The Pursuit of Happiness

Make today different from tomorrow
MAR 2019
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

Happiness is a strange thing.

Take one of your glorious moments. Mine would probably be the day I learned I was joining MIT. It felt like I had just received my letter of admission to Hogwarts, from Dumbledore himself. I had worked so hard to get to that point, and for all I knew, it was the biggest success of my life. Yet, in spite the initial rush of extreme pride and delectation, in a matter of minutes, the joy had already subsided. For some obscure reason, I just could not hold on to that feeling of immense satisfaction, and was simply left with the mere aftertaste of success. I suspected the news had simply not sunk in yet, and secretly hoped for a second surge of happiness. But nothing.

This apparent lack of emotions might not sound entirely unfamiliar to you. But why is it so hard to enjoy enjoyable moments? The thought still frightens me from time to time, but I have since managed to convince myself that part of it may actually come from our brain. As someone who studies neuroscience, and who tends to perhaps be overly imaginative, I want to entertain the possibility that the elusive nature of happiness is somehow hardwired in all of us. And I would venture even further by proposing that our desensitization to rewarding experiences is exacerbated by our natural tendency to fall into daily routines. But let us not jump ahead, and start at the beginning.

Surely you must have heard of Pavlov’s dogs. It is well known that animals, like humans, anticipate rewards. For example, when food is consistently paired with a particular sound, dogs eventually begin to salivate upon hearing the tone itself, well before seeing or even consuming the food. Think about the effect the doorbell has on you whenever you are expecting pizza to be delivered. Just like Pavlov’s dog, your reaction to the upcoming reward transfers to the sound of the bell, which is not rewarding in itself, but merely announces, or predicts, the delicious meal you’re about to have.

It turns out, a particular type of neurons in our brain – called dopamine neurons – act exactly like a giant pack of miniaturized Pavlov’s dogs. Whenever we get rewarded, these neurons light up and broadcast the reward signal throughout the whole brain. However, just like Pavlov’s dogs, as soon as the reward becomes predictable in some way – say, from a preceding cue – then the burst of activity shifts, or transfers to the moment when the cue is presented. But here is the crux: after this transfer occurs, when the reward per se is finally obtained, dopamine neurons keep quiet.

Nobody knows what implications this transfer of dopamine activity has at the level of human emotions. But here is what I wonder about. What if this transfer directly contributes to the erosion of happiness we all have to fight against in our daily lives? Most of us here at MIT get to do the things we love, but we also inevitably fall into some form of routine, be it at home or at work. This means that all the rewarding and enjoyable moments of our day are consistently preceded by a chain of predictable events. So now, if you think back to our “Pavlov’s dog” neurons: what if, over time, our brain picked up on those coincidental associations? What if dopamine signals got transferred around and thinned out over our boring habits? What if, by the time you got to your favorite part of the day, your dopamine neurons were already quiet for the day?

This is, of course, pure speculation. We are very far from being able to decipher the inner workings of happiness, and I would be foolish to pretend otherwise. These thoughts, however, help me keep an eye out for persistent routines, motivate me to break them when necessary, and remind me to make the most of life. My hope, in sharing this with others, is to perhaps provide a new perspective on what the mechanism of happiness might be, and how to fix it. There is, I believe, no magic to it; just work to be done against your own mind that continuously tricks you into evening out enjoyable moments. I see it as an exercise, something you can train for, and eventually excel at. And what could be better than to excel at happiness?