The Current

Happiness doesn't come without hard work, according to neuroscience

The key to happiness, according to neuroscientist Dean Burnett is complex. The author explains the scientific facts behind what's going on inside the happy brain.

Author Dean Burnett argues contemporary ideas about feeling happy are often wrong

Author Dean Burnett demystifies the neuroscience of what makes us happy in his book, The Happy Brain. He says brains are complicated and there's a lot of misinformation about happiness. (Submitted by Harper Collins)

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The key to happiness is gratitude. The key to happiness is social connection. The key to happiness is owning 37 items of clothing (according to the Daily Mail).

There are so many competing claims out there about what it means — and what it takes — to be happy. And so much pressure to get there.

But current neuroscience suggests what philosophers have known for a long time: it's not so simple.

According to Dean Burnett, the notion that people are happy by default, or that we can maintain a constant, long-term state of happiness is just wrong.

"This idea of lasting, default happiness I think is a misleading one, and often an unhelpful one because that's not how the brain works," said Burnett, a a neuroscientist and stand-up comedian. He was written a book on the subject: The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From and Why.

"The brain makes us happy when we've done something good or something right. So if we're always happy, nothing really makes any difference," he told The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett says songs like Pharrell William's hit, Happy, and other catchy songs that enhance mood, tend to have patents that hit a sweet spot between randomness and predictability. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Burnett said people should instead approach happiness as an achievement to work towards in our everyday lives.

Burnett argues that contemporary ideas about happiness are often wrong, and he's also critical of the ways that key neurological processes are often described. Case in point: dopamine.

"You see so many articles and claims and theories saying in order to be happy you must boost your dopamine levels," he said.

"That's a very over-simplified way of looking at it. That's like saying to restore a Renaissance painting, just add more green."

The dopamine reward pathway is an ancient part of the brain that many other creatures share. It monitors everything that's going on around you, and when something happens that it deems worthy of reward, it delivers a sensation of pleasure.

"But it's the way that system is activated — what the brain deems worthy of pleasure or not — that's where it gets really complex," said Burnett.

People are hugely variable in what activates that system, he added, based on personality, life experience, genetics and other factors.

When it comes to day to day happiness, Burnett said he's surprised people play much more of a significant role than he expected.

"We're such a social species and our brains have evolved to facilitate so much communication and empathy and just awareness of the people around us that they form a much bigger part of our existence and ourselves," he explained.

"So it's always good to make time for others that you care about."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was written and produced by The Current's Julie Crysler.


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