Do you know what real happiness is

What is luck?

Mr. Klein, you wrote a book on the science of happiness. Is it possible to research happiness at all??

Klein: You can now. The question of a happy life is one of the oldest. Philosophers have racked their brains over this for 2000 years and have come up with all sorts of contradicting answers. This is how the myth arose that you cannot say exactly what happiness is. But in the past ten years we've gotten a lot smarter. Because we have learned a lot about how our brain works and how feelings arise. Research into happiness is a small but very useful brain research spin-off.


So what is happiness?

Happiness is a signal that nature invented to show us that we are on the right track. Feelings of happiness entice us to do things that are good for us. In this way we learn which situations we should look for and create. Negative feelings work the other way around - fear, for example, leads us to avoid danger.

The mechanisms that evoke such emotions and the way we express them are innate. That, too, is something that would not have been thought 30 years ago. It was believed that humans were born a blank slate. Today we know that our genetic makeup has a very strong influence on our emotions. This is the deeper reason why the feeling of happiness is very similar in very different life situations. Whether you're enjoying a good meal, having sex or having successfully completed a job - it's always the same melody of joy, only the orchestration is different. From a neurobiological point of view, there are actually only two basic forms of happiness. One is desire. The other is enjoyment, i.e. having received something and savoring it.


That would mean that happiness cannot function without the body.

For pleasure and enjoyment there are mechanisms in the brain in which certain hormones are released. But happiness is actually not only created in the head, as one might think, the body also plays an important role. When you are happy, the features of the face and the muscles in the limbs relax. Your eye ring muscle contracts a little, you get laugh lines, the corners of your mouth move upwards. Your heart also beats a little faster. By triggering such changes in the body on the one hand and observing them on the other, the brain constructs the sensation of happiness. Good feelings towards the body are only possible to a very limited extent. Just try to be happy with tense muscles and a furrowed brow.

It is interesting that you can manipulate feelings through the body. One can learn to contract the eye ring muscle, which is normally not subject to human volitional control. How to artificially create a smile with real laugh lines. In fact, you cannot distinguish the sensation that arises from real joy. But that takes practice.


That sounds a lot like manipulation. Most people would surely prefer real happiness.

One can learn happiness. Because we are all designed by nature to feel happiness. And anyone can train this ability. For example, by specifically bringing ourselves into situations in which we are likely to feel happiness or joy. And we can influence how we experience certain situations through practice. This training changes the brain. The extent to which this is possible has only been discovered in recent years by scientists. Contrary to what was previously thought, new brain cells are constantly being created in an adult's brain. The interconnection of the neurons is also constantly changing. This is how the brain is shaped by experience. It is crucial that these changes come about through repetition. This means that by training to experience certain situations in a certain way, we can transform the brain. As you practice this, over time you will find it easier to experience feelings like joy.


That sounds as if theoretically there is justified hope of happiness even for the ill-tempered. But how does it work in practice?

For example, you can learn to control your negative emotions. If someone snaps a parking space from under your nose, then you get annoyed. Now you could freak out. This is based on the belief that it is a good idea to really let out anger or sadness because it then discharges. But that's not true, because in fact something completely different happens when you get upset. Of course, if you yell at people, you still won't get the parking lot. However, they have remained in the state of negative emotion, anger, longer than was necessary. As a result, you've doused your body with stress hormones - and increased the likelihood that the next time someone takes a parking space away from you, you'll have another outburst of anger. It is much better to perceive this negative emotion and then go back to business. Just think of the next parking space or something completely different.

In nature, emotions have the function of a signal transmitter. You got the signal and you are annoyed. Now the message has been delivered, the messenger can be silent. If you train not to dwell on it, over time you will be able to control your anger better and better. That doesn't mean suppressing the emotion - you are aware of it. But you'll learn to get out of it faster - and you'll feel better as a result.


The more often I am in an emotional state, the greater the likelihood of experiencing it again?

Yes. Repetition strengthens the connections between different centers in the brain, as measurements of brain activity show. And these connections influence how we react to certain situations.


Learning to deal with negative emotions is unlikely to make an unhappy person happy.

Training like the one I just described works even with clinical depression. Tests with thousands of people have proven this. It really helps with everyday depression. But being able to be happy is not just about learning to deal with negative emotions. So far, psychotherapies have concentrated far too much on relieving people of the symptoms of anxiety, depression or even depression, but have given too little attention to increasing people's joie de vivre.

Fortunately, there is also body awareness. Therefore, exercise and sex are important factors that pave the way for good feelings. Exercise, for example, releases hormones, endorphins and probably also serotonin. And: activity is a key to happiness. We often believe that happiness means stretching out all fours. This is wrong. We are not made for the lazy life. Our brain literally punishes us for this with negative feelings of exhaustion, irritability and displeasure.


The less we do, the more sluggish we are, the more tired and unhappy do we feel?

That doesn't mean that it's not good to relax after you've put in a lot of effort. But it probably means that lazing around for a long time, for example in front of the television, does not lead to good feelings.

You get good feelings especially when you set goals and try to achieve them. This creates pleasure: the pleasure of desire, of wanting, the desire for the new. From a neurobiological point of view, the mechanisms for lust and curiosity are the same. In all of this, what you do is less important. The main thing is that you do something that you enjoy. Whether you have a professional goal for yourself, whether you go dancing or dig up your yard, it all comes down to getting involved. Saint Thomas Aquinas once said: indolence makes you sad. This is very true.


Sometimes, however, it is also difficult, unchangeable living conditions that make people unhappy. Illness, for example.

Still, living conditions have a lot less to do with mood than you might think. Often you make amazing discoveries in people who have a serious illness or a difficult family fate: Despite their fate, they have not lost their ability to be happy. You can enjoy small things, such as human encounters and perceptions. Conversely, there are people who are so unhappy, without any external reason, that life is nothing but torment for them. Such people suffer from depression. And that affects many: Around twelve percent of the population will go through depression in the course of their life - the trend is rising.


Happiness would therefore primarily be a matter of perception.

Psychological research has shown that people are often in a much better mood than they later claim. Our minds often tend to ignore the experience of happiness. Perceiving your own emotions makes you happier and more receptive to happiness. On the one hand, you train your sensorium in this way. On the other hand, the exact perception of external things also leads to the sensation of happiness. If you focus on something, whatever, the bird that flies by or the blue of the sofa you are sitting on, it lifts the mood. If only because you are not concerned with your fears and worries at such a moment.


People do a lot to be happy. They have children, build houses, have a career and earn more money. But they don't seem to be happier with it.

This is based on a tragic mix-up of happiness and contentment. In contrast to happiness, satisfaction is not a feeling. Satisfaction is the result of a judgment, it arises when we think about our life. In doing so, we adopt standards that are largely shaped by our culture. Happiness, on the other hand, is felt the same way by everyone around the world. Like all feelings, it takes place in the present. They say: I am happy now. Satisfaction arises in retrospect. The comparison with previous life situations and with others plays an important role. When I ask you: Are you satisfied with your life? Then a lot of things will pass by in your mind's eye that you evaluate. You will wonder: am I doing as well as I imagined? Am I as well as others? Am i better Worse? Only then will you come to a conclusion.

For example, if you have found the man of your life and are starting a family with him, you will feel momentarily happy. But once you get used to the new situation, you become dissatisfied. A simple example is the raise. Your boss comes in and says: You get 500 euros more. They will be pleased. First. After a while you think: Hasn't this salary been granted to me for a long time? And: doesn't my colleague still earn a lot more?


So is dissatisfaction something primeval human?

It is not only our own. The approaches to this already exist in animals. In one experiment, monkeys were fed apple wedges. The scientists found that the moment they appeared with the apple pieces, certain neurons were firing in the monkey's brain. That was the anticipation of the treat. But after a while the monkeys were no longer happy when they saw the researchers turn the corner with the food. The neurons stopped firing, as brain scans showed. For the little monkeys, the apples had become normal. So the researchers changed the diet. The monkeys now got an even bigger delicacy: raisins. Lo and behold, the neurons indicated that the monkeys were looking forward to their meal again. But only until they got used to the raisins. The animals were then put back on the apple diet. The activity in the brain promptly decreased. The monkeys were deeply disappointed. But after a while, the activity of the neurons returned to normal. So the monkeys had got used to the worsened situation. It is the same for us humans. It is a great illusion to believe that one can achieve something like lasting satisfaction by changing the external living conditions - better food, a nicer apartment, more money. Happiness is temporary, after which the next target appears.


That means you always have to set new goals. It may be easy at work, but it becomes difficult privately: Should you change partners all the time?

Indeed, this is the path many people choose. And always only with temporary success. But you have an alternative. They can discover new things in the familiar, recognize new traits in their partner, perceive their surroundings more precisely, make new friends without having to turn their lives upside down. In private or professional life, it is not only important that you do certain things, it is also important that you avoid certain things.


Which are they?

I have learned for myself to look less at others. Comparing yourself is one of the biggest pitfalls on the road to happiness.

Another trap is false expectations. Expectations that are too high are just as unhelpful as expectations that are too low. Because nature invented expectation to stimulate us to be active. If you underestimate your chances, you will hardly be motivated to make an effort. However, unrealistically high expectations are a luck trap because they often lead to unnecessary disappointment. At the Olympic Games, for example, bronze medal winners are happier than silver medal winners, as a study during the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 revealed. Why? Many silver medalists are unhappy because they expected they could win gold. The bronze medal winners, on the other hand, were more likely to expect not to take any medals home with them. So they were all the more happy.

Getting too dependent on outside assessments and praise is another trap. Because we do not have the praise of others in our own hands. We cannot control what we do not have in hand, that means stress for us. And that is often enough a reason for dejection.


Hand on heart: is it difficult to learn happiness?

No, it is mostly a matter of practice. We all have a fortune in us. ----- |


Interview: Christiane Sommer
published in brandeins 07/200