Happiness is an expansion, a connection; is connecting with another person, with nature, with a situation. You feel joy when you're not really aware of yourself as distinct. The separateness that comes with all those other things like anger and fear, make you feel like you're a little isolated thing having an awful time.
When we think of happiness, children often come to mind; that the drive for happiness is one that motivates our daily actions, even in adulthood. It's one of the basic emotions that include anger and surprise. This drive for happiness impels you to seek out the things that make us feel good. Almost all the things that bring you joy now are things that brought you joy in your childhood. Every day there's something to discover in nature, and in culture, actually, but you knew as a child you really are discovering something every day. Then if you can bring that into your adult life; you wake up every day thinking there are things to learn and discover and to delight you with, then you're going to have a fair bit of joy in your life.
It is interesting to remember that emotions can be contagious, so you can be in a group and if the group is generally, you know positive, enthusiastic, those emotions can be contagious and if it's a fairly cynical group that can be contagious. And organizations are big social systems where they can create environments that facilitate and help people to increase their wellbeing or, in fact, can decrease it. And I think there's been far too little attention to that area so those are the types of things that I'm especially interested in, and understanding what creates a healthy environment where people are able to learn how to utilize their emotions in ways that benefit themselves and others. In my mind, in turn, it spreads back out into society.
Most of the people think that joy decreases with age but there's an emerging set of research that's showing that with aging the part of that regulates negative emotions actually becomes better able to do it, and, in a sense, takes the brakes off the positive emotions. So they end up being less anxious, less neurotic and so on (this is in normal ageing). And the question of course has been 'why would that happen?' And up until now a lot of neuroscience research hasn't addressed this question because they say, 'well surely evolution hasn't selected for something that would improve function after the productive years', that evolution would only select for something in the years when children can be produced. Who knows? Maybe it happens because our ancestors used to live longer than we do.
Happiness is a strange notion for scientists. What is the psychological state called "happiness" for? It can't be that natural selection designed us to feel good all the time out of sheer good will. Presumably our brain circuits for happiness motivate us to accomplish things that enhance biological fitness. With that simple insight one can make some sense of some of the puzzles of happiness that wise men and women have noted for thousands of years. For example, directly pursuing happiness is often a recipe for unhappiness, because our sense of happiness is always calibrated with respect to other people.
Perhaps we can make sense of this by putting ourselves in the shoes of the fictitious engineer behind natural selection. What should the circuit for happiness be doing? Presumably it would be assessing how well you're doing in your current struggle in life, whether you should change your life and try to achieve something different, or whether you should be content with what you're achieved so far, for example, when you are well-fed, comfortable, with a mate, in a situation likely to result in children and so on. But how could a brain be designed in advance to assess that? There's no absolute standard for well-being. A Paleolithic hunter-gatherer should not have fretted that he had no running shoes or central heating or penicillin. How can a brain know whether there is something worth striving for? Well, it can look around and see how well off other people are. If they can achieve something, maybe so can you. Other people anchor your well-being scale and tell you what you can reasonably hope to achieve.