The Science of Happiness

By Stefan Klein

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In the spring of 2000, I visited the brain researcher Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. This brilliant and eccentric Indian-born scientist had caused a stir with his theory of a “God module” in the brain. He’d also cured amputees of their phantom pains by having them look into a set of ingeniously arranged mirrors. Newsweek named him a member of the “Century Club,” one of the hundred most influential people to watch in the new century. We discussed people’s lack of self-understanding, while he paced back and forth in his office among models of the brain, telescopes (he’s an amateur astronomer) and statues of Hindu divinities: Ramachandran is a man who cannot sit still even for a moment. Suddenly he exclaimed in his melodious, Indian-
Inflected English, “And we don’t even know yet what happiness is!”

That observation was the catalyst for this book. I wanted to know what happiness is. My own search for positive feelings certainly played a role in my hope that we could find happiness if we only knew where to look for it. I was also motivated by curiosity, which is an occupational disease of scientists and journalists—and I am both.

The deeper I dug into the subject, the more I read, the more I spoke with scientists, sages as well as ordinary people in Asia and in the West, the more convinced I became of a discovery that surprised even me: Ramachandran was wrong. We now know a great deal about what happiness is. Most of what we know, however, is very hard to find, scattered among countless scholarly articles. There are other discoveries that have not even been published yet—to say nothing of new insights being gathered and described in a way that anyone can understand and put to use. That is what I hope to achieve with this book.

Perhaps you’re surprised to read that happiness—this complex, seemingly divine feeling—can be scientifically researched. We see nothing strange in the study of unhappiness. Clinical psychologists have long attended to unpleasant feelings, and for the past two decades or so brain researchers have become increasingly knowledgeable about the origins of anger, fear, and depression. An entire industry that sells pills against pathological dejection profits from their discoveries, as, indeed, do countless patients. But for a long time happiness was more or less shrugged off.

This has changed only recently. Brain scientists have begun to direct their interest toward positive feelings, and they are making rapid and impressive progress. Much of what until relatively recently was still science fiction is reality in today’s laboratories. New imaging techniques enable us to observe the brain as it thinks and feels. They allow us to see, for example, how joy arises in our brain when we think of someone we love. Molecular biology reveals what subsequently transpires within our ten trillion brain cells, and psychological experiments show how these internal changes affect our behavior. We are forming an understanding of the ways in which positive feelings come into being.

We are now beginning to answer questions that people have always asked themselves. Is happiness more than simply the opposite of unhappiness? Is it genetic? Does the feeling of anger pass if you vent it? Is it possible to prolong the good moments? Does money make people happy? Can we stay in love with the same person all our life? What is the greatest happiness?

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