Cover Story: Happiness

Learning Brings Happiness

By Manfred Spitzer

Are happy people healthier, more successful, do they even live longer than those who are unhappy? Psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer examines happiness scientifically and undermines the assertion that school marks the beginning of the “serious side of life”.

Happiness and learning are very closely linked in our minds: positive experiences activate the nucleus accumbens which accelerates the learning process.
Happiness and learning are very
closely linked in our minds: positive
experiences activate the nucleus
accumbens which accelerates the
learning process.

Photo: adapted by permission from
Macmillan Publishers Ltd/Nature
Neuroscience 2010

Back in the 1970s, the then King of Bhutan, a small Buddhist state in the Himalayas, proclaimed that what mattered to him most was not his country’s gross national product, but its “gross national happiness”, an idea that is discussed throughout the world today. But what exactly is happiness? Why do some people seem to be happier than others? Is happiness genetically determined, can you buy it or – more recently – get it on prescription? Is happiness like beauty: immediately recognisable but impossible to describe? Or is happiness like sports or music: it’s what you do that counts; talking about it is pointless? Or is happiness perhaps like silence: if you talk about it, it’s gone?

English has two separate words, luck and happiness, where German has only one – Glück – to describe both a happy coincidence and the feeling of happiness. This is, however, not necessarily a sin of omission with regard to linguistic differentiation, but rather an example of what philosophers call the wisdom of language. Neuroscientific research in the last ten years has shown that positive emotions are very closely linked to something occurring that then turns out to be better than expected.

Win an Oscar, live longer

Happy people are less egoistic, less aggressive, less abusive to others and less prone to illness. Happiness is just as important for a long life as a healthy diet and lifestyle. Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars and lived to be 96. No coincidence, as a survey of 1,649 male and female actors showed: the survey first identified 762 winners of an Oscar for a leading or supporting role, then selected a matching group of actors who had appeared in the same films, were the same sex and approximately the same age. This created a control group of 887 actors with no Oscars to their names. A comparison between the two groups revealed that the life expectancy of the Oscar winners was a little less than four years higher than that of their Oscar-less counterparts. Those who won several Oscars even lived on average six years longer! By way of comparison: if we were able to heal all cancers in all humans at all times, the life expectancy of the entire population would increase by two or three years.

“To most people, science and happiness are about as compatible as sauerkraut and vanilla sauce.”

One of the most persistent myths is that money makes you happy. It is second only to the myth that money does not make you happy, and the one that you shouldn’t pursue happiness because that will only make you unhappy. Many people behave as though the worst thing you can do is to go out and seek happiness, because then you would have no chance of finding it. Nothing could be further from the truth: if you don’t bother looking for Easter eggs, you are unlikely to find many. The same applies to happiness.

In fact, there are many ways in which you can increase your likelihood of happiness. You only have to know what to do. And what not to do. So there is, indeed, a link between happiness and knowledge: the knowledge of what we can do to be happy. Consequently, answers to the question of happiness can be found precisely where you would least expect them: in science. That may be surprising to many, because to most people science and happiness are about as compatible as sauerkraut and vanilla sauce. Science is objective, cold, cerebral and calculating; happiness, on the other hand, is subjective, warm and a gut feeling. But nonetheless: humans, like plants and animals, are a product of evolution. Therefore our brain and its functions are not entirely unique in the world. Positive and negative emotions originate in the same structures of the brain that respond in very similar ways to reward and threat, sex and social status in both mice and human beings. Scientific examination of these mechanisms helps us understand better why desiring something is not the same as owning or consuming it, because in the brain they involve different states and functions. Wanting and liking, anticipation and pleasure are not the same things. Both, however, are part of the pursuit of happiness.

It is, in fact, possible to describe the experience of happiness in neurobiological detail. From the cocaine injection of an addict in withdrawal to eating chocolate, listening to music, observing fast cars or winning a videogame, to a friendly glance or word: positive experiences activate the nucleus accumbens, a structure deep down in the centre of the brain.

Death by pleasure maximisation

It was first publicised in 1954 that rats were extremely partial to the electric stimulation of this area of the brain. The animals could stimulate their own neurons by pressing a button. They pressed the button again and again, failed to eat or drink, and finally died because they quite simply did nothing else except permanently achieve quite obviously enormous gratification by stimulating their pleasure centre. It soon became clear that addictive substances stimulate this centre, too, which consequently became known as the addiction centre. What remained unclear, however, was why such a centre should have developed in the course of evolution. “To facilitate addiction” could hardly be the answer.

“The nucleus accumbens is neither pleasure nor addiction centre, and only incidentally a happiness centre. Rather, it is our brain’s own learning booster.”

Over the last ten years, it has become apparent that learning processes are greatly accelerated by the activation of the nucleus accumbens. With its help, the brain solves a very important and at the same time difficult problem. Every second, the brain is bombarded with enormous amounts of information that it cannot possibly all process, giving rise to the issue of selection: what should be processed further, and what shouldn’t? So what is called for is a module that evaluates and compares. As long as everything goes to plan and nothing occurs with which we are not already familiar, this module does nothing. If, however, something happens that is better than expected, the module is activated and we become alert, turn our attention to the experience and process it more thoroughly. And most importantly: we learn better. In the long term, this allows us to learn about everything that is good for us. The nucleus accumbens is, therefore, neither pleasure nor addiction centre, and only incidentally a happiness centre. Rather, it is our brain’s own learning booster.

The bad news is: the module of our brain that is responsible for experiencing happiness is focused not on permanent happiness but on permanently finding interesting novelties. The good news is: those who have understood that learning and happiness are very closely linked in our minds will know that the experience of happiness is always possible throughout life. Thus answers to the question of happiness can be found precisely where you would least expect them: in learning! From a neurobiological point of view, describing school as “the serious side of life” is, therefore, rather misguided.

What else do we know? Firstly: Let’s start with money. Money does not equal happiness. The 100 richest Americans are only marginally happier than the average American, whose wealth doubled between 1957 and 1996, but whose self-assessment as “very happy” decreased in the same period. In most countries (with the exception of some very poor countries) there is practically no link between people’s income and their happiness. So more and more money and prosperity do not always make us happier.

Secondly: When it comes to evaluating our own happiness, we are often very, very wrong. One million dollars will hardly make us happier. But suddenly finding ten cents can make our entire previous life seem happier. Happiness is neither linear nor additive.

“Long-term happiness has a lot to do with purpose and meaning and very little with consumption or gratification.”

Thirdly: We strive for many things, but not everything we strive for makes us happy. The happiness centre in our brain causes us to strive for addictive substances, but no sensible person would consider a heroin or cocaine addict a desirable model of a lifestyle worth aspiring to. But why not? The reason lies in the function of the happiness centre, which – as already mentioned – is actually a learning centre: it generates euphoria and positive emotions, but normally only in connection with learning. Addictive substances effectively usurp this model and decouple the positive affect from the learning process. What remains is the empty, meaningless positive affect, and the loss of all the positive experiences for which the module is normally responsible – first and foremost, (constant new experiences in) the company of others.

Fourthly: Most people believe that they will be happier in the future than they are now, but this does not actually happen. People tend to overestimate the influence of life events on their happiness.

Fifthly: Happy people are physically and mentally healthier, more successful at learning and work, more creative, more popular, more sociable, less likely to be criminal or addicted, and they live longer. Thus the pursuit of happiness is by no means as egocentric as it sounds. Happy people are better people, in every respect.

Sixthly: Long-term happiness, therefore, has a lot to do with purpose and meaning and very little with consumption or gratification. And, luckily, the hedonic treadmill – you buy and buy and become increasingly unhappy – does not apply to all experiences: spending time with family, with friends, having sex, even the quality and security of our work are experiences with positive effects to which we do not become habituated. So happiness derives from our experiences, especially our experiences with other people. How we behave in the process is up to us. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln was right when he said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And the poet Walter Savage Landor anticipated the hedonic treadmill when he said, “We are no longer happy so soon as we wish to be happier.”

If we add to that Benjamin Franklin’s comment on the American Constitution (“The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”), these deliberations can only conclude with Leo Tolstoy: “If you want to be happy, be!”


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Manfred Spitzer
Manfred Spitzer
Photo: private

Professor Dr. Dr. Manfred Spitzer teaches psychiatry, is medical director of the Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik and founder of the Transferzentrum für Neurowissenschaften und Lernen at the University of Ulm. From 1989 to 1990, he conducted research at Harvard University in Cambridge, USA, as a Feodor Lynen Research Fellow.

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