While biology tells us that negative emotions are fundamentally human and difficult to eradicate, they can nevertheless be modified.
Human brains developed to identify risks and dangers in the face of adversity. Consequently, negative thinking is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. At least that’s the belief of happiness “guru” Professor Martin Seligman, who has made positive psychology the focus of his work.
So what’s the evidence for his view? Seligman says, “Because our brain evolved during a time of ice, flood and famine, we have a catastrophic brain. The way the brain works is looking for what’s wrong. The problem is, that worked in the Pleistocene era. It favored you, but it doesn’t work in the modern world.”
Experiments show that human beings remember failures more clearly than successes. We dwell on things that go badly, not what went well. When life is running smoothly, we’re on autopilot; our emotions lie dormant. The psychologist Daniel Nettle, of Newcastle University, UK, points out that of the six universal emotions anger, fear, disgust, sadness, joy, and surprise four are negative and just one is positive.
These negative emotions tell us “something bad has happened” and each one suggests a different course of action, says Nettle. Fear tells us danger is near, anger prompts us to attack, sadness warns us to be cautious and retreat, while disgust urges us to avoid infection.
Neuroscientists also have provided evidence that humans’ brain structure is biased toward negative thinking. A team at Iowa University showed people pleasant and unpleasant pictures. Researchers found that unpleasant images triggered responses from more primitive parts of the brain, while happiness is registered by the prefrontal cortex, which evolved later in mankind’s history.
So modern humans are stuck with an ancient brain. That triggers restlessness and urges us to keep moving forward and constantly achieve more and more. We are capable of adapting rapidly to new situations, but it means we soon take good things for granted. The brain of a species that has dominated others still strives to be best.
Nettle explained the chemistry behind our lack of satisfaction. “The things that you desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire of less quickly having good friends, the beauty of the natural world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out.”
True happiness does not follow the same chemical pathways as either desire or pleasure. It seems to occupy a third pathway involving serotonin. This chemical determines our level of well-being and sociability, or conversely, feelings of worry and anger. Seligman, the positive psychologist, believes we can train ourselves to be happier. He has developed new interventions that boost positive emotion about the past, teach people to savor the present, and increase the amount of engagement and meaning in their lives.
This is well worth trying, according to Professor Angela Clow of Westminster University, UK. As an expert in the biochemistry of stress, she sought to discover the health effects of happiness. “There is clear evidence that stress makes you susceptible to illness, but I wanted to turn this around and discover how happiness makes you healthier. There’s not a lot of happiness research in the UK, because if you do it, people think you’re trivial,” she says.
In her experiments, Professor Clow found that pleasant music boosts the immune system, as do pleasant smells such as chocolate. She also discovered that art and music in waiting rooms produce lower heart rates, blood pressure and cortisol (a stress hormone) in hospital patients.
Why should happiness have such an effect on the immune system? Professor Clow suggests that there is an evolutionary reason: our happiest ancestors were the bold individuals who socialized and ventured out to explore, bringing them into contact with infection and necessitating a stronger immune system.
A 2005 study by Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues at the University of California-Riverside concluded that 40 percent of the variability in happiness results from “actions that individuals deliberately engage in for the purpose of becoming happier.” The most beneficial actions vary between people depending on our preferences and level of extroversion or introversion.
Seligman, Martin. January 2004. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Free Press).
Sonja Lyubomirsky, David Schkade and Kennon M. Sheldon, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change,” Review of General Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 2, 111–131, 2005.