Even if we don’t write historical stories, or military suspense with technical details, all writers have one subject which they must all research: happiness and how humans pursue it. Even the most evil of evil villains, we believe, is motivated by their own belief that their actions will bring them some form of happiness. In this fascinating talk, Nancy Etcoff gives some insights into the subject from the field of cognitive science.
About a decade ago, I witnessed an Australian cognitive scientist declare with utter conviction that a person’s capacity for happiness was genetically pre-determined and then refuse to be drawn into any discussion of environmental factors for the rest of the seminar. When asked if he was happy himself he responded "As happy as I am capable of being" and gave a smug, self-satisfied, lips-only smile – a happiness of sorts, I suppose. In contrast, Nancy Etcoff tells us that cognitive scientists have now discovered that, while they do their share, genes are only about 50% responsible for our level of happiness, the rest is a combination of chasing natural beauty, social activity and other such pleasure inducing experiences while avoiding misery inducing ones and the judicious satisfaction of desires (which may or may not be pleasure or misery inducing themselves).
Contrary to the idea Plato’s Socrates gives us, that happiness exists only in as much as we experience the absence of its opposite, our emotional well-being is not a continuum from happy to sad but, rather, a balance of parallel emotional systems. Making ourselves less miserable does not automatically result in a move towards happiness, it acts solely to make us more able to enjoy whatever happiness we find without the chemical fog of depression. Similarly, pursuing what we feel an urgent desire to attain, whether it a material possession, or the love of a person, satisfies only our dopamine-based, "need" system, which is at the heart of addiction; we won’t feel as bad as we do when we are yearning for that thing, but getting it will not necessarily raise the happiness level of the equation unless what is gained is something which also gives us pleasure, rather than merely the absence of yearning.
To be truly happy, if I have understood Etcoff correctly, one must address not only misery and it’s avoidance but our, separate, desire system and the pursuit of its satisfaction, while also indulging in experiences that give us pleasure (yet another system again). Like an audio engineer finding the perfect mix, we must adjust all three sliders to find the sweet spot, which is likely to be slightly different for everyone.
As a writer, this insight is exciting; I can see how this will be a tool for tweaking characters: which one of the sliders is the character more influenced by, which does he have the emotional skills to manipulate better?
Etcoff is a great presenter, too. Enjoy!