The surprising science of happiness
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After a century of researching how to treat mental illnesses, scientists have begun to investigate what makes us happy. What did they discover? We will critically examine the findings of the new science of happiness, including research in cognitive science, evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience, and reveal how this work changes our understanding of what happiness is, the best ways to achieve and increase it, the role of circumstance in its occurrence, its effect on our physical health, and its place in human nature. We’ll look at the concept of a biologically determined “hedonic set point” and wonder if there are people who “started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain threshold,” as William James observed over a century ago. We’ll look at how the brain’s reward circuitry generates feelings of pleasure, desire, comfort, and craving, as well as how it motivates us to achieve biologically meaningful goals. Among the questions we will consider are: What is the purpose of happiness? Is it possible to make oneself happier with conscious effort? What are some of the common misconceptions about happiness? Finally, is happiness a worthwhile goal in life? We will attempt to build a “happiness toolkit” by highlighting the most rigorous and promising work in this field. The seminar will be didactic, interactive, and experiential, and will serve as an introduction to a new field of scientific inquiry.