Is Happiness All in Your Head? Two scientists look at the science behind happiness and satisfaction. What does it really mean to be happy? What does your brain really want?
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Is Happiness All in Your Head?

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Is Happiness All in Your Head?

Is Happiness All in Your Head?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

(Soundbite of "Don't Worry, Be Happy")

FLATOW: What is happiness? Sure a big philosophical question, so we'll change it a little. What makes your brain happy?

(Soundbite of cell phone ringing)

FLATOW: Is it a lack of bad things? How about excitement? Risk? Novelty? A home-cooked meal? Or getting what you desire, does that make you happy? What goes on in your brain when you're happy?

(Soundbite of "Don't Worry, Be Happy")

Mr. BOBBY McFERRIN: (Singing) Here's a little song I wrote. You might want to sing it note for note. Don't worry. Be happy.

FLATOW: Joining me now are two scientists and authors who've put a lot of thought into these sorts of questions, and if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. And you can always surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, where you'll find links to our topic.

Let me introduce my guests. Daniel Nettle is author of "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile." And he's a lecturer in psychology in the Division of Psychology, Brain and Behavior at University of Newcastle in the UK. He joins us from BBC studios there.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. DANIEL NETTLE (Author, "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile"; University of Newcastle): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Gregory Berns is the author of "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment." He's an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Emory University and associate professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. And he joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. GREGORY BERNS (Author, "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment"; Associate Professor, Emory University): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: How are you?

Dr. BERNS: Very well.

FLATOW: Daniel Nettle, what does it mean to be happy? I mean, where do you start trying to find out what happiness is?

Dr. NETTLE: Well, actually, I think people often say to me, `Oh, happiness. That's incredibly difficult to define, isn't it?' And I say, `Well, no, actually, it's quite easy to define, just very difficult to attain.' I think we all have a pretty strong intuition that happiness involves--and when I talk about happiness I don't mean complete ecstasy, you know, that sort of, you know, maximally joyous experience. But sort of basic everyday happiness involves a relative absence of the kind of worrisome emotions of anxiety, fear and sadness. And at least periodic pleasance of the positive emotions like enjoyment. And above all, a kind of judgment that things have gone, you know, to one's satisfaction. And that I call being happy.

FLATOW: Well, it's interesting that you have a book called "Happiness," and my other author has a book called "Satisfaction."

Dr. NETTLE: Right.

FLATOW: Are they equivalent, in your mind?

Dr. NETTLE: Well, I--if I might jump in there...

Dr. BERNS: Yeah.

Dr. NETTLE: ...I think that probably happiness is the more ambiguous term and, you know, one of the main senses of the word `happiness' is satisfaction, but there are other uses it has. It's probably a more general term in the everyday language, I guess.

FLATOW: Dr. Berns, how would you parse the two?

Dr. BERNS: Well, I think they're actually quite a bit different. Happiness I think of in terms of more of a passive emotion. I guess, you know, the way you think of it as something that happens to you. And it's actually not something that you have a great deal of control over. Whereas satisfaction I like to think of as in terms of a more active emotion; it's an emotion that you achieve by doing something and it's something very much under an individual's control.

FLATOW: And you went out in your book and you actually follow different people around in their daily lives and found out what makes them happy. Was there any overwhelming consensus of what makes people happy?

Dr. BERNS: Well, it wasn't that I was looking for happiness, and the book is really more of a science book but in the guise of a travelogue, if you will. And the idea was to take all the findings that we had amassed in brain research and neuroscience, specifically around a part of the brain known as the reward system, and see how people actually kind of tickle their reward system in unusual ways. And, indeed, I did follow a number of people around doing what I thought were unusual things and achieving satisfaction in unusual ways.

FLATOW: Is there a spot for happiness in the brain?

Dr. BERNS: No, actually, there isn't, and that's what was new to me. I--you know, I had been trained and kind of schooled in the idea that there is some sort of pleasure center in the brain. And, you know, it's a really old idea that goes back probably to Freud, but really started taking off about 50 years ago when neuroscientists discovered dopamine, the so-called pleasure neurotransmitter, and the idea that dopamine was this chemical that's released when something good happens has really stuck around until probably about 10 years ago when we started realizing that dopamine is released in several parts of the brain, but more importantly it's not released in response to pleasure. It's actually released in response to things that are new and novel to you.

FLATOW: And you make that at a point in your book that the novelty is very, very important. New and novel things.

Dr. BERNS: Novelty is critical and, to my way of thinking, the brain is all about novelty. And a lot of people don't like to hear that because they say, `Well, novelty, you know, I don't like--I don't like change.' But if you think about it, the brain really exists to adapt to a world that is constantly changing and for a brain to do that, it really needs new things, it needs new information and novelty. And it's no coincidence that novelty drives what we used to think was the reward system or the pleasure system, but in fact it's all about novelty.

FLATOW: Would you agree, Dr. Nettle?

Dr. NETTLE: Oh, I'd agree in part. I think that the sort of dopamine reward system is only one subpart of all the different things we call happiness or satisfaction and that's the part to do with wanting to take on some challenge or adapt to some environmental change and then succeeding in doing so. And it's also the part that has to do with craving and addiction and, you know, desire for kind of exciting things like, you know, sex and drugs and so on.

But there are other parts and we know that there are also systems to do with--there's a serotonin-based system that produces that kind of expansive relaxation that we actually associate with completely unstressful circumstances with, for example, being with people we know and love well and, you know, are completely comfortable with or with just simply, you know, sitting on a beach on a beautiful day with no novelty in sight. And I think that's a very--that kind of expansive, for this moment, you know, don't change anything, damp down all the stress-response systems, nothing bad is going to happen kind of system of the brain is a very different one from the excitement I get from going on a roller coaster or doing my deepest scuba dive ever type rush. So maybe we need to differentiate different parts of the brain, which really are subtlety different positive emotions.

FLATOW: Yeah, but you could argue that, you know, getting on a roller coaster, other--jumping out of an airplane. These are terror-filled things. Why does a terror-filled thing make you happy?

Dr. NETTLE: Well, I think--I mean, I think it's not the terror-filled thing that makes you happy, it's the experience of mastering it. One of the most rewarding things we have is actually mastering or being in control of some aspect of our environment. And what we do on a roller coaster or, you know, in the careers or hobbies that many of us choose, is allow a little bit of absolute chaos into our lives and get the kick of then mastering it. So you let yourself go on the roller coaster...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NETTLE: ...because you'll get on the other end and actually you're still in control of everything.

FLATOW: Yeah, I know, 'cause I'm taking pilot lessons.

Dr. NETTLE: Right.

FLATOW: I get the same thing. But I would imagine, evolutionarily speaking, that happiness must have value because it gives you something to look forward to, to get you out of bed, to do something for that day.

Dr. NETTLE: Well, yes. I mean, I think one of the most interesting things that if you ask people what the major goals are that they think would make them happy in life, you know, they tend to be things like, you know, becoming the boss of my company or becoming vice president or, you know, having a beautiful wife and so on. And then you ask them, `How much do you think it would change your satisfaction with life if you attained that goal?' And they said, `It would make an enormous impact on me,' you know, `I would be much, much happier, a much happier person if that happened.'

But actually we know from longitudinal studies that once those goals are attained, they're almost instantly replaced with some other goal and then people say, `Oh, I'm just as happy as I was before. Now I want to be president. You know, before I wanted to be vice president.'

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NETTLE: `Now I've got that. I'm no happier, and now I want to be president.' So I think in a way the psychology of happiness is partly kind of goading us on in evolutionary terms...

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Dr. NETTLE: ...to do things like compete for status, explore the environment, you know, those kinds of things. So in some ways it's a cruel illusion, but it gets us out of bed in the morning, you know.

FLATOW: Right. Dr. Berns, any reaction?

Dr. BERNS: Yeah. I agree with that and what we're talking about actually has a name. It's called the hedonic treadmill and it's exactly this phenomena that, you know, you think if only you had a little bit more money, you'd be a little bit happier. But in the end, our brains always adapt to whatever kind of level of goods and well-being that we have. Because the brain is actually designed to respond to changes. It's actually very poor at gauging things that don't change very slowly.

And, you know, you mentioned this terror of bungee jumping and roller coasters, and indeed I do think that there is satisfaction in the experience of that. But as we've been talking about, it has a lot to do with the control and the mastery of that and exactly in controlled amounts.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Talking with Daniel Nettle, author of "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile," and Gregory Berns, the author of "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment." 1 (800) 989-8255, as I say. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Ryan in Kansas City.

Hi, Ryan.

RYAN (Caller): Hi. How's it going?

FLATOW: Fine.

RYAN: I have a two-part question. Number one: Why do some people cry when they're happy? And number two: Is there a psychological and/or biological similarity when somebody is laughing or is crying? I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.

FLATOW: OK. Gentlemen? Anybody want to tackle that one?

Dr. BERNS: Well, I'll take a stab at it.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Dr. NETTLE: Please, go ahead.

FLATOW: Dr. Berns, go ahead.

Dr. BERNS: The thing--you asked me earlier about whether there's a pleasure center in the brain and I said, `No, there isn't.' And the similar question you could ask: Is there a pain center in the brain? And, in fact, there isn't a pain center, either. And the brain imaging studies that have been done in this area, as well as numerous studies in other animals, show that it's, in fact, a very fine line between pain and pleasure, if you will, which I think is probably very similar to what the listener just described as the difference between laughing and crying. These are amazingly fine differences as far as the brain's concerned.

FLATOW: I remember years ago there was a study about smiling and, if I remember it correctly, it showed that when you smile and your muscles in your mouth move to form a smile, your body releases endorphins. Do you remember that study? Or some sort of chemistry--chemical messengers that relieve pain or something.

Dr. NETTLE: Well, this is certainly an idea that's been around in psychology for a long time and it's at least partly true, which is that the outward display of emotions cause some of the experiences and physiological changes--the inner changes of the emotion. So for example if you force your mouth into the shape of a smile, you can produce at least some of the effects of the emotion of happiness, albeit in a much milder form. So there's some--you know, the flow doesn't just go from brain processes out to peripheral muscles, but also from peripheral muscles back to the brain. There's a kind of feedback loop: `I'm smiling, so I know I must be happy' in a way.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. NETTLE: I'm not sure if that's what you were driving at.

FLATOW: May--no, well, I--if--I was sort of saying maybe the body has built-in, you know, functions that allow you to feel better when you smile. I mean...

Dr. NETTLE: Well, we...

FLATOW: It wants you to smile or something.

Dr. NETTLE: We certainly know that if you induce positive emotions in people, you get changes, for example, in the immune system functioning. We've known for a long time that stress is very bad for the immune system, or it produces a very short-term kind of outbreaking of the immune system, but in the long term it causes problems. But actually there's been a couple of studies in the last few years have shown that if you take subjects into the lab and you're very nice to them, you get this kind of short-term potentiation of the immune system, you know, something seems to happen and you get hormonal changes and stuff going along with that. So what all of our emotions are doing are setting us up for the idea that the world is likely to be in this kind of a state in the next few minutes to hours, so anger is setting us up for the fact that, you know, someone's going to try and do something to you; you need to be ready to retaliate. Or fear is saying you might have to run. And I think sort of positive emotions like happiness is saying, you know, actually the environment's pretty benign so...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NETTLE: ...you don't need to be too stressed and but you need to be expansively ready to kind of adapt to nice offers that people might make you.

FLATOW: We're talking about happiness this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Daniel Nettle, author of "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile," and Gregory Berns, author of "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment."

Let's go to the phones. Hi, Barbara. Have you found true fulfillment?

BARBARA (Caller): Well, you know, it's very interesting what you're saying. Almost everything that's been said is about doing, but there's also happiness vs. contentment. I don't need to be doing anything to be content. And so there seems to be a lot of activity--what your speakers are saying about, you know, happiness.

FLATOW: Dr. Nettle?

Dr. NETTLE: I think that's a really interesting point, and actually it points up two quite different traditions of thinking about happiness. There's a sort of Western one, which is all about going out there and, you know, winning the battle and getting the girl, and the Eastern tradition which is more actually about letting go of desires, and it's more about meditation and contemplation and actually not needing to kind of struggle after doing things. That's more of a Buddhist approach. So I think in a way they're both necessary. They're really different parts of the coin.

I think that it's true that taking on meaningful challenges, you know, is an extraordinary source of satisfaction and, you know, we know many examples of that. But also there are times when people need to disengage from a struggle they liked or challenge they might have taken on that actually be becoming like an addiction or a craving. And there they need to be able to, you know, step back from it, and there are certain techniques like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which is actually allowing people to step back and say, you know, life is all right. There'll be frustration and there'll be good thing, but you know, you can be content with the outrageous fortune that will come to you.

BARBARA: And do you think this has to do with aging? Does the younger group have to go out and seek activity for happiness, and do older people or the older you get do you develop contentment?

Dr. NETTLE: I think intuitively that seems to be right. I don't know any study that's actually addressed that, but it does seem to be that it's partly a life-course thing. But I think very often if you have the one, you can benefit from a bit more of the other. You know, it's all about balance, really, isn't it?

BARBARA: But I just--you know, the whole thing of activity and doing when there's so much just in reflection that is--you know, brings great peace of mind.

Dr. NETTLE: That's absolutely right. But I think also personality comes into this in a big way, because some of us are very, you know, needy of stimulation, and we need to find outlets--and some people need to find outlets. Other people are prone to worry and for them often what they need to find is actually a way of disengaging from their worries or their feeling of constraint or stress. So I think, you know, different people probably and at different times use different combinations of these things to find their particular place in life.

BARBARA: Well, thank you so much. Very interesting discussion.

FLATOW: Thank you, Barbara.

BARBARA: Mm-hmm. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Talking with the authors of two very interesting books, "Happiness" and "Satisfaction." What better book titles can you get than that, huh? Daniel Nettle, who's author of "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile," put out by Oxford; Gregory Berns, author of "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment," put out by Henry Holt.

We're going to have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk lots more about happiness and satisfaction, and hopefully we can get some of your happiness and satisfaction on the phones. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. Maybe we'll think about marriage a little bit and does that lead to happiness and satisfaction. You know, we keep hearing that people who are married live longer, so maybe there's something there about satisfaction. We'll take a short break and come back. Don't go away.

I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Announcements)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about happiness and satisfaction. Daniel Nettle, author of "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile"; and Gregory Berns, author of "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment." Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255.

Let me ask you, Dr. Berns, you know, you look at sports these days, and you see--let's just pick out baseball. And guys are making 150 million, and they won't take 110 million, you know? They gotta have that--I mean, can it be that the people are never satisfied winning at something? Can you ever be satisfied?

Dr. BERNS: Well, the example that you give with money is particularly interesting, and it does indeed seem to be the case that people are not really ever satisfied with whatever money they have. Although talking about sports--and this actually gets back to Barbara's question about contentment--sports and physical activity are a really interesting aspect of satisfaction, and I actually come down, you know, pretty strongly on the active component of this. And I mean, the bottom line is we have two arms and we have two legs and we're fundamentally creatures that move about in this world. We are really designed and we're really evolved for physical activity and particularly a little bit of stress. And actually I think stress is good in small doses. One of the chemicals that I talk about in the book is cortisol. Now anyone who's turned on cable television late at night has undoubtedly seen infomercials about how cortisol is bad for you, how it makes you depressed and everything--from depression to obesity. And actually cortisol in small doses is quite good.

FLATOW: Yeah. So you should be getting some...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...of--does your status of how you feel--I'll ask both of you now--if you're a happy person now and a satisfied person now, does that mean you're going to be that way in the future, and does that encourage you to be that way in the future? And I guess maybe that has something to do with your outlook on life being half-full or half-empty.

Dr. BERNS: Yeah. You know, the studies of happiness in particular have shown very strong genetic components to happiness. I mean, I think we all subjectively know that some people just have kind of a sunny disposition and other people don't. Now the other big component of happiness I think is luck. You know, it--people who live with moderate degrees of wealth--I mean, basically if you don't live in poverty, you're pretty lucky. Most of the world lives in poverty and just being lucky enough to live in a country where you're not in poverty makes you happy--just, you know, by some threshold effect. So I don't think that happiness is something that we can move around a lot, but I do think that satisfaction is something that's attainable by anyone, happy or unhappy.

FLATOW: Daniel Nettle, want to...

Dr. NETTLE: I think I'd partly disagree with that. It absolutely true about the genetic factors, and in fact the best predictor of, for example, how happy you'll be in 20 years' time is simply how happy you are now, which is a sobering thought because we all believe that we're going to have some incredible transformation in the next couple of years that will change everything.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NETTLE: But, you know, statistically speaking we won't. However, I would say this about genetics. If I took 20 completely untrained runners, people who'd never done any athletic training, and I made them do a race, the differences in their speeds would be almost completely due to genetics. Some people would just happen to have fast twitch muscles, and some people would be light-framed and so on, and some people would be taller so they'd go a bit faster. OK, so a lot of the difference in speed is genetic. However, you can also train, and that training can make a difference, you know, to those inequalities that might exist. So you know, I wouldn't be entirely bleak about this. I think it's good to know that, for example, some people are very prone to be worriers, and they will probably always be worriers, but there are things you can do about your worry. You can kind of some to a relationship with it where you say, OK, I know I'm someone who's bound to worry; therefore, I'm going to discount my worrying a bit more when it happens. And so I think you can do something about, you know, as it were, the personality or heritage that you've ended up with.

FLATOW: There's--I mentioned before the break about being married and how there are statistics that married people live longer.

Dr. NETTLE: That's right.

FLATOW: Does that have anything to do with happiness?

Dr. NETTLE: Well, certainly married people do come out quite a lot happier on average in these kind of big surveys than unmarried people, but I think there's a lot of things going on there. As well as marriage causing happiness, we should also think about the fact that happiness might be causing marriage, which is perhaps you're more likely to get married or to remain married if you're reasonably a kind of sunny person. And there could be other things going on; there could be indirect correlations via--you know, married people have more friends. You know, they do more physical exercise. They do--so rather than running out and getting married in the belief it will make you happier, you know, we need to realize that there might be other things going on in these statistics that do indeed show that married people tend to be a bit happier than unmarried.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Jonathan in Salt Lake.

JONATHAN (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. Just got a few things--a three-part question. Hold on, my dogs are howling at a thunderstorm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JONATHAN: Sorry about that.

FLATOW: Fifteen years--that's the first. But go ahead.

JONATHAN: Real quick. One is are we going to define happiness just along the continuum of pleasure and pain. Is there any concept of happiness that the two guests that are scientists can refer to that is outside of kind of the pleasure/pain dynamic? And then two: Is happiness sometimes a function of a threshold, like you said? Like you have to draw boundaries around yourself; that as humans our capacities are so finite that we can only--we actually have to draw boundaries around ourselves and inhabit that space and call that our happy space. If we actually try to absorb and deal with the fullness of what's going on in the world around us that we'd immediately become unhappy. I'm thinking of William James and his reference to...

FLATOW: Yeah. Well...

JONATHAN: ...health officials and ...(unintelligible).

FLATOW: Even Andrew Weil says don't read the newspapers, you know, if you want to be a happy person.

JONATHAN: And then, lastly, in terms of pleasure/pain also, to what degree are we manipulated by a world that is all about commodities, and does it foster a kind of happiness or unhappiness in it that causes us to be active in striving after these objects of our desire. And then lastly, the idea of us being insatiable and the emergence in religion of God as the only infinite object that is the right suit for our infinite desires. And so that's all. Just a few things.

Dr. NETTLE: If I might come in there.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Dr. NETTLE: You raise lots of interesting points and I can't guarantee I'll get them all in the right order. Firstly, I think that the idea of happiness, at least as I define it here, involves the pleasure/pain continuum but shouldn't be reduced to it. That's to say, I think if you were in constant and chronic pain, then happiness is very difficult to attain, and if you were in sort of constant euphoria, well, the question of whether you were happy or not sort of wouldn't arise. And I think happiness is more, in a way, a cognitive state that partly involves, well, are there pleasures in my life, is at least part of my life free of pain, and do I feel it's worthwhile and challenging in other ways, you know. So it's a cognitive state that involves more than just the pleasure/pain continuum or should do.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. NETTLE: I think it's actually helpful if people can step back from the pleasure/pain continuum and say, well, you know, on balance how do I feel this is going. As for your interesting point about the insatiability of desire, I think that in a way the modern consumer economy is brilliantly engineered towards these natural desire appetite buttons that we have. You know, I mean, we watch literally millions of TV commercials and adverts all the time, and they constantly say to us, you know, you would have higher status, you would have, you know, more attractive mates, you would have greater happiness if you only had this. And of course, money and material goods, of all the domains of human activity, are those that actually provide the least contentment really, 'cause as soon as you've got them, you want the next thing.

So in a way, you know, that kind of keeps the old GNP turning over, but I think it's one of the reasons that over the last 40, 50 years as we've become richer and richer, there have been no further increases in our national aggregate happiness...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NETTLE: ...particularly in the USA, where it seems like a threshold was passed, and then after that, you're really dealing with the mechanisms almost of addiction rather than actual contentment. I've been...

FLATOW: Gregory--I'm sorry.

Dr. NETTLE: I think Dr. Berns might want to come in there.

Dr. BERNS: Yeah, let me jump in. The pain/pleasure continuum is actually I think quite interesting, and I devote several chapters on this question because there are certain circumstances in which pain can be quite pleasurable and certainly satisfying, and just by way of an anecdote, one of the people that I met kind of in this journey were a pair of women who were training and actually ran an ultramarathon race, and for those of you who don't know, an ultramarathon is a race typically of a hundred miles. It's a foot race, and it takes typically about 24 to 36 hours, and really begs the question of why do people do this. And I became quite interested in that because I didn't really understand it either because it obviously hurts, and so, you know, what better way than to actually kind of volunteer at one of these races.

And I can tell you I actually volunteered at a medical aid station at one of these races--mile 93, to be specific--and so I had a real kind of ground's-eye view of what people look like approaching a hundred miles on foot, and invariably what people describe as they come through these aid stations is it's kind of like a moment out of "Rocky." You know, at mile 93 their feet are just, you know, turned to pulp and, you know, they come through and they say, `Just tape them up; just put duct tape on them.' And I ask them, I say, `Well, are you in pain?' and they say, `Yeah, I'm in pain,' and then without missing a beat, the would invariably say, `But I love it.' And so, you know, how do you conceptualize that in terms of happiness and satisfaction? And my conclusion is that in fact they coexist in the right circumstances.

FLATOW: Could that also explain the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" phenomenon where you have married people who are just continuing to argue but, you know, they're not getting divorced. They kind of like it.

Dr. BERNS: You keep coming back to the marriage. So you want to talk about...

FLATOW: Well, you devoted a whole section in your book to love and sex and marriage.

Dr. BERNS: I do. And you know, at the outset I've said that much of satisfaction depends on novelty, and this presents a certain paradox for the married life. How to bring novelty into long-term relationships, I think, is a challenge that everyone faces, but not perhaps overtly, and it often masks in other forms of dissatisfaction with marriage. And so in fact, I do talk a great deal about the elements of satisfaction in a long-term relationship, and specifically how to deal with the fact that, you know, after several years you know a person pretty well, and we tend to fall into certain routines of behavior and the spark can die out. And so you know, without giving too much away, there are certain forms of novelty, and in particular, if you think about it, another person is probably the richest source of novelty that you can experience, because after all you really can't know another person's thoughts, and so in essence it depends on sharing those thoughts.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. We're talking about satisfaction and happiness this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

You know, there's a whole industry, probably bigger now than ever before, on mind and mood-altering drugs to make us happy. Do they work? Do they actually make us happy?

Dr. NETTLE: Well, I think it depends which sort of drugs you're talking about here because there are quite a few different categories. If you mean things like antidepressant, then it's very clear...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. NETTLE: ...that for a large number of people who are, you know, clinically depressed or close to clinically depressed, they do make quite a bit of difference and, you know, they're real life savers on average; they don't work for everyone. But they do--what they really seem to do is damp down or put some distance between the person and the negative emotions of fear, uncontrollable stress, hopelessness and so on. Just allow people to make those manageable. And they don't make them sort of completely and stupidly happy, they merely make them able to cope with, you know, the kind of various inconveniences that will happen to them through their day in a more sort of arm's length way.

As for the kind of, you know, utopian drug that would make everyone completely and permanently happy, it's--there isn't such a thing. And it's kind of hard to see what that would be. I mean, certainly there are drugs that produce short bursts of euphoria, usually followed by kind of downs, which are worse than the ups, and kind of euphoric and expensive experiences. But almost by nature, those experiences are transitory. They're certainly not a drug that produces the kind of cognitive judgment or conclusion that one has done satisfying things with one's life. The only way to do that, unfortunately, is to go and do satisfying things with one's life, I think.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Speaking of marriage, let's go to Lou in--well, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Whoa, well, Lou's not there. Let me follow up on that. In your book, Daniel Nettle, you talk about studies showing that women are actually happier and sadder than men.

Dr. NETTLE: Right.

FLATOW: At the same time.

Dr. NETTLE: Well, I mean, this comes back to a point that we made a little bit earlier about the partial independence of pleasure and pain. I mean, one of the things about sex differences is that women clearly experience--or at least report emotions more intensely in either direction. So women typically say, you know, `Yes, there are more things in my life that make me unhappy and frustrated and stressed, but also more things that make me happy and joyful and, you know, fulfilled and so on.' So there are actually, you know, the needle is flickering in both directions to a greater amplitude than for men, who are kind of, you know, staying a bit closer to the midline and going along.

So actually when you do sex differences in emotion, you always find, if you're looking at negative emotions, you find that women have more negative emotions, and if you're looking at positive emotions, you tend to find women have of them too.

FLATOW: Yeah. Gregory Berns, when we're actually happy and you do a functional MRI scan, can you actually see the brain lighting up in certain places?

Dr. BERNS: Well, yeah, you can see the brain lighting up in many places, and that's the big problem. You know, for years we thought that kind of the so-called pleasure center in the brain was located in--where all the dopamine receptors are.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BERNS: But it doesn't turn out that way. It's--happiness is not something that I think has really been measured with brain imaging, in part because it's really kind of this long-term emotion. It doesn't change that quickly, and certainly in a laboratory setting, it's actually quite difficult to make people happy.

FLATOW: Especially in laboratory settings.

Dr. BERNS: Especially in laboratory settings.

FLATOW: When you're lying on that machine, you're not very happy.

Dr. BERNS: They're happy to get out of it, let's put it that way.

FLATOW: You have to offer them more than 5 bucks to go in there.

Dr. BERNS: No, but again, you know, coming back to this issue of the pain/pleasure continuum I think is really certainly at the heart of the matter for where I'm coming from. And in terms of happiness, you know, I would pose the question as why would nature evolve us to even care about happiness. Does it really matter in terms of how evolution might have worked? And I'm a bit agnostic on that question. To me I think the primary function that the brain performs is learning about the world, because I mean fundamentally you have to adapt to a changing environment, and in that type of world, you have to respond to new situations. And it may be that new situations and novelty is reward to the brain.

FLATOW: Well, I have to stop it there, Gregory Berns, author of "Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment," associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory. Daniel Nettle, the author of "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile," lecturer in psychology, Division of Psychology, Brain and Behavior, University of Newcastle in the UK. Thanks for staying up to be with us today. Thank you both. Have a good weekend.

Dr. NETTLE: Bye.

(Credits)

FLATOW: Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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