep wake cycles, focus, mood, et cetera, then what most people do, which is to have a few windows in their indoor working environment during the day, and keep the indoor lights rather dim at a time when they need more photons, more light energy, and then in the evening, when they get home, because it's dark outside, they tend to turn the lights much brighter, you actually want to do the reverse. Now there's an even simpler solution, which is to get some bright sunlight in your eyes, right around the time of sunset, it doesn't have to be exactly at sunset. It could be in the late afternoon and evening. But it's been shown now in studies on humans. And I'll provide a link to at least one of those studies, that by getting some bright light in your eyes, ideally, from sunlight in the late afternoon and evening. And of course, the timing will vary depending on time of year and where you are located on the planet. But facing the sun around sun set, you don't actually have to see the sun crossed down below the horizon, but facing the sun around that time, for anywhere from five to 10 minutes or even less, even two to five minutes, can adjust the sensitivity of neurons in your retina, that communicate light information to the brain and make it such that in the evening, when you use artificial lights, they aren't going to have as much of a detrimental effect on your dopamine system and for impairing your sleep. Okay, so the idea is as much bright light, ideally from sunlight, but also from artificial sources from the time you wake up in the morning, until the evening, maybe around six or seven o'clock, maybe in the summer months a little bit later. And then really try and get as little bright light in your eyes as you can in the evening and nighttime hours. And ideally, you would also get some sunlight exposure, right around the time of sunset, we're in the late afternoon, go outside, take your sunglasses off, don't try and do this through windshield or through window, it will not work, you have to get outside. If you're under an overhang at least try and get some direct sunlight in your eyes at that time. And that will adjust the sensitivity of your retina, such that bright artificial lights or artificial lights of any kind that you're exposed to in the evening and in the late hours of the night won't have as much of a detrimental effect that said, if you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, try and keep the lights dim, many people have asked whether or not for instance, a nightlight or a flashlight, is going to have as much of a negative effect. This is very straightforward. If you think about it, if you shine a light at something you can see into your environment. If you've ever been camping or you've walked with a flashlight, you can see things around you that you wouldn't otherwise, of course, but if you were to shine that light in your eyes, it would be far brighter. So yes, of course, if you get up in the middle of the night, and you can use your phone flashlight to illuminate the environment that you're in so that you can safely go to where you need to go and then back to bed. That's going to be far better than turning on the lights or of course, shining light in your eyes. Right. So the idea is bright, bright, bright in the morning and throughout the day, and as dim and dark as possible at night. And that afternoon light viewing provides sort of what I call a Netflix inoculation. That will allow you to adjust your retinal sensitivity and give you a little bit more flexibility in terms of allowing some nighttime light exposure without the detrimental effects. Now I realized Today's episode is about happiness. It's not about sunlight, or dopamine. And yet, as we'll talk about more in just a moment, if you're not optimizing your sleep, and if you are using or being exposed to light rather, at the wrong times of the day night cycle, that is going to make it very hard for the other sorts of practices that relate to happiness to have their full impact. So the backdrop, or I would say that kind of landscape of your chemicals and your hormones is powerfully controlled by not just the brightness of light, but the timing of light and your exposure to light. In particular, your exposure to light to your eyes is something that you have a lot of control over you don't have absolute control, but you have a lot of control over and it's been proven that even these small steps which are completely cost free, they require just a few minutes of time but no purchase a product or anything else can allow you to greatly adjust your neuro chemistry and your hormones in the direction of better mood better sleep, and happiness. Before we begin, I'd like to emphasize that this podcast is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford. It is however part of my desire and effort to bring zero cost to consumer information about science and science related tools for the general public. In keeping with that theme, I'd like to thank the sponsors of today's podcast. Our first sponsor is thesis. Thesis makes custom nootropics and as I've said many times before on this podcast, I am not a fan of the word nootropics because it means smart drugs. And frankly, there are no specific neural circuits in the brain or body for being quote unquote smart thesis understands this, and they've developed custom nootropics that are designed to bring your brain and body into the state that's ideal for what you need to accomplish. They use the highest quality ingredients things like phosphor deitel serine Alpha GPC many ingredients that I've talked about before on this podcast and that I happen to use myself. I've been using thesis for over a year now and I can confidently say that their nootropics have been a game changer. For me I like their new tropic for clarity. I use that before cognitive work often, and I like their new tropic for energy and often use that before workouts in particular workouts that are especially intense. To get your own personalized nootropic starter kit go online to take thesis.com/ubermann Take their three minute quiz and thesis will send you four different formulas to try in your first month. Again, that's take thesis.com/ubermann and use the code Huberman at checkout to get 10% off your first box. Today's episode is also brought to us by insidetracker. insidetracker is a personalized nutrition platform that analyzes data from your blood and DNA to help you better understand your body and help you meet your health goals. I've long been a believer in getting regular blood work done for the simple reason that many of the factors that impact your immediate and long term health can only be analyzed with a quality blood test. One of the problems with a lot of blood tests and DNA tests out there, however, is that you get information back about lipids and levels of hormones and levels of metabolic factors and so on. But you don't know what to do with that information. insidetracker has a very easy to use online site where you can monitor your levels. And you can click on any specific marker any specific hormone or metabolic factor. And it will tell you the behavioral tools, for instance, exercise, the nutrition tools, and the supplementation based tools that you can use in order to bring those numbers into the appropriate ranges for your immediate and long term health goals. If you'd like to try inside tracker, you can visit inside tracker.com/ubermann to get 20% off any of inside trackers plan again, that's inside tracker.com/huberman to get 20% off. Today's episode is also brought to us by helix sleep helix makes mattresses and pillows that are the absolute highest quality. I started sleeping on a helix mattress well over a year ago. And it's been the best sleep that I've ever had. One of the things that makes helix mattresses so unique is that they match the design of the mattress to your unique sleep needs. So for instance, if you go onto their website, you can take a brief quiz, it's only takes about two or three minutes. And you'll answer questions like Do you tend to run hot or cold throughout the night, or whether or not you sleep on your back your side of your stomach or maybe you don't know. Regardless, they will match you to the custom mattress that's ideal for your sleep needs. For me that was the dusk D us k mattress, which for me was not too firm not to soften was ideal for my sleep patterns. You take the quiz and you'll find out what mattress is ideal for your sleep patterns. So if you're interested in upgrading your mattress, go to helix sleep.com/huberman Take their brief sleep quiz. And they'll match you to a customized mattress and you'll get up to $200 off any mattress order and two free pillows, they have a 10 year warranty and you get to try out the mattress for 100 Nights risk free. Again, if you're interested, you can go to helix sleep.com/superman for up to $200 off and two free pillows. Let's talk about happiness, this thing that everybody seems to want. And yet not everybody can agree upon what exactly it is or how to get it. Now, I want to start by quoting a previous guest on the Huberman lab podcast. And that is a colleague of mine at Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Karl Deisseroth, who's both a bioengineer. And a clinician that is He's a psychiatrist who spends a lot of his time, both running a laboratory and seeing patients human patients, of course, and I once was at a meeting where I heard Carl say something to the extent of, we don't know what other people feel. In fact, most of the time, we don't even really know how we feel. And while that statement was meant to report several different things about the way that the brain works and emotions, etc. One of the things that he was emphasizing, and I know he was emphasizing it because he confirmed this for me was the fact that language, things like the word happiness, or joy or meaning, or pleasure or delight, are actually not very precise when it comes to describing our brain and body states. So for instance, if I tell you, I'm feeling pretty happy, I know what that means, for me, at least in this moment. But you don't really know whether or not it means the same thing as what pretty happy means for you. If I say I'm extremely happy, and I have a big grin grin on my face, I can't seem to wipe off my face. Well, then you might get a sense of how much happier I am then pretty happy. But it's still hard to calibrate my level of internal state or happiness. And the same is true for you and for everybody else. And it's important for us to acknowledge this because at this point in human history 2022 We don't really have a measurement like body temperature, or heart rate or heart rate variability, or even a way to measure neuro chemicals in the brain and body that give us anything better than a crude correlate, or an estimate at best of what happiness is. So that's really important to understand. And to keep in mind throughout this episode, it doesn't mean that we cannot have a strong data driven conversation about happiness and what brings us to a state of happiness. But it's very important to understand that language is not an ideal and maybe even a deficient tool in terms of describing our emotions and our states of mind and body. Now, equally important is to understand that while we do have neurotransmitters, that is the chemicals that are released between neurons, nerve cells that allow neurons to communicate things like glutamate and GABA, for instance, and we have what are called neuro modulators, these are chemicals also released by neurons that impact the electrical firing and chemical release of other neurons things like serotonin, and dopamine, and acetylcholine, and epinephrine, neuromodulators. And neurotransmitters are always present in a cocktail in our brain and body that is, they are present in different ratios and at different levels. So we need to completely discard with the idea that any one neurotransmitter or any one neuromodulator is solely responsible for a state of happiness, or for a lack of state of happiness for that matter. That said, it is true that for people that tend to have lower baseline levels of, for instance, dopamine, their levels of happiness, or we should say their self reported levels of happiness tend to be lower than for those that have greatly elevated baseline levels of dopamine. Now, this can be best appreciated at the extremes, where, for instance, in conditions like Parkinson's disease, or other conditions where people's levels of dopamine in their brain is severely depleted. Mind you, we also see this in drug addicted individuals that are in a withdrawal state because they're trying to quit, or they don't have access to the drug that normally stimulates release of dopamine think the cocaine addict who can't get cocaine or the methamphetamine addict that can't, we're trying to avoid taking methamphetamine. With a Parkinson's patient who has fewer dopamine neurons, because they degenerated. Those individuals do tend to be more depressed, they tend to have lower aspects, they are less happy, at least that's how they report themselves to be emotionally. And that's what we observe. When we look them behaviorally in terms of the amount of smiling, the amount of energy they seem to have, at the opposite extreme. And while still focusing on the kind of pathology of neurotransmitter and neuromodulator systems, an individual who is in a manic phase of bipolar, will tend to have very elevated levels of dopamine. And those people will talk a mile a minute and they won't require sleep. And at least to them every idea is an exciting idea and one that they want to pursue. We did an entire episode about bipolar depression, aka bipolar disorder. So if you'd like to learn more about that, please check out that episode, that in all other episodes of the podcast, of course, you can find it Huberman lab.com, and all formats. But the point here is that very low levels are very high levels of dopamine are correlated with certain states of for instance, low happiness or the absence of happiness. We could even call it depression in some cases, or extreme happiness, or even euphoria, sometimes even inappropriate euphoria, as is the case with bipolar, depression or some kind of sometimes called bipolar mania or bipolar disorder. Now, of course, there's a range in between depressed and manic. And most people fortunately, reside somewhere in that range. And it is indeed a continuum. And I think it's safe to say that levels of dopamine probably do correlate with levels of happiness. But there is no one single chemical nor chemical signature. That is no specific recipe of, you know, two parts dopamine to one part serotonin to one part, acetylcholine, that we can say, equates to happiness, and D, there's now tremendous controversy as to whether or not for instance, having lower levels of serotonin is actually the cause of depression or merely correlates with depression, or maybe doesn't even correlate with depression at all. This became especially controversial because in the last year, the so called serotonin hypothesis of depression, has been called into question. And indeed, it does seem to be the case that for individuals that are depressed their levels of serotonin can sometimes be normal. However, and this is an important however, that does not mean that administering drugs that increase levels of serotonin in depressed people does not sometimes and indeed often help ameliorate some of their symptoms. And I should mention that many of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, so called SSRIs, such as Prozac and Zoloft, it's etc. are still considered excellent treatments for conditions like OCD and so on and so forth. But what I'm trying to do is make two important points. First of all, that language is not a great into kater of internal state, especially when trying to understand other people's internal state, and that is especially true for things like happiness, and that there is no one chemical signature of happiness. There's no one neuromodulator or combinations of neuromodulators that we can say, is the cocktail for happiness. But and it's a very important but when levels of dopamine and serotonin tend to be chronically low for an individual below their typical baseline, they will Yes tend to be lower in effect and have lower mood and less episodes have happiness per day, per week, per month per year, etc. Conversely, when an individual has elevations in dopamine and serotonin levels, in particular dopamine levels, and the other so called catecholamines, which include epinephrine and norepinephrine. So the catecholamines are dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine, they're all very similar biochemically they all lead to states of elevated motivation, energy, and so on. When those chemicals are elevated above baseline people do tend to have elevated sense of mood and well being and in particular sense of possibility about what they can do in the world and what the world can offer them. So we need to acknowledge those two features of language and neuro chemistry. As we wade into the discussion about the psychology of happiness, and in particular about the controlled experiments that had been done in excellent laboratories focused on the psychology of happiness, and what brings happiness and what does not, there have been some excellent studies on happiness. And these come in two forms. Generally, one form of the studies is individuals come into a laboratory, they participate in an experiment over the course of a day or months. And then data are collected, analyzed, and the papers are submitted and published and discussed. The other form is so called longitudinal study, where individuals come into the laboratory, and they are studied over a very long period of time, ranging from months to years, and sometimes even decades. And then the variables of age, life circumstances, and other factors can be incorporated into the data. And typically, there are multiple papers, or data published throughout the longitudinal study, or sometimes it's just one paper at the end of the longitudinal study. Let's talk about one of the more famous and perhaps the longest running longitudinal study on happiness. This is a study that was initiated or conceived in 1938, at Harvard University, the so called Harvard Happiness Project. Some of you probably heard about this, it involves Harvard College sophomores, and other individuals were incorporated in this study, as well. It's a study that initially had more than a couple of 100 subjects, but because some have either dropped out and not been able to be contacted and monitored over time, or died, or for whatever reason, are no longer participating in the study. They're very few of these individuals left. And yet, there's tremendous power to a study like this. It's such an impressive study. And we're also grateful that laboratories at Harvard decided to initiate and continue this study. Because it is one of the few studies perhaps the study that has allowed us to understand happiness in our species over a very long period of time. Like any study, it's not perfect, it didn't include a lot of matching by sex or matching by vocation, or matching by income and background. And back then there was also a lot less discussion about trauma and histories around trauma as well as positive episodes in people's lives. Nonetheless, there's a lot of power in a study like this. And there's some very basic takeaways, some of which you may have heard before, but some of which may be surprising. Those of you who haven't. So one of the key things about the study is people in the study, least those who still have intact memory, which many of them do, are able to think back on not just their previous year or week, but 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago, and compare what makes them happy at one age versus another age, a number of things have emerged from that conversation. So I just want to discuss some of the highlight points, then we'll get into a little bit more of the nitty gritty of the data. First of all, it's been discussed many, many times that the total amount of income that an individual makes or has and again, this could be income from work, or it could be money that they inherited, does not seem to directly relate to their level of happiness. Now, a lot of people take that point and think money doesn't matter. Other people hear that point and think to themselves, yeah, right, easy to say if you have a lot of money. We'll talk about the interpretation of those data in just a few minutes. But I do want to earmark that at finding, because I agree that, well, money or total resources itself does not predict happiness in any kind of direct way. That is not the same thing as saying having very few resources will make you happier. Of course, I don't think anyone would imagine that. But it also tends to overlook an important point, which is something that I certainly have learned to appreciate in my life. And something that I especially appreciate when I was a student and postdoc, which is the following people will say money can't buy happiness. And we'll talk about the buy aspect of that in a moment. And indeed, that's true. If you look at this longitudinal study, or you look at other studies that are done on a more short term basis, once people get past a certain level of income relative to their cost of living, the amount of happiness does not scale with that income, that is for every additional $1,000 or $10,000 that they earn, they don't report being that much happier on a daily basis. Now, that said, I venture the argument that while money truly cannot buy happiness, it absolutely can buffer stress. And in particular, it can buffer stress in the form of the ability to purchase or pay for goods and services. And in particular services. You're not going to tell me that having children doesn't involve some increase in the demands on your life, less sleep and more demands. And it certainly is the case that if you can hire help to clean, you can hire nannies, if that's your your thing. You can hire help to assist with babysitting, or even night nurses, if you're having trouble sleeping, that will literally allow you to sleep while they take care of your child in the middle of the night. often give excellent care, one hopes excellent care, that that won't offset some of the stress associated with lack of sleep. So there are a million different examples one could give of this. But I certainly experienced this during graduate school. In fact, I experienced both sides of the equation here, I made very little money as a graduate student, I had essentially no savings when I started graduate school and I made very little money, the amount doesn't matter at this point. But I could just barely afford rent, and my food actually opted to live in the laboratory a lot of the time. And by doing that I had more money to spend on other things that were important to me. Now, I did not have a family at the time. And so I was able to do that something that not everyone can do. But I made very little money. But at the same time, I was in laboratory all the time. And that's where I wanted to be. And so my level of stress was actually pretty low, because I was investing all my time and energy into the very thing that I knew would eventually help bring me more resources.
When I moved from being a graduate student to a postdoc, for instance, a postdoc is a generally a three to five year period. So like residency in medicine, where you're no longer taking courses, but you continue to do research, in fact, entire new lines of research. And prior to getting a professorship, my income went up slightly, went up by about 30 to 40%. But because of where I moved, and because of the times, my cost of living went way, way up, and I was extremely stressed. So it wasn't my absolute income. It was my absolute income relative to my cost of living. The other thing that one needs to consider when considering income versus cost of living, is there's also this notion of peer group. And we're going to talk more about social bonds and connections later. But one thing that I noticed when I moved from being a graduate student to a postdoc was, I was a graduate student in a small town where I had access if I chose to participate in most, if not all of the social gatherings. Because they were all very low cost people tended to aggregate at the farmers market on Saturday. Most people won't even purchase anything, at least not the graduate students wouldn't purchase anything, it was just a place to aggregate people sometimes play pickup games of soccer or just hang out have a cup of coffee. There was a volleyball game on Fridays, sometimes people would go out to eat that evening, which of course, cost money, etc. But it was relatively low cost of living and social connections and peer group interactions were all generated around the same fairly low cost activities. When I transitioned to being a postdoc, I made more money, but cost of living went up. But in addition to that, my peer group tended to want to engage in the same kinds of activities that people in that larger city were engaged in. So peer group has a tremendously powerful influence on whether or not we gauge the amount of money that we have as bringing us happiness or not. And that really speaks to the critical importance of social interactions, and certain kinds of social interactions in particular. Now, if any of that was unclear, what I'm basically saying is, it's not just about being able to pay your rent. It's also about being able to access the kinds of social interactions that you deem are, quote unquote, correct for you at that stage of life and in the place where you have Having to be living. Because if you can meet all the demands of costs of rent and paying your power bill and food, etc. But you are socially isolated because your peer group, or those around you, that you want to engage with are engaging in activities that you either don't have time for literally because you're doing other things, or that you don't have the financial resources for, then that can actually severely impact this rating of what we call happiness. Why am I parsing this? So finally, one person. And finally, because I think that most of us have heard the outcome of this study from Harvard, or the more short term studies, also, many of which are from Harvard will talk about the just phenomenal work from Dan Gilbert's laboratory and other laboratories who have focused on issues like these. And I certainly don't want to take anything away from those results. They're very powerful and important results that really point over and over to the fact that people's happiness does not necessarily scale with income. In fact, it tends not to past a certain level. And yet, I think we'd be remiss, I think, actually, it would be inappropriate for me to say that the amount of income that one makes, is not important, because if the amount of money that you happen to have or are making, does not allow you to meet your basic needs of shelter, health care, etc. And or doesn't allow you to access the kind of social interactions that can renew and reset, or I would say, directly enhance the kind of neurotransmitter systems and hormones that lead us to feel that we are happy in our life, and we're having quality social connections, well, then that's very stressful. And this brings me back to the statement I made earlier, which is, indeed, Money cannot buy happiness. But it certainly can buffer stress. And one of the ways that it buffers stress is by allowing options of different kinds of social interactions, options of different types of recreation that one can engage in to access, new forms of social interaction, and so on, and so on. So we need to be a little bit careful or at least nuanced about this statement that money can't buy happiness, and that the data support the fact that wealth doesn't determine happiness. I think there is a truth to that. But there's another side to that, that I think is less often acknowledged. And that certainly I've experienced, and that I think many of you out there have probably experienced as well. One other major finding of the Harvard longitudinal study on happiness, as well as shorter term studies on happiness is that much as you've heard, perhaps, that no one on their deathbed says they wish they had worked more. Well. Indeed, the total amount of time that one spends working does not seem to determine one's happiness. And yet, I also want to earmark that result as one that we need to parse a bit more carefully. Because work last time I checked, and certainly for me, is the way typically that people earn an income. And as we just talked about a moment ago, income is often a way that people have access to or provide access for their family, to things like recreation, that opens up the opportunity for more social connection. Right? So there, we have to be careful with how we interpret these blanket statements that have become very popular, that you know, money doesn't determine happiness, and that the amount that you work isn't going to determine happiness. It certainly is the case that if you earn more money from working more, and that money is devoted to things that bring more opportunities for social connection, or for buffering stress and other areas of your life, including health care, care for your children, care for yourself, recreation, other things that you enjoy, well, then I think it's a little bit naive to assume that work itself is somehow counter to happiness, which of course it isn't. And it especially isn't, if we combine that feature of work with another important feature of the human psyche, which is this notion of meaning. Now in the not too distant future, we will do an episode of this podcast on meaning and what constitutes meaning in a given endeavor, work or otherwise. But
much of the psychology of the last century, and still today focuses on this feature of meaning as a critical one in terms of what makes us happy and what doesn't make us happy, certainly, in the long term. And I can certainly say for myself, that learning and teaching and doing research in my laboratory brings me tremendous feeling of meaning and happiness. Some people consider their work simply a way to gain a paycheck. And other people find that they would do the very work they do regardless of whether or not they were paid. In fact, many people will do volunteer work and other forms of work for zero money. So this idea that money isn't important or that work is not as important as we deem it to be. That also needs to be considered from a number of different perspectives. And again, by no means am I trying to undermine the data of these impressive studies, but the laundry judo in short term studies, but I think we do have to be cautious in our discussion of results like these. Because the internet is replete with conversations about the big factors that determine happiness, it's going to be social connection, not income, it's going to be the amount of time that you are able to have open thinking and creativity, which I think is an essential feature of happiness. By the way, physical health, in particular, one's ability to stay mobile. And to be able to access the kind of daily activities that one needs to accomplish unassisted is a strong correlate of happiness, and so on, and so on. And of course, there are the basic physiology factors, the things that feed back onto our overall feelings of well being. And I've talked about these before. And we'll just put these quickly into a bin, you can think of this as a as a toolkit of things that you and everyone really should be constantly trying to access, if not optimized on a regular basis, because they raise the tide, or what I would call the buoyancy of your overall system, meaning your brain and body and that would be getting sufficient deep sleep, at least 80% of the nights of your life. And ideally, the remaining 20%, you're not getting deep sleep, or as much of it because of positive events, quality, nutrition, quality, social interactions, and we will define that a little bit better. In fact, we will define that in a lot of detail later in this episode, and actually how to get better at creating quality social interactions, even very brief social interactions. So we have sleep, we have nutrition, we have social interactions, we have purposeful work, whether or not it's paid work, or non paid work. And of course, there are things like exercise, and maybe relationships to pets, and things of that sort. And there are a few others as well. All of those are known to increase your overall state of well being that puts you in a position to access more meaning and happiness, etc. But for most people, I think it's fair to say that earning a living and earning a living by working is the typical way in which we spend most of our time. So I think we need to put a special bracket around those activities. And it's something we will return to a little bit later, in terms of trying to understand how periods of life in which there are big or extensive work demands, or extensive family demands on us are indeed compatible with states of happiness or frequent states of happiness, and how better to access those, rather than simply say, money isn't important, or the amount of time at work really isn't important. That's not what people are going to pay attention to. In fact, I don't know how I will feel my deathbed, how could I human beings are pretty good about understanding how they feel in the present. If not describing it, they are pretty good at feeling it. If they have any sense of internal state that is interoception, you have some idea of how you feel in a moment. We're pretty good about describing our past feelings, at least in broad contour. But we are not very good at projecting how we will feel in the future. And in fact, that's a theme that's going to come up again and again today. Nonetheless, what we do know, on the basis of really solid data are that certain aspects of our well being tend to change across our lifespan. Now, lifespan is something that we need to consider from also a bit of nuance, because humans are indeed living longer and longer. And if we look at the data on happiness across the lifespan, dated maybe 30 or 40 years back or even 20 years ago, it is consistently described in that literature as a so called U shaped function, where people in their 20s report being very, very happy.
But as time goes on, and they acquire more responsibility, so typically getting married and having children in their mid to late 20s and 30s and into their 40s, having more work demands etc. Happiness is tends to be rated lower and lower, at least in those previous studies. And then happiness tended to increase as people approach their 50s and 60s, and they tended to retire and their work demands were shed from them. And they were able to enjoy the small things of life despite the fact that in general, I would say almost always people's health is not as vigorous when they're 70 as it is when they're when they're 20. There are exceptions to that, of course, but And of course, you can adjust the rate of cognitive and physical decline, but in general, people in their 20s feel more physically and mentally vigorous than they do in their 60s and 70s. In general, that U shaped function that I just described, still holds true today. But of course, there have been some major shifts to the general life stages. And when people undergo those life stages, for instance, many people are getting married much later. Many people are opting to not have children. In fact, if you look at the data on whether or not people have children or not and how that relates to happiness, everyone will tell you that their kids are their greatest source of joy. At least most people will tell you that and are a tremendous source of happiness. It's obvious kids are delightful. And raising kids, while hard is a wonderful experience. If you look at the ratings of happiness among people that elected elected to not have children versus those that had, most people who have children report their overall levels of happiness as lower than that of people who opt not to have children. Now, there are a lot of ways to interpret those findings. And by no means am I encouraging people to not have children. That's a issue that you have to resolve for yourself, of course. But we could imagine, for instance, that people who opt not to have children have more income to devote to things more focused on themselves or their partner, or other aspects of their life. We don't know if that's the underlying reason, we could perhaps conclude that people who opt not to have children are getting more sleep on a regular basis, or have more time for exercise, or the other sorts of things that elevate states of mood and well being. Again, we do not know what the underlying reasons are for this finding. But it does seem that despite most every parent reporting, that their kids are their greatest source of joy, and quote, unquote, happiness in life, that people who opt not to have children are at least as happy or report being at least as happy or even happier than those that opt to have children. And of course, I'm I want to be very clear that I'm not trying to settle any arguments about whether or not people should have children or not, I happen to find children and animals delightful. And I'm always happy when people opt to have children provided they are taking good care of their children or doing their very best to take good care of their children. So that's my stance. But of course, you're all entitled to your own stance on this. There are also the general arguments that people like to have about whether or not the population of the earth will be sustained or not sustained based on current birth rates, etc. Indeed, many areas of the world birth rates are going down is actually something that just as a perhaps point of interest has been studied from the somewhat unusual but logical perspective of whether or not child diapers are selling at the same rate as they were some years ago. And whether or not adult diapers for the elderly are being sold at the same rate or or greater that if you think about it is one indirect measure of whether or not people are living longer and or opting to have children. Definitely a discussion for another time probably for another podcast entirely. I'd like to take a quick break and acknowledge one of our sponsors, athletic greens, athletic greens, now called ag one is a vitamin mineral probiotic drink that covers all of your foundational nutritional needs. I've been taking Athletic Greens since 2012. So I'm delighted that they're sponsoring the podcast. The reason I started taking athletic greens, and the reason I still take athletic greens, once or usually twice a day, is that it gets to be the probiotics that I need for gut health. Our gut is very important. It's populated by gut microbiota that communicate with the brain, the immune system, and basically all the biological systems of our body to strongly impact our immediate and long term health. And those probiotics and athletic greens are optimal and vital for microbiotic health. In addition, Athletic Greens contains a number of adaptogens, vitamins and minerals that make sure that all of my foundational nutritional needs are met. And it tastes great. If you'd like to try athletic greens, you can go to athletic greens.com/ubermann. And they'll give you five free travel packs that make it really easy to mix up athletic greens, while you're on the road, in the car, on the plane, et cetera. And they'll give you a year supply of vitamin d3 que tu again, that's athletic greens.com/ubermann to get the five free travel packs and the year supply of vitamin d3 k two. So this U shaped function of people being happier earlier in life and then reporting feeling far less happy and then happiness returning to them. That is the rising of the you again in their later years is something that I do believe should be repeated in modern times and repeated in a way that takes into account that that you might be shifted to the right. That is I am certainly aware that people are tending to get married later, many are opting to not have children. So for instance, the the question arises whether or not that U shaped curve should have a bump down at the bottom of the U among those that opt not to have children because the argument was made in the discussion of those papers, that the reason why happiness is lower when people are in their 30s 40s and 50s is because they're devoting more time to raising their children and devoting more time to work. I would hope people would enjoy their work but not everybody really enjoys their work and many people, even if they do enjoy their work and they find meaning in it still find it stressful, which certainly can run counter to happiness.
Nowadays, you can imagine that because a number of people are opting perhaps to work less or to not have children or both. where they find tremendous meaning from their work that there would be a bump at the bottom of that you among those that decided to simply not take on these additional responsibilities. That would be an interesting test, I think of whether or not the total load of responsibility is really what's correlating with reported happiness or not. Now, one very consistent finding that has absolutely stood the test of time. It's kind of an interesting one, it's a little bit of a pop psychology finding. But I think it points to something interesting, that we'll return to again and again, is that people tend to report feeling lower levels of happiness, believe it or not on their birthday. And the argument for why this is, is the following that typically, we go through our year, not comparing ourselves to our peers terribly much. We might do that a little bit more when we're in elementary school, high school, etc. And we're sort of age match, maybe even college as well. But in evaluation of ourselves to our age, match peers, is not typically something that we do on a daily basis. Whereas on our birthday, we get a snapshot of where we are in the arc of time, or at least in our life. And many people report feeling rather low on their birthday, because they use that as a benchmark or a window into the things that they have not accomplished, the things that despite being age blank, they still haven't accomplished. And so that's interesting, because it what it really points to is two things, one, the extent to which much of our feelings of happiness are relative, in particular, relative to our peers. So there's that social aspect again, and the fact that most of the time, we are not very good at orienting ourselves. In the longer arc of time, we're pretty good at knowing where we are in the arc of a day or the arc of a week or the arc of a month or even a year. But that most of us are not very good at reflecting on where we are in our life arc. And of course, most of us don't know how long we will live anyway. But we do have some general sense. I mean, very few people leave live past the age of 100. Many people live to be 70, or 80. And again, life span is extending, as far as we know, from year to year. But in general, people report that on their birthdays, and I should say these are for birthdays, aged 25, or later, at least in the studies I was able to access, right, I don't think that a lot of three year olds sit around comparing themselves to other three year olds and how well they're doing or 12 year olds, you can imagine some people might do that at 18, et cetera. But it's really by the mid 20s, that people start evaluating themselves to their peers in terms of life progression, and so called milestones. It's been argued that that's one of the reasons why people report lower affect lower levels of happiness on their birthday, something that's a little bit counterintuitive. And of course, there are things that are anti correlated with happiness. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a few of these. That's longitudinal study, the Harvard Happiness Project has reported, for instance, that people that are chronic smokers have nicotine and chronic consumers of alcohol, in particular alcoholics, that is people who suffer from alcoholism, or what sometimes called alcohol use disorder, that is strongly anti correlated with happiness. And I should also mention that the family members and in particular, the romantic partners of people who are chronic smokers, and the partners of people who are chronic alcohol users, often will report lower levels of happiness, especially if they themselves are not chronic smokers, or regular consumers of alcohol. So we've done episodes on nicotine, in particular, and touched on smoking, of course, and we've done an episode on alcohol and the effects of alcohol on health. Again, you can find those at Huberman lab.com. This study of from the Harvard Happiness Project really has strong data supporting the fact that avoiding being a nicotine smoker, right, there are positive health effects of nicotine that are discussed in the episode nicotine, but being a bit smoking nicotine, in particular, is counterproductive for people's least self reported happiness, and certainly overall health. I think there's zero question that smoking increases cancers of different kinds, and that alcohol consumption, in particular alcohol consumption beyond two drinks per week, two drinks being the typical volume of you know, a beer or glass of wine or cocktail, etc, is detrimental for various aspects of health. And of course, there are other things that you could imagine would relate to a lack of happiness, for instance, a major trauma, physical or emotional trauma, that can include the loss of a major relationship, a death of a close to one, being the victim of a violent crime and things of that sort. And yet, it's been argued, in fact strongly argued that when you look at people's levels of happiness, after a trauma, that if you wait about a year or so, sometimes even as short as three months after a trauma that people self reported levels of happiness are not significantly lower than they were prior to the trauma. Now, I very much want to highlight underline and bold and Asterix that statement as one that we really need to explore carefully because there are other data that strongly points to the fact that major life traumas can severely disrupt one sense of happiness and well being. And I think as long as we're going to have this discussion, we should point to a useful definition of trauma. And the definition that I'll paraphrase is one that was supplied by a former guest on the Huberman lab podcast, Dr. Paul Conte, who's a psychiatrist who's written a book called trauma. I personally think it's the best book on trauma and tools for alleviating trauma, it's incredibly thorough, easy to read and well informed. And here again, I'm paraphrasing, but Dr. Conte describes trauma as something that fundamentally changes the way that our brain and body function in a way that makes other aspects of living more challenging. Again, an event either emotional or physical or both, that fundamentally changes the way that our brain and our body, our nervous system and other organs function in a way that prevents us from enjoying doing daily activities. And that could even be ongoing distraction, right traumas can create rumination or they can create obsessive thought, or they can create dissociation any number of different things. Again, check out that episode with Dr. Paul Conte, if you'd like to learn more about trauma and how it manifests, but the idea that's been put forth by a number of researchers in the in the field of happiness that three months after a major trauma, and people aren't reporting that they are feeling any less happy than before the trauma. That was surprising to me. So I, I went into this literature a bit more deeply. One of the basis of that general line of thinking is a what I consider now classic and very important, and frankly, excellent talk that was given by Professor Dan Gilbert, on the science of happiness, you can find this on YouTube, I say a classic one because it was it was done some years ago. It's received, you know, millions of views. And one of the points that he makes in that talk, which is grounded in research carried out by his laboratory and other laboratories, is that he poses a question, he says, you know, let's do a quiz. Would you rather be someone who wins the lottery, and he shows a picture of somebody who just won, I think it was several hundreds of millions of dollars in the lottery, or was recently made paraplegic last use of their legs. And then goes on to state that one year after people have won the lottery, this major monetary windfall versus have become paraplegic is that their self reported levels of happiness are the same, which I think is incredibly surprising. Now, I heard this, and I immediately thought of an experience that I've had, where I teach a course at Stanford School of Medicine, on neural regeneration. And it's actually a course that I attended some years ago when I was a postdoc at Stanford, so well over a decade ago, and we had, excuse me, we had an individual come into the course, this was a an older gentleman, so older, meaning he was in his early 70s. And he had become paraplegic, fairly late in life from a cycling accident. And he was an is an expert in what it is to become a paraplegic, of course, because he had that experience, but also because he spends a lot of his time doing volunteer work with people who have become paraplegic, and have become paraplegic at different ages. And what he described to me was that the overall outcomes for people that are rendered paraplegic, in terms of their mental health and their physical well being, there are sort of management of general life skills scales, with how early they had that injury, and how long they had the use of their limbs. So it's not straightforward.
When I heard this result described by Dr. Dan Gilbert, that winning the lottery and becoming paraplegic, basically don't impact your levels of happiness to any different degree. When you know, people look back a year later, I was pretty surprised, given my experience of hearing this lecture at Stanford. So I thought, wow, from what I understand, indeed, there are people who are rendered paraplegic, and manage that transition very easily. It doesn't seem to disrupt their feelings of well being etc. But for other people, it can be severely disrupting to their sense of well being, and so on and so forth. I went back and examined these data. And in fact, a subsequent talk. It's actually a podcast that was given by Dr. Dan Gilbert some years later. So this would be just a few years ago. I think 2019 is a specific date in which it was recorded, but just a few years ago, and indeed, he corrects himself in that podcast. What he says is that he misspoke in that earlier talk, that the difference in self care ported levels of happiness for those that have been rendered paraplegic for versus those who have won the lottery is not as great as one would expect, you know, I think most people would expect that being rendered paraplegic would make people far less happy. That's the expectation, I think, anyway. And that people who would win the lottery, at least for some period of time would be far happier than they were prior to winning the lottery, and especially given the tremendous amount of money. And again, the fact that money can't buy happiness. But that money does indeed, enable the ability to buffer stress provided people were responsible with that money and just didn't blow it or spend it all right away, that they could start to afford things that they couldn't afford, not just in terms of luxury items, but also the ability to hire help, that would free up time that would allow them to do anything from travel that they couldn't access before to meditate, if that was something that they didn't have time to do before, and so on and so forth. So the result, quote unquote, that winners of the lottery in recent paraplegics have the same levels of happiness is actually not true, at least according to the author of the original study. Now, what he did not point to is the degree to which that is not true, but he did point to the direction of the result. And the fact that people who have rendered paraplegic in fact, are reporting themselves as less happy than they were prior to their injury. And certainly, that their levels of happiness are lower than those that simply won the lottery hundreds of millions of dollars, which I think is the more intuitive result. And so I think it's important to be aware of that discrepancy, because it's something that was lost in the communication around those results the first time around. And indeed, Dan Gilbert, is an excellent scientists and was quite good about trying to correct the narrative. I myself as a podcaster, who puts information on the internet know that the challenges of correcting narratives, especially if things that that came out, some time ago, we always attempt to do this as best we can. But not everyone that saw that first video will necessarily hear the discussion that has happened subsequently. So my hope is that Dr. Gilbert will interpret me communicating this now not as an attempt to criticize him, but rather as an attempt to praise his willingness to try and correct the narrative to be more accurate. So to be very clear about what this study did and didn't show. And here, I'm going to combine these results with other studies that I was able to find that explored similar phenomenon. So major trauma, for instance, not necessarily becoming paraplegic, but trauma is of a different sort, emotional traumas, when you look at the whole of those data, at least my read is that when people win the lottery, or acquire wealth through inheritance, some form of wealth acquisition, that is sudden, and that wasn't preceded by a specific effort to gain that wealth, right, and buying a lottery ticket is pretty quick thing. Inheritance is something that you simply get by virtue of who you are not necessarily by effort. Well, that led to increases in self reported happiness, compared to prior to the inheritance of the lottery win, but it wasn't as substantial as you might imagine. If you're approaching the notion of happiness, simply from well, more money equals more happiness. And while it is true, that people who are rendered paraplegic who or who undergo psychological traumas, are physical traumas of any various kind, are and, frankly, are remarkably resilient, in many cases, they can still manage to go about life and, and work and engage in relationships, etc. There is a visible decrease in overall levels of happiness and well being in particular, if the psychological and physical trauma renders their nervous system different in a way that impacts other major areas of life and enjoyment for them. And that's certainly true one year out from the trauma. So the point is that we do need to reframe this idea that whether or not you win the lottery, or become paraplegic, or suffer some major trauma, your levels of happiness are going to be the same three months or a year later. I don't think that's accurate. And in fact, Dr. Dan Gilbert emphasized that that's not accurate, even in that initial study. And I think it's an important thing to frame because that's such a popular notion or that that idea combined with the idea that increased earnings don't make us happy, combined with the idea that, you know, we are happy earlier in life. But then as more demands arise in life, we become less happy and then we become happy again, and and then ideas we already explored is not necessarily true. Frankly, I knew a lot of teenagers and people in their their early 20s are pretty unhappy, who then become happier later as they acquire more resources, sometimes distance. Let's be honest, sometimes distance from our family of origin makes us more happy, sometimes less. So it's highly individual. So I think those general themes that we've heard over and over well, they have merit and they certainly stand up in some of the more powerful longitudinal and short term studies. There is nuanced. And in some cases, there are now additional data that are causing us to revise those understandings. Now there is an important point, or I should say, the important point that we can really credit, Dan Gilbert and others in the field of psychology with and that we owe them a great debt of gratitude for is that we do have far more control over our levels of happiness than we might think. And many of the things that reside at that level of control, that is the things that we can do and think and say, and access don't come from external things, right, they don't come necessarily from the acquisition of material goods. But rather, there are things that we can do that can allow us to so called synthesize happiness. And I think this is one of the great gifts of modern psychology is that Dan Gilbert and others, the Harvard Happiness Project work at Yale, and elsewhere, right, they're excellent labs working on happiness all over the US and in all over the world. Frankly, one of the great gifts that they've supplied us in the form of data is that there really are things that we can all do and think and access to allow ourselves to so called synthesized happiness. Now, this notion of synth synthesizing happiness, or synthetic happiness, as it's sometimes called, can sometimes ruffle people's feathers a bit, because people immediately flip to the idea that, Oh, you're just going to tell me to be grateful for what I have, or to just navel gaze, or just to imagine that I'm happy. But that's really not what synthetic happiness is about at all. Synthetic happiness actually has to do with some really important larger principles about the way that our emotional system, and the way that the reward systems of our brain really function. And they point to important concepts that we're going to now discuss things like the hedonic setpoint, for instance, or the dopamine system of anticipation of rewards versus receiving words, just as a brief insight into that our anticipation of something positive, oftentimes leads to greater increases in the sorts of neuro chemicals that support a state of happiness and well being than the actual acquisition of the thing that we're trying to obtain. And this goes back to a theme I've discussed a few times before in this podcast, in particular, with my colleague at Stanford School of Medicine, Dr. Ana Lemke, who wrote the fabulous book, dopamine nation, if you're interested in dopamine and addiction, in particular, that's a wonderful, clear and extremely informative read. And if you're interested in dopamine, more generally, just not just in the states of addiction, but in everyday life and in pursuit and motivation. The molecule of more is an excellent book related to that. And as I mentioned earlier, we have this episode on dopamine motivation and drive. The the notion of synthetic happiness is not simply about imagining happiness or thinking about happiness or anticipating happiness. To some extent it is, but it relates to a number of other important themes. But it is grounded very thoroughly in the neurobiology of dopamine rewards. And I'll talk about some of that neurobiology in a few moments. But I want to take a couple of minutes and talk about what synthetic happiness is, and what some of the conditions are for allowing us to access the state of so called synthetic happiness. And I want to point out at the outset, that synthetic happiness, while it might sound synthetic, aka false, it's anything but it actually turns out to be among the more and perhaps the more potent form of happiness that we can all access. And this is where themes related to our control over our own internal state really become not only valid, but very powerful. So for instance,
Dr. Dan Gilbert and others have explored how opportunity and choice that is freedom can and can't lead to states of happiness. And the results of those studies are very solid, and frankly, very surprising, until you understand the results. And once you do, I think you will immediately see areas of your own life, that you can start to access more happiness, again, genuine happiness simply by framing certain choices in a particular way. And maybe even by eliminating choices. Now I'd like to focus on the research aimed at understanding what increases our levels of happiness. And I'd like to frame this under the umbrella of two major themes. The first theme is so called natural happiness. Natural happiness is the sort of happiness that most of us are familiar with. So the kind of happiness that we expect to have, if we, for instance, complete a degree, hopefully a degree in a topic meaningful and interesting to us, but a degree nonetheless, or we find a mate, hopefully a mate that we enjoy spending time with, or for instance, making a certain income or finding work that we enjoy on a regular basis. All of those are forms of happiness that from a very early time in development. We are taught exist. For instance, even when we are very young, we are told that our birthday is coming and that we are going to get presents and those presidents are going to be focused on knowledge of things that we already enjoy. So if you're a little kid and you like trucks or you're a little kid and you like dolls, you can sort of expect that those gifts will bring you some level of joy or happiness. And while that's a small child example, that general notion of natural happiness is, of course, one that persists into adolescence into young adulthood and into adulthood. And we quite understandably come to associate this feeling of joy or happiness, with the receiving of things or the acquisition of things, whether by effort by gift by inheritance, or some other form. Okay, so that's natural happiness. And yet, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, there's also this notion of synthetic happiness, and some of the more interesting and exciting research in the fields of psychology. And in fact, neuroscience point to this idea of synthetic happiness as at least as powerful a source of happiness as natural happiness, again, at least as powerful and perhaps even more powerful. And, of course, one has to take a slightly different view of what happiness is in order to accept this idea that we can create happiness for ourselves. But that doesn't mean that the whole notion of synthetic happiness is merely a passive one where all we do is sit back, and imagine being happy, and then we are happy, for better for worse, our nervous systems and our neuro chemistry simply don't work that way. In fact, synthetic happiness has almost always been understood as something that we have to put some effort toward achieving. But and this is an important thing to point out. Synthetic happiness also requires that certain situational or environmental conditions be met. A good example of this is some of the work by Gillian manage, or I should say, Dr. Gillian manage, who has done some interesting work on the conditions for creating happiness within our mind, and in our overall state of being. And she's been involved in a number of different studies. But one of the ones that I found particularly interesting is one in which they explored different types of music, and other aspects of environmental settings. So you bring subjects to the laboratory, play them different types of music, there are, in fact, certain aspects of music that can create different states of mind, sadness, happiness, anticipation. In fact, there are certain patterns of music that can reliably induce anticipation of the fear and anxiety based type. So for instance, think the movie Jaws. If you recall, for those of you who have seen Jaws, there's this ongoing theme music anytime the shark might be present in the water or in a given scene that essentially goes down. Now for the musicians out there. This has bases and things like try tones and things that are understood from the mathematics and the musical side, and from the neuroscience side are known to create a neural state of anticipation, yet a neural state of anticipation and not necessarily a positive one. And indeed, there are other patterns of music that involve up tones. think some of the music that's typically been used in cartoons of various sorts, there's a long history of this. Indeed, there's a whole literature of psychological and now even a smaller but still interesting literature on the neuroscience of how certain patterns of music can induce a state of joy, and joyful anticipation. In particular, a lot of those patterns of music are incorporated into so called Happy cartoons and Disney movies and things of that sort. In any case, Dr. Mann ditch and others have explored how music in particular but other features of the environment can or cannot undo states of happiness. And the basic takeaway from those studies is that while having a certain environmental, sound, musical tone or visual feature to a given space or room is necessary for a state of happiness, it is not alone sufficient, what is required is that individuals not only be placed into an environment that contains music, or visual items, or a combination of music and visual items, that can induce states of joy or happiness or positive anticipation, but that they also are given some sort of instruction or instruction manual as to how to synthesize happiness inside of that environment. This is important because what this says is that our ability to create states of happiness is dependent on our environment, but also requires effort from us. That also makes sense as to why when we are under conditions of deprivation, so it can be social deprivation or financial deprivation, or even for people that are very sensitive to whether, you know, there are a certain number of individuals about 30% of people who were report feeling very, very low under conditions where the sky is overcast, especially if it's been overcast for a number of days, the so called seasonal affective depression, those individuals, by the way, can often receive tremendous benefits in terms of elevating their mood if they make an effort to get sunlight. And if they can't get sunlight, artificial light of the sort that we talked about earlier. But in any case, there are a number of people that are profoundly negatively influenced by the lack of positive visual and auditory cues in their environment. But for most people, we are in a, what I would call a dynamic relationship with our environment, our environment has an effect on our mood. But the research indicates that we also need to make some sort of effort toward being happy. No effort toward being happy is a very vague term. So let's better define what that is. In the case of Dr. manage his work, this took the form of doing so called happiness inventories, right, that can be focusing on things that one is grateful for things that they particularly enjoy. This is somewhat of a gratitude type practice, but includes some other features as well that are more focused on the things that bring you meaning, and actually engaging in the things that bring you meaning. So if you're trying to think about how to improve your levels of happiness, what this research essentially says is that you would be smart to try and adjust your home environment, adjust your work environment so that it is cheerful to you. Maybe that means a plant for me in my laboratory. One of the things that was really critical that I had as a postdoc, and in my own laboratory. When I first started my lab was I love aquaria. So I had multiple fish tanks. In fact, people in my laboratory were always rolling their eyes. Why do we have to have all these fish tanks with all these I like freshwater tanks, not saltwater tanks, for reasons that aren't interesting for this discussion. But freshwater tanks with discus fish, for instance, to me are just beautiful, they make me happy, I just enjoy them. Music is a complicated thing in laboratories, because it's a shared space. So headphones are the general requirement. But having either silence If you love silence, and I happen to like working in silence or listening to certain forms of music, I do also use the 40 hertz binaural beats or I particularly like listening to Glenn Gould while I work, or listening to whale song, believe it or not, well, I work because it doesn't have any structure that I can follow. I don't speak whale. And so I can't follow but it sort of fills the space in a way that I find pleasant. And I've put substantial amounts of effort into making my laboratory spaces and my office spaces, my workspaces, nice places to be. Now I had no knowledge of this work from Dr. Manage and others at the time when I did that. But what I found was that over the years I, I was challenged in maintaining a kind of elevated mood while working in a laboratory, not because I didn't thoroughly enjoy the work, I love doing experiments with my hands and I loved being in lab. But at least the labs that I was in as a graduate student and postdoc, there were no windows, so I wasn't getting adequate sunshine, the windows that we didn't have didn't open, so I wasn't getting a lot of fresh air, and so on and so forth. So I've personally found it very valuable to create an environment both at work and at home that I find aesthetically pleasant, at least in some way or another. And I realize people have varying levels of control over their aesthetic environment. Certainly the auditory environment can be controlled nowadays through the use of headphones if you're allowed to use those. So, for instance, using music or using background sound that you find very pleasant, combined with a concerted effort on your part to create states of happiness by hopefully doing work that's meaningful to you, or at least is leading to meaningful outcomes. We'll talk a little bit more about that. But these happiness inventories also turn out to be interesting and important sources of creating so called synthetic happiness. And we will also talk about other ways that one can create elevated levels of synthetic happiness. And I realized that word synthetic probably draws up connotations of false happiness or contrived happiness. I wish instead of calling it synthetic happiness, they'd call it self created or self directed happiness or something of that sort. Because then it wouldn't sound as false because it's simply not false. It leads to the same as far as we know identical neurochemical, and psychological states of happiness is natural happiness and might even be more persistent than natural happiness. It certainly is more under our control. But the key point is that environment and self directed work at being happy, are both important, and they interact with one another. So if you're somebody who has a hard time synthesizing happiness, through any of the methods that we talked about today, don't consider yourself deficient. It could very well be that the environment that you're in social environment or physical environment or auditory environment is simply not conducive to synthesizing happiness. And for that reason, I think the work of Julian manage and colleagues and others in the field is tremendously important because it removes us from this pressure to just synthesize happiness from within despite our circumstances, I think, you know, many of us have heard of the incredible stories of people like Viktor Frankl or Nelson Mandela, who were stripped of their freedom, and yet managed to maintain some sense of positive anticipation, or at least some sense of identity that allow them to still access forms of happiness. Those are highly unique situations, of course, and they speak to the power of the of the human psyche for synthesizing happiness, and certainly for synthesizing a sense that there might be a future and to live into that future, in their cases, incredibly impressive ways. But I think for most everybody, the environment that we're in has a powerful impact on our mood. And some people more than others, you know, I know people that are perfectly happy with blank walls, no pictures on the walls, other people benefit tremendously from having photos or plants in their environment, and so on, you really have to determine what's needed for you and do your best to try and place those things into your environment. Or rather place yourself into an environment that is conducive to you synthesizing your happiness. In fact, the powerful interaction between our environment and our own ability to generate certain kinds of emotions is well established not just for happiness, but for things like gratitude. So for instance, there's a classic study from Ames ame, yes, in 2004, that was focused on gratitude. And we've had an episode on gratitude before. The basic takeaway of that episode is that it turns out, receiving gratitude is a more powerful stimulus for the release of neuro chemicals and activation of brain areas associated with so called pro social behaviors and feelings of well being including happiness. But also observing stories in the form of movies or books or other narratives of other people receiving help is also a very powerful stimulus for gratitude. Also, giving gratitude is very powerful, but not as powerful as receiving gratitude, at least that's what the research says, are observing powerful exchanges of gratitude between other individuals. What the study from AIM showed, is that gratitude as a state of mind, and as an emotion does not exist in a vacuum. It's not independent of our surroundings. So for instance, just writing down all the things you're grateful for, while it has some positive impact, the impact of that or receiving gratitude or observing gratitude is far more potent, right? Bigger increases in happiness and feelings of well being. And indeed, neuro chemicals and activation of brain areas associated with happiness and well being when there's a reciprocity when the person receiving is understand something about the person that's giving to them and understands that the person is giving genuinely for instance, so there's an environmental interaction, it's not just about receiving, it's receiving from somebody that you know, genuinely wants to give. And likewise, for the giver. In that equation, the feelings of wellbeing are far greater, when the person receiving whatever it is money, food, assistance, in some form, or another could be, you know, physical assistance, etc. When the giver has knowledge that the person receiving it genuinely needed the thing that they are receiving. So the important finding within the research again, and again, is that happiness doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's partially our own responsibility to synthesize happiness. And I was told that many times your life happiness is in your head. Well, yes, indeed, it's in your head. But it's also dependent on interactions with your environment, physical environment, and social environment, and so on. Likewise, gratitude is something that we can create inside of us, right through gratitude lists and appreciation, or we can give both powerful sources of evoking neurochemical changes associated with gratitude and happiness and well being. But it too doesn't exist in a vacuum, there's a much greater positive effect, when we have knowledge about why the giver is giving us something, or that the person receiving something is going to benefit tremendously from receiving it. So I'm highlighting this because I think that when we hear about synthetic happiness, there's a kind of automatic erasing of context that tends to occur. And in fact, if you were to peruse the various videos, online, or papers that exists on PubMed, around happiness and synthetic happiness, in particular, you would come away with the impression that synthetic happiness is just something that we're supposed to snap our fingers and access, or perhaps do very specific things and access. But while that is true, context really matters. And I think that's an important point, much in the same way that the point needs to be made. That while Money doesn't buy happiness, money can buffer stress and certainly offer opportunities that can provide opportunities for more happiness. So I think we are starting to arrive at a general theme here, which is that nothing related to our mood exists in isolation. And in fact, that leads me to a discussion of one of the major scientific findings in the realm of what sorts of mindsets and behaviors can in fact lead to happiness. And this is a paper that was published in 2008. And even though that might seem like a while ago, it forms the basis for a large amount of literature that followed. It's a very interesting literature. This is work from Elizabeth Dunn, and colleagues and was published in the journal Science, which again, is one of the sort of three Apex journals nature science. So I always say is sort of the Super Bowl NBA championships and Stanley Cup of scientific publishing very, very stringent in terms of the number of papers they let in very few that is, and the title of this paper makes fairly obvious. What the paper is about, the title of the paper, is spending money on others promotes happiness. And I know a number of you probably hear that title and think, oh, boy, here we go. He's going to tell us that giving away all our money is going to make us happier than receiving money. And I promise you, that is not what I'm going to tell you. But nonetheless, this is a very interesting study. And it's one that I think that we really ought to pay attention to. Because what the study is based on is the fact that income, provided one's income meets a certain level of basic needs, indeed, has been shown to have only a weak effect on overall happiness. Okay, so quoting from the paper, in the first paragraph, quote, income has a reliable but surprisingly weak effect on happiness within nations, within nations just being they looked at this in not just the United States, but a number of other places as well, particularly once basic needs are met. Okay, so if that's the case, then what aspects of money and having money are related to happiness, certainly, there are people who have a lot of money who are very happy, certainly there are people who have very little money who are very happy. And of course, the reverse is also true, there are plenty of people who don't have very much money who are unhappy. And in fact, there are people who have a lot of money who are very unhappy. A point that whenever it's made, often lead those with less money to kind of roll their eyes because the assumption is more money does increase happiness, and in fact, it doesn't. And later, we'll get back to this idea of whether or how one acquire their money has any impact on whether or not that money increases their happiness or not. Okay, let's kind of earmark that for later. In the meantime, let's talk a little bit more about the findings in this paper. This paper is interesting, because what it did is it explored something called pro social spending. personal spending is a phenomenon where people are taking a certain portion of their income. And they are giving it to others often for causes, or for things that they think are important to see happen in the world or change in the world that could be, you know, a hungry individual having access to food or medical care. It could be for environmental causes, it could be for animal wellness could be for any number of different things, it could even be giving somebody money so that they can buy themselves a gift or giving somebody money and not having any excuse me understanding or expectation of what they're going to do with the money. Okay. Again, one of the central themes around gratitude is that well, receiving is great. Giving is also great in terms of increasing sense of well being. And one of the more important features to that is when we give either in the form of words or in the form of resources, knowledge that the person receiving benefits from that in some real way, greatly increases the chance that there's an increase in happiness for the giver, as well as the receiver. Again, that's a note about gratitude, but not an insignificant one as it relates to this study. So what this study found was that higher pro social spending was associated with significantly greater happiness, this was a very statistically significant effect. And they found that the effects of income and pro social spending were independent and similar in magnitude. Okay, independent and similar magnet, I'll explain what that means for those of you that might be confused by that statement in just a moment, whereas, quote, personal spending remained unrelated to happiness. So what this study basically found was if people are allotted a certain amount of money to give away, and one adjusts for overall income, right. And this is important, because you can imagine that for some individual giving away $2,000 might represent a significant portion of their yearly or monthly income. And for another individual, it might represent a tiny fraction of their income. But when you adjust for income level, what you find is that people who gave away money benefited tremendously in terms of their own increase in happiness. In fact, quote, employees who devoted more of their bonuses to pro social spending that is giving away more money experience greater happiness after receiving the bonus, and the manner in which they spent that bonus was a more important predictor of their happiness than the size of the bonus itself. This was is an actual experiment they ran with real income real money. I'm going to read that again just to make sure it hits home because I found this to be really impactful employees who devoted a greater fraction of their bonus to pro social spending, that is giving away money to others experience greater happiness after receiving the bonus, and the manner in which they spent that bonus was a more important predictor of their happiness than the size of the bonus itself. So the actual bonus, the receiving of the money led to greater increases in happiness, if they gave it away. And the act of giving it away itself led to greater increases in happiness than receiving the bonus. So it's a twofer, as he might say, so the takeaway from this study and studies like it, I think, is pretty obvious that to the extent that we can, and again, when I say to the extent that we can, this means whatever percentage of our own income that we can afford to give away, or if we don't have income, the percentage of our effort, right, I mean, this was about money, but it's also about effort, we can help others right, you can serve in food kitchens, you can do community gardening, you can pick up trash, you can do any number of things, you can assist a neighbor with child care, or you can assist a neighbor who is physically less able to retrieve their paper, etc, etc. The point is that giving resources, certainly in the form of money, but also in the form of effort and time, is immensely beneficial for synthesizing our own happiness, that is for the giver, us to increase our levels of happiness. But the degree of an increase in our own happiness is proportional in some way, to the extent to which the person receiving actually needed that help and registers that help. Excellent research also points to the fact that another potent way to synthesize happiness, that is to create genuine states of happiness in ourselves, is to leverage the so called focus system, or rather, I should say, to de emphasize the tendency of our minds to wander. There's an excellent paper on this also published in the journal Science, this is now a classic paper, I talked a little bit about it in the episode on meditation. But for those of you that did, or perhaps didn't hear that episode, I just want to briefly touch on a few aspects of the paper. And, in particular, a few aspects of the paper that I didn't talk about previously. And the title of this paper, again, is very straightforward in terms of telling you what it's about. And that is, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind by Killingsworth. And Gilbert. This paper was published in Science in 2010. And we will provide a link to the paper. This is frankly, a very interesting paper. This paper involves several 1000 subjects, or I should say 20 250 adult subjects. And what they were able to do was to contact these subjects while they were going about living their daily lives. And ask them both what they were doing and what they were feeling. There were some additional questions that they asked them, but they were able to establish whether or not people were watching television or doing housework or working on a home computer, or resting or listening to music, etc, in their natural environment. So this is outside the laboratory. And they were able to assess to what extent those people were happy, or unhappy or neutral, or had some other emotional state at the time when they were engaging in any number of different activities. And they assessed whether or not those individuals were also focused on or focused away from whatever activity they were engaging in. And the takeaways from this study are many but for sake of today's discussion, what I think is especially interesting is that regardless of whether or not people were engaging in activities that they enjoyed or not, the tendency for their mind to wander from an activity predicted lower levels of happiness than if they tended to be focused on the activity they were engaged in. Now, that itself should be surprising. I mean, what that says is that even if somebody was engaged in an activity, like cleaning their house, or doing homework, or reading something that they weren't enjoying, if they were focused on what they were doing, they tended to report as happier than if their mind was drifting elsewhere. Now, this also points to the idea that perhaps our minds drift to unpleasant thoughts more than pleasant thoughts, but they also address that in the study. The point I'd like to make here is quote, although people's minds were more likely to wander to Pleasant topics, okay, then to unpleasant topics. And there, the difference is pretty significant. People's minds tended to wander to Pleasant topics about 43% of the time as opposed to unpleasant topics about 27% of the time, or to neutral topics in the remaining 31% of samples. People were no happier when thinking about pleasant topics than about their current activity.