The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, by Shimon Edelman – exclusive excerpt

Excerpted with permission from The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, by Shimon Edelman. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2012.

201202031214 When Fishing For Happiness, Catch and Release

I was teaching a big introductory course on cognition, which, I felt, had to encompass everything that's known about how the mind works. Teaching, when taken seriously, does wonders to one's capacity for critical thinking; I realized that although the existing psychology textbooks were up to the moment on facts, they were decades behind on understanding. I ended up writing a text of my own, which I subtitled "How the Mind Really Works."

For a while, the possibility of understanding things for myself with sufficient clarity to enable me to share my understanding with others made me vaguely happy. Then I perceived that the mandate that I claimed for myself came with a rider. If I truly grasped how the mind works, I should be able also to transcend all the usual vague intuitions about when, why, and how a person feels happy and replace them with sound scientific insight.

To my dismay, I realized that I would have no peace until the possibility of happiness being amenable to a scientific–perhaps even algorithmic–treatment was given, if not a decisive resolution, then at least a fair hearing. This book is my attempt at cajoling my conscience into letting me off that particular hook.

A Journey Is Mapped Out

To forestall the crushing skepticism that people tend to develop soon after hearing about someone embarking on this kind of project, let me explain why I think it is both timely and feasible. In the past several decades, tremendous progress has been made in understanding the mind/brain. It turns out that the principles that determine how the brain gives rise to the mind are very general, are statable in a pretty concise form, and have everything to do with computation. Given that the brain is the organ with which people experience happiness, understanding the brain offers for the first time a real chance for understanding how and why happiness happens, and perhaps for developing some recipes–algorithms!–for pursuing it more effectively.

The focus on the pursuit of happiness, endorsed by the Declaration of Independence, fits well with the idea of life as a journey–a bright thread that runs through the literary canon of the collective human culture.3 With the world at your feet, the turns that you should take along the way depend on what you are at the outset and on what you become as the journey lengthens. Accordingly, the present book is an attempt to understand, in a deeper sense than merely metaphorical, what it means to be human and how humans are shaped by the journey through this world, which the poet John Keats called "the vale of soul-making"–in particular, how it puts within the soul's reach "a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence."

The fundamental insight that serves as the starting point for my story is that the mind is inherently and essentially a bundle of ongoing computations, the brain being one of many possible substrates that can support them. I make the case for these claims by constructing, in plain sight and out of readily available materials, a conceptual toolbox that affords the reader a glimpse of the computations underlying the mind's faculties: perception, motivation and emotions, action, memory, thinking, social cognition, and language. This conceptual buildup culminates in an explanation that states, in plain language, the nature of the phenomenal self and of consciousness. Readers who are interested in the details that I omit can follow the leads offered by the many notes at the end of the book.

These conceptual tools prove to be useful in making new sense of the notion of the pursuit of happiness. Quite satisfyingly, it emerges that the framers of the Declaration of Independence presaged the findings of the scientific inquiry into happiness: the dynamics of the self and of happiness is such that the pursuit itself — the journey rather than the destination–is what really matters (hence the title of the book). This insight, such as it is, informs the book's conclusion: the seeker after happiness returns home, only to grow restless and eventually succumb to the lure of a new journey. On the basis of the understanding developed throughout the book, the following practical advice is offered as a way of summing up its lessons in seven words: when fishing for happiness, catch and release.

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