Unlocking the Complex Pursuit of Happiness: Insights from Neuroscientist Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Featured & Cover Unlocking the Complex Pursuit of Happiness Insights from Neuroscientist Dr Sanjay Gupta

Happiness is a concept deeply embedded in human history, dating back to ancient civilizations. Approximately 250 years ago, it was enshrined as an unalienable right in the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Despite centuries of contemplation, the notion of happiness and its attainment remains elusive. For some, it signifies a general sense of well-being, while others equate it with moments of pure joy. Some find happiness in achieving dreams, while for others, it could be a blend of these experiences or something entirely different.

Personally, I consider myself a fairly happy person. I have three wonderful teenage daughters and a loving wife, Rebecca, with whom I recently celebrated our 20th anniversary. My family, including my parents and my “baby” brother, is close-knit. My career as a practicing neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent provides me with a sense of purpose. However, I recognize that happiness is complex, layered, and nuanced.

**The Pursuit of Happiness**

A challenging question is how best to pursue happiness. Is it a fixed trait we are born with, or can it be cultivated and enhanced? If it’s the latter, what strategies can help us achieve it?

Despite the “pursuit of Happiness” being a foundational principle in the U.S., many Americans struggle with it. The latest World Happiness Report saw the U.S. drop to 23rd place, its lowest ranking in the report’s 12-year history. Additionally, a 2024 Gallup poll revealed that less than half (47%) of Americans are “very satisfied” with their personal lives.

This issue isn’t confined to Americans; humans as a species might not be naturally adept at achieving happiness. Contrary to what one might expect, happiness isn’t something we are genetically primed to attain; it requires effort.

“If anything, natural selection kind of doesn’t really care about our happiness that much. I mean, natural selection’s job is just to keep us alive and keep us around to reproduce. And I think it does that not by making us feel these moments of contentment but maybe just the opposite,” cognitive scientist Dr. Laurie Santos explained to me recently.

“It does that by building in a negativity bias. So we’re just a little bit worried that there could be a tiger around the corner, that we could get shunned at work. And we’re kind of constantly on the alert for that,” she added.

Dr. Santos, who holds a doctorate in psychology, teaches “Psychology and the Good Life” at Yale University, the most popular course in the university’s history, and hosts “The Happiness Lab” podcast. She was also the first guest on the 10th season of my podcast, “Chasing Life.” This season, I speak with experts across various disciplines about the science of happiness, including its definition, attainment, maintenance, and effects on our minds and bodies.

**I’m Happy but ‘Constructively Dissatisfied’**

Despite being a generally happy person, I also consider myself “constructively dissatisfied,” a term I coined during my conversation with Santos.

I distinguish between happiness and satisfaction, believing that complete satisfaction might erode my happiness by leading to complacency and stagnation. My personality seems to thrive on dissatisfaction, which propels me into action and enhances my energy and enthusiasm.

The times when I feel happiest are when my constructive dissatisfaction drives me to improve situations, whether it’s removing a brain tumor, completing a documentary, working in my garden, or cooking dinner with my family.

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author, who also appeared on my podcast, agreed with this perspective. “Because dissatisfaction often is the soil in which growth and positive change happens,” she explained. “And dissatisfaction doesn’t actually have to be a lack of appreciation or gratitude. If you can envision a better future for yourself or others, it requires feeling a gap between how things are and how things could be.”

The “constructive” aspect is crucial to me because I don’t want to merely wallow in dissatisfaction; I want it to be productive. As long as dissatisfaction doesn’t overwhelm my emotional well-being, it benefits me, though it can be a source of tension and struggle.

“It strikes me that you’ve kind of gotten something out of the journey, gotten something out of that struggle,” Santos told me, while also cautioning against overextending oneself. “We can push ourselves and engage in challenges; those can be some of the happiest, most flow-inducing moments of our lives. But we need to make sure we’re doing that in balance.”

She warned that if we lose sleep, neglect friendships, and make ourselves miserable, “maybe think about pushing yourself in a different way.”

To mitigate negative feelings, Santos suggested incorporating moments of true happiness into one’s life. “Maybe I need a little bit more laughter or some breaks, or I need to engage in that purposeful pursuit with a bit more social connection, or something like that.”

**Tried and True Strategies**

According to Santos, most people have a set point of happiness. Mine might be lower than my brother’s, who is more outgoing and cheerful, despite our similar backgrounds. Significant events like winning the lottery or experiencing tragedy can temporarily alter happiness levels, but people typically return to their baseline. However, with diligent practice, Santos believes it’s possible to raise one’s happiness level, a concept she teaches her students.

Santos not only lectures about behaviors and mindsets that boost happiness but also assigns practical “course rewirements” to rewire these practices into students’ lives. Her recommendations include paying attention to sleep, exercise, and diet, becoming more “other”-oriented, and fostering gratitude and compassion.

My favorite advice from her is to nurture social connections. “Every available study of happy people suggests that happy people are more social,” Santos said. And conversely, social people tend to be happier. “So we just need to make time for our friends and family members and loved ones.”

Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist who oversees the Harvard Study of Adult Development, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that good relationships are the key to both happiness and health. Warm relationships help buffer life’s challenges, reducing stress hormones and inflammation, which are linked to many chronic diseases.

This doesn’t mean one must be an extrovert or a social butterfly. Rather, it’s about consistently nurturing relationships. Waldinger advises being proactive in reaching out to friends, establishing routines like weekly calls, refreshing old relationships with new activities, making new friends through shared interests, and initiating conversations with strangers. The right amount of social interaction varies from person to person.

Meaningful relationships are essential to my happiness. I know from experience that strong connections with family and friends are crucial, and they are ultimately what bring me the greatest joy.

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