Hacking Happiness : A dog named Tintin

There's a question that's always troubled me : "Are dogs happier than humans ?" It seemed obvious for a long time that it was the case. Dogs don't even know what happiness is. Not having to wonder about whether they're happy or not, they certainly are. But after having lived with my uncle's dog for some time, Tintin, I started realizing he too had ups and downs. I could probably measure his happiness by the number of times he wagged his tail (going for walks, seeing new people ...). And that gave me sort of a framework to think about human happiness :

What is happiness ? Is it the constant plateau, that ongoing feeling or state we have throughout the day, characterized by a certain level (a) or is happiness defined by the spikes or the number of spikes (b), the highs that we have during a day ? And there started my quest. I had to hack happiness.

I didn't want to tackle the question philosophically however. And since I've been convinced for some time that our food has so much to do with our food, I started digging there. Now the way food affects our mood of course is by altering our biology. At the other end of the continuum, my beginner self thought depression must be the opposite of happiness. So I discovered that a low level or a very high level of serotonin leads to depression. But there was a way to keep Serotonin balanced :

Exercise for instance has been shown to be very helpful in keeping serotonin levels balanced. Tryptophan, Leucin and Phenylalanine are the building blocks. You can find a list of foods rich in Tryptophan, which is often cited, here. The other hormone whose spikes cause happiness is dopamine and it too is very influenced by one's diet:

It feels as if Serotonin is responsible for state (a) in The Happy Scale above and Dopamine for spikes (b). And there comes a pretty interesting discovery, courtesy of Doctor Jack Russe also known as The Quilt on the Paleohacks forum. Russe says Dopamine is the Neuro-transmitter of the newest part of our brains : the frontal lobe. But Dopamine is the pleasure hormone, the one responsible for the spikes, not the steady state (a). And it got me thinking about whether pleasure had been the final step of our evolution. If pleasure had lead us to become who we are or if the pursuit of pleasure (an ephemeral form of happiness) allowed us to survive this far.

At about the same time, I fell on a talk by Martin Nowak at RSA about the mathematics of evolution. Simply astonishing:


In a word, Nowak explains that evolution needs cooperation. Yes ! Cooperation. Meaning selflessness. Of course, evolution will always favor defectors, meaning liars and foxy people. They end up winning because they wait for trust to establish then betray their counter-party and profit from it. Only that's not a strategy for the long term and even they end up understanding it. Nowak calls us super-cooperators because language allowed to develop a new platform for evolution (a horizontal rather than a vertical one).

For evolution to happen, you need cooperation (so selflessness at one moment). It establishes a structure. Sort of a meta-architecture for evolution. Cooperation might not be there to stay but it is an essential stage. "Aha moment". But species don't figure out that kind of things by themselves. Some kind of biological mechanism inside them is supposed to lead them towards choosing to cooperate. That's where Nancy Etcoff comes in:

[ted id=570]

There's this moment where she explains how it was observed that charitable activities light up reward circuits of the brain. Actually, Dopamine increases when you help others. In other terms, when you cooperate with others. We have an inner mechanism that makes us "want" to help others more. Oh yes! Because Dopamine is actually the hormone that controls cravings. The one that makes you want chocolate, pastries, cigarette, cocaine, your romantic lover. Yeap! It's the same hormone and same circuits for romantic love, chocolate and Ben&Jerry's vanilla ice cream ladies. Cooperation, in a way, might be addictive. Which is great for evolution since it strives on self-organized emerging organizations that spur from cooperation. The hormone Oxytocin also has something to do with that.

Then came the corner-stone that was going to make everything make sense. Helen Fisher :

[ted id=16]

Besides all the valuable information Fisher brings, there's a sentence she says that has the potential to change lives: "We aren't an animal built to be happy. We were built to reproduce". Touche! And in that she meets Nowak. At one moment she talks about "attachment" as being the third stage of what is commonly known as "love" (the first two being sexual attractiveness and romantic love). Attachment is the stage where your focus on that one individual you met (romantic love) turns into a mere tolerance. And That precisely is why we were built to reproduce, not be happy. Why is tolerance of the spouse or husband essential ? Because you need a solid family to raise the child. Here's evolution for you:

  1. Sexual attractiveness awakens your interest for the other sex
  2. Romantic love focuses your energy on one person
  3. Attachment keeps you with him/her so you can reproduce and raise your children

You might find marriage to be miserable but evolution doesn't care. The kids are there to stay: Mission accomplished.

But what's important here is that third stage. Attachment is a form of cooperation. And we are only capable of that because of a mixture of phenomena in our brains, I believe:

  • The RTPJ part of the brain
  • The Oxytocin hormone

Those two in conjunction are pretty much responsible for what we call empathy, the basis of any cooperative movement. You won't help anyone if you aren't able to feel what she or he feels. "But what's this have to do with happiness?" I'm getting there ! If empathy-induced cooperation raises your Dopamine, this allows for a new framework to think about happiness:

So we know evolution makes us happy when we interact with others, help them or more generally cooperate with them. You've noticed how miserable you get when you spend too much time alone and how much time you spend on Facebook right ? But one the other hand, when it comes to the self, besides food, there must be a way to raise the level of state (a) say from 10 to 20 constantly no ? More spikes (b) we know how to do: cocaine (kidding), extreme sensations, love, helping others (it's the Dopamine part). But what if I want to be constantly more happy. Well, that's the ultimate hack. It's born out of three talks I've watched lately and I have to link to them because I owe them this.

Dan Gilbert :

[ted id=97]

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

[ted id=366]

And of course, Barry Shwartz:

[ted id=93]

Here'show the triangle of happiness hack stacks up:

  • Dan Gilbert introduces the idea that we are capable of synthesizing happiness. And it is in no way inferior to "natural happiness". Incredibly enough, amnesic people who were given the choice a painting then asked, after having forgot which painting they would choose consistently chose the painting they had been given earlier. We too tend to end up adapting to and being happy with what we end up with (our PC, though we wanted a mac, our HTC, though we wanted an Iphone ...). Synthetic happiness is very real
  • Mihaly introduces the idea of flow with the following graph :Flow is a state of immersion and genuine happiness that emerges when we do what we truly love. And notice how Flow is a condition whereas 1) the challenges we pick correspond to our skills 2) they are hard enough for us to feel we are doing something not anyone can do (this echoes Richard Layard's idea that it's not how rich you are but where you are in the pecking order that characterizes how happy you are)
  • Barry Shwartz uses this drawing to illustrate his point :This fishbowl illustrates exactly what happiness is. Shwartz says the following :  "If you shatter this fishbowl so that everything is possible,you decrease satisfaction. You increase paralysis, and you decrease satisfaction. Everybody needs a fishbowl. This one is almost certainly too limited --perhaps even for the fish, certainly for us. But the absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery, and, I suspect, disaster."

So here it is for you, in all its counter-intuitive Nanominded glory : To be happy, you have to limit your ambitions.

"What ?"

Yes. And you have to be strict about it. You want to be rich. Put a specific number on it. You want to get married. Choose your wife or husband's precise characteristics and settle for whom you end up with. The secret to happiness is this: Satisfaction (I suspect it releases serotonin). This is the key. Why ? Because once you settle, your brain will take care of synthesizing happiness, Gilbert is right. And that's why Mihaly is so right. The only work that will make you happy is one you can actually accomplish, and well : one where the challenges are as high as your skills. One where you can hence have a fixed objective. Caus' there is nothing harder than to aim at a moving target.

Limit your ambition. Fix the target. Aim. Shoot. Reach. Smile. Be happy.