I try to understand how evolution has shaped the human brain. It means explaining things like why we are conscious, and what happiness is about. It also includes listing human feelings and emotions. I believe insight in our brain can be used to improve life.
My name is Bjørn Grinde, and I work as a senior scientist at the Division of Mental and Physical Health, Norwegian Institute of Public Health. I started my studies in biology at the University of Oslo, with an interest in this one organ of one particular species: the human brain. The interest led to further studies in anthropology, psychology, and pedagogics; and to a research career focusing on the process of evolution. An understanding of human nature should help us build a society where both present and future people can have a good life.
In these pages I present my work in the following categories:
Life on this planet, including the human species, only makes sense in the light of evolution. So if we want to understand what happiness is, we need to turn to biology. The insight obtained should help us improve on this particular capacity of the human brain. In other words: Evolution offers a guide not only for understanding human behavior, but also for living a human life.
There is a growing interest in applying a biological perspective to medical and social sciences, as exemplified by concepts such as Darwinian Medicine and Evolutionary Psychology. While the typical focus is on the prevention of diseases, Darwinian Happiness takes the perspective one step further and aims at enhancing well-being.
Our great feats of engineering, from building the pyramids to sending a man to the moon, have been the easy tasks; the real challenge of humanity lies in dealing with human nature. We have the power to turn this planet into a nightmare, but it is also within our capacity to offer mankind the chance of a life more happy than in any previous society. The solution rests with our capacity to understand the human brain, and on our willingness to act on this knowledge.
To be a Stone Age creature in an industrialized zoo tends to cause problems. The list of possible consequences is numerous—from depression and suicide, to obesity, drug use, insomnia, loneliness, and violence—to mention only a few of the "diseases of civilization." The point being, we seem to have lost sight of our biological inheritance. We appear to be prisoners of an environment that is somewhat at odds with the way evolution shaped us to live. One major challenge is to retain the advantages of an industrialized society—particularly those related to medicine, technology, and agriculture—while adjusting life so that the diseases of civilization are minimized.
Humans were bestowed by evolution with the capacity for feelings, which gave us the option of being happy – or miserable. The brain can be seen as a collection of functions, which I like to refer to as apps (somewhat akin to those on a smartphone). A number of these apps, including those responsible for pleasure and pain (thereby creating feelings and mood), send information to the part of the brain that generates conscious experiences. Although we have limited access to the "swithces" that regulate these apps, we do have some power of influence. With the right knowledge, and techniques, we can, in other words, improve our score of happiness. Briefly, this endeavor relies on the following:
1.Certain aspects of the way we live should be adjusted to suit our innate tendencies in order to avoid the strain brought on by a suboptimal (unnatural) environment.
2.It is possible to exercise the off switch for negative feelings, as well as the on switch for positive feelings; relevant training should tip the mood in a positive direction. My happiness exercises are designed for this purpose.
Well-being, or quality of life, is primarily a question of how successful we are at following these two principles. In order to employ the former we need knowledge about what sort of conditions humans are adapted to, and which changes from these conditions that matters. In order to design relevant exercises, we need to understand the neurobiology of the brain, particularly as to how consciousness is generated and how to find "paths" from our conscious position that let us reach the relevant swithces.
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet these children seem to have no problem finding happiness – perhaps because they have each other. Social life is important. Then again, most children are happy, the difficult part is to retain happiness throughout life.