Sisyphean Life: The Scientific Landscape of Happiness

As we age, we are exposed to different facets of the world around us. We find that human nature, if there is such a thing, is in a constant state of flux. We change with time and so does everyone and everything else around us. Uncertainty, expectations and desires often cause the sort of unease that manifests as general unhappiness in our state of being. If we were to imagine the temporal landscape of our lives as a three-dimensional space similar to the population distribution topology of the United States, there appear to be sparsely distributed peaks of happiness.Some peaks are temporally clustered while the rest occupy a relatively uninhabited space. A large part of this topology, however, remains barren with pretty much nothing going on for the most part! It is this barren area in the temporal topology of human emotion, when we are disengaged from inherently (read physically) rewarding pursuits, that cultivates moments of meaningful reflection. Some of this barrenness is intellectually nourishing as we use these moments of contemplative isolation to reflect on the fickle transience of human existence or true relevance of professional accomplishments. The pollen of such nuanced reflection, however, than spreads around the barren landscape and germinates the weeds of emptiness.

One of the ways we can modulate our state of being is by capitalizing on certain scientific knowledge. For instance, food, blue light spectrum, sexual intercourse and social interactions may activate the endogenous reward circuitry in the ventral tegmental area of the brain. Physical exercise generates endogenous opiates or endorphins and that the neural circuitry for emotional pain displays functional overlaps with physical pain. Such data-driven life choices (small piece of chocolate, dinner with friends, natural light, physical exercise, blueberries for breakfast) may facilitate active intervention.

Beyond such physical manipulations, we can use scientific information to develop a more nuanced understanding of human social behavior. Consider for instance, studies demonstrating structural correlates of a switch from deontological to utilitarian moral decision-making in the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in humans. The realization that complex social behaviors may be altered dramatically by genetic/epigenetic differences or polymorphisms that exist naturally may help us confront our biases and in this process, we can perhaps learn to accept people for who they are. In this way, scientific information can have a very real and positive impact on our worldview and our state of being. If, on the other hand, the considerations are largely cosmic, stemming from the realization of inherent absurdity of human existence, we can seek wondrous refuge in the Hubble deep-space image or the Drake’s equation.

hubble-20070906-2

The fact that each and every element in our body comes from the supernovae explosions can be a source of utter amazement and wonder. The expression of self-awareness and the process of discovery, in the words of Carl Sagan, is truly “the way for the cosmos to know itself!”

*The population distribution map was taken and modified from the Map Collections Blog at WordPress. The Hubble deep-space image was taken from the NASA website

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