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Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness: Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Perspective

Dr. Sanjay Gupta examines the ages-old idea of happiness in the latest season of his Chasing Life podcast, delving into its scientific aspects.

Is there a ‘perfect ratio’ of happiness? One expert weighs in. Cognitive scientist and Yale...
Is there a ‘perfect ratio’ of happiness? One expert weighs in. Cognitive scientist and Yale professor Laurie Santos sits down with Dr. Sanjay Gupta to share what she's learned about happiness and how harnessing the full spectrum of emotions can lead to a more fulfilling life. To hear more of “Chasing Life with Dr. Sanjay Gupta,” click here or follow the show wherever you get your podcasts.

Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness: Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Perspective

Around 250 years ago, the notion of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" found its way into the US Declaration of Independence. Despite being pondered for centuries, the understanding of what happiness is and how to achieve it remains obscure. Some may view it as a state of overall well-being, while others associate it with experiencing unadulterated joy. Some might find happiness by chasing a dream and accomplishing it. It could be a combination of these or something entirely different.

I consider myself a pretty content individual. I have three fantastic teenage daughters and a spouse, Rebecca, with whom I recently celebrated a 20th wedding anniversary. I have moments of complete fulfillment and a profession that gives me purpose as a practicing neurosurgeon and CNN's chief medical correspondent.

However, I'm also aware that happiness is more complex than that. There are different layers to it and various aspects within these layers.

Exploring Happiness: The Pursuit

A challenging inquiry is whether the best strategies for pursuing happiness are inborn or something we can cultivate, enhance, and strengthen. If it's the latter, how can we effectively go about it?

Evidently, "pursuing Happiness" forms part of the US' Declaration of Independence. Yet, it seems many Americans struggle with it. The United States dropped to No. 23 in the World Happiness Report, the first time it didn't make it into the top 20 happiest countries. A Gallup poll from 2024 revealed only 47% of Americans are "very satisfied" with their personal lives.

It's not only Americans. As it turns out, humans may not be inherently capable of achieving happiness. To attain it, substantial effort is required.

"If anything, natural selection doesn’t care much about our happiness. Its primary function is to keep us alive and reproduce," Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist at Yale University, informed me. "We might have evolved to be a little worried that there could be a tiger around the corner, and that we could be shunned at work, leading to a negativity bias."

Dr. Santos holds a doctorate in psychology, teaches Psychology and the Good Life at Yale, and hosts The Happiness Lab podcast. She's my first guest in the 10th season of my podcast, Chasing Life, which explores the scientific foundations of happiness - defining it, attaining it, maintaining it, and improving it - and its influence on our minds and bodies.

Listen to more of my conversation with Santos here.

I'm Happy and Dissatisfied

The fact that evolution has not prioritized happiness creates a unique issue for individuals like me, who are generally content but also "constructively dissatisfied." I coined this term during a conversation with Santos, differentiating happiness from satisfaction. I'm still pleased overall, but I believe that if I become satisfied, my happiness might decrease. This is because in my mind, satisfaction results in complacency, leading to stagnation. Consequently, I possess a personality that seems to thrive on being dissatisfied; contentment or complacency reduces my energy and enthusiasm.

When I'm at my happiest, my constructive dissatisfaction drives me to act, leading to the improvement of a situation—whether it's removing a brain tumor, finishing a documentary, working in my garden, or preparing dinner with my family.

Health psychologist and author, Kelly McGonigal, agreed with my perspective during her appearance in season 10 of my podcast. She noted, "Because dissatisfaction often serves as the hotbed for growth and positive transformation, and dissatisfaction doesn't necessarily imply a lack of appreciation or gratitude. If you can envision a more desirable future for yourself or others, it requires recognizing a gap between the present and what could be."

The significance of the "constructive" modifier before "dissatisfaction" is crucial for me because I don't want to merely indulge in dissatisfaction; I want it to be constructive. As long as I maintain the dissatisfaction's intensity and ensure it doesn't overwhelm my emotional well-being, it serves me well. However, it's a continuous battle.

"It appears you've benefited from the journey, the struggle," Santos remarked.

However, she cautioned against pushing oneself too far. "We can push ourselves and participate in challenges; these can be some of the most joyful, flow-inducing moments in our lives," she said. "But we must make sure we're striking a balance."

If we neglect our sleep, disregard our friendships, and make ourselves miserable, "perhaps consider pushing yourself in a different way," she suggested. "The antidote to that would be to think of ways I can be on this important, meaningful journey while also incorporating more moments of genuine pleasure into my life," she said. "For example, maybe I need a little more laughter or some downtime, or I need to engage in this purposeful pursuit with more social connection, or something like that."

Proven Strategies

While it's true, according to Santos, that most people have a set happiness level, she believes that with dedicated and purposeful effort, one can increase their happiness level. This is what she teaches her students.

For example, she not only educates her students about behavior and mindset shifts known to raise happiness, but also encourages them to carry them out as homework. Santos calls these "course rewirings," as they can actually rewire you when done regularly.

Among the simple solutions, Santos suggests focusing on healthy practices like sufficient sleep, regular exercise, and proper nutrition. Additionally, she recommends becoming more focused on others and developing a sense of gratitude and compassion exteriorly and internally.

However, my favorite suggestion is nurturing your relationships with friends and family. "Happy people generally have stronger social connections, according to every study," Santos stated. Similarly, she mentioned that the opposite is also true: Social people tend to be happier. "So, we need to make time for our loved ones," she stressed.

Similarly, Dr. Robert Waldinger, who leads the Harvard Study of Adult Development (the longest ongoing study of adulthood, spanning 85 years and counting), emphasizes the importance of relationships for both happiness and health.

Waldinger explains that warm relationships (even just one) can strengthen our bodies and keep our brains sharper. They effectively protect us against life's vicissitudes, limiting our exposure to stress hormones (which, when chronically high, can damage our bodies and minds) and reducing resulting inflammation—a key contributor to many modern chronic conditions.

So, for most of us, our health is positively impacted by our happiness.

Waldinger suggests several methods to maintain strong relationships, including being proactive and reaching out to friends, establishing routines like a weekly phone call, finding new experiences to spice up longstanding relationships, making new connections by sharing interests, and becoming more adept at striking up conversations with strangers. Everyone's social interaction requirements differ, so find a strategy that feels right for you.

The importance of strong social connections deeply speaks to me. As I've experienced in my own life, meaningful relationships with family and friends are key to my overall happiness.

Listen to the full episode with happiness professor Laurie Santoshere, and join us next week on the podcast as we explore the intriguing connection between happiness and anxiety. You'll find that anxiety is often misunderstood.

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